The Yanomamö and the Origins of Male Honor

by Brett & Kate McKay on June 10, 2013 · 64 comments

in A Man's Life, On Manhood

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In 1964, anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon arrived in an almost entirely unexplored region of the Amazon Basin to spend a year studying the Yanomamö: one of the last large, isolated, and virtually uncontacted tribes in the world.

Over the next 35 years, Chagnon returned to this area on the border between Venezuela and Brazil 25 times and lived among this primitive people for a total of 5 years. He spent his time there intimately and exhaustively detailing the lives of 25,000 Yanomamö who lived in 250 separate villages in a way nearly unchanged from how humans existed for tens of thousands of years before the modern era. His education in anthropology had not prepared him for what he would observe. While he had been taught that tribal peoples were mostly peaceful, Chagnon found that war was a nearly constant state of affairs for the Yanomamö that shaped every aspect of their lives and culture. While his textbooks and professors had said that when tribes did fight, the battles were rooted in conflicts over material resources, Chagnon found that the Yanomamö’s wars were almost entirely over women. And while Chagnon had believed that all tribal peoples were highly egalitarian, he found that Yanomamö men were in fact very concerned about status and that there were several ways for a man to elevate himself above his village peers.

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Napoleon Chagnon and a Yanomamö tribesman

Chagnon describes these revelations and the controversy they caused in the anthropological world in his recent book, Noble Savages. While every tribe around the world and throughout history has had their own distinct culture, what Chagnon observed about the Yanomamö are traits that have been recorded in many other primitive peoples as well, and what I found most interesting about this quite fascinating book is the way many of his observations related to the tenets of honor we discussed in our series on the subject last year. (Quick review: classical honor is defined as a reputation worthy of respect and admiration.) In that series, we talked about the way the code of honor for men has evolved, from bravery and physical prowess to virtue and character, while its basic mechanisms for achievement and enforcement have remained the same. By taking a look at how honor operated among the Yanomamö, we can discover specific examples of some of the principles which we previously described in the abstract, as well as a possible explanation of how and why the basic masculine code of honor-as-courage developed in the first place. At the same time, it causes us to reflect on how this primitive code of honor still echoes faintly in the present. For while the lives of tribes like the Yanomamö can seem light years away from our own, in the long sweep of history, men lived like them far longer than they have lived like us; the many centuries the world has experienced modern civilization is really a blink of an eye in the grand scheme of things. So how did men live and earn honor in, as Jared Diamond would put it, “the world until yesterday?”

A State of War


Chagnon’s first big surprise when he arrived among the Yanomamö was that the tribe existed in a state of chronic war — their lives were overhung with the “ubiquity of terror.” Chagnon’s education in anthropology had largely presented him with an image of primitive tribesmen as Roussean “noble savages” – communal, peace-loving people who were one with nature and each other. Warfare, his fellow anthropologists argued, was largely the product of capitalist exploitation and colonization, and tribes had experienced very little conflict until disrupted by contact with industrialized nations. This academic image would collide sharply with what Chagnon found in the field. “While it is also true that tribesmen spend many happy hours hunting, fishing, gathering, and telling wonderful stories and myths around the campfire,” Chagnon writes, “one of the most salient features of their social environment is the threat of attack from neighbors.”


This fear of attack was not an unfounded worry; early morning raids by neighboring villages happened with some frequency and the results were often fatal. Through his meticulous research and data-keeping, Chagnon found that in 1988, “two-thirds of all living Yanomamö over the age of forty [had] lost one or more close genetic kinsman—a father, brother, husband, or son—to violence.” In comparison, around one-sixth of Britons lost a member of their immediate family in the famously bloody Great War. This of course means that the percentage of Yanomamö men who had killed another was also quite high; Chagnon discovered that 45% of these tribesmen had slain at least one other man.

Chagnon argues that other anthropologists had underestimated the violent nature of tribal cultures because their fieldwork had been done with tribes that had already changed their way of life due to contact with outsiders; there were very few uncontacted, “demographically intact” tribes left to study at the time – places “where populations of tribesmen were still growing by reproducing offspring faster than people were dying and were fighting with each other in complete independence of nation states that surrounded them.”

From his fieldwork, and looking at the history of other tribes around the world, Chagnon theorized that war, far from being the product of capitalist exploitation and colonization was in fact the true “state of nature.” He concluded that 1) “maximizing political and personal security was the overwhelming driving force in human social and cultural evolution,” and 2) “warfare has been the most important single force shaping the evolution of political society in our species.”

Fighting Over Women

If Chagnon was surprised to find that the Yanomamö were not the peace-loving noble savages he had expected, he was equally surprised to learn the cause of their constant conflict.

Chagnon’s education in anthropology had stressed that primitive peoples only went to war over material resources – land, food, oil, water, wealth, etc. – just like industrialized nations did. What Chagnon discovered in the field was the Yanomamö did indeed fight over a scarce resource, but it was one his contemporaries completely dismissed: women.

Chagnon argues that the Yanomamö were driven by a biological desire to pass on their genes just as other animals were, and that their conflicts were almost entirely rooted in reproductive competition. “The tokens of wealth that we civilized people covet are largely irrelevant to success and survival in the tribal world and were irrelevant during most of human history,” Chagnon writes. “But women have always been the most valuable single resource that men fight for and defend.”

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Yet the Yanomamö’s desire to obtain a woman with which to sire progeny was not simply a biological imperative, but also related to the third surprise to come out of Chagnon’s fieldwork: the tribesmen’s desire for status and honor.

Because primitive tribes didn’t have much in the way of material wealth, Chagnon’s fellow anthropologists believed that their cultures were very egalitarian in nature. Which is to say, the only status differentiators were thought to come down to “automatic” designations rooted in sex or age; older people had higher status than younger folks, and men had higher status than women, but there was nothing individuals could do to elevate themselves above their peers in order to attain “vertical honor.”

In contrast, Chagnon found some Yanomamö men were more prominent and given more deference than others. These men attained a greater degree of honor in several ways. First, the men with the most kin and the largest patrilineage enjoyed higher status, and Chagnon observed “that the political leaders in all Yanomamö villages almost always have the largest number of genetic relatives within the group.” They were also at an advantage when it came to perpetuating this higher status; the more male relatives a young man had, the easier it was for him to successfully find a wife. A young man’s father and older male relatives would help him find a spouse, and other men in the village preferred to give their daughters in marriage to those who came from prominent lineages anyway. This, Chagnon argues, is in fact the main function of patrilineages: “What these Yanomamö descent groups control and defend are reproductive rights in nubile females and the male kin who give these women to you and take them from you.”

The Yanomamö, like most tribes in history, practiced polygamy (more accurately polygyny – only men could have multiple spouses), and every Yanomamö man hoped to have multiple wives. Yet this privilege was largely reserved for men of higher status. The problem with polygyny, of course, is that if some guys have six wives other guys will have none. Polygyny created a scarcity in women, which is why females – the key to reproductive success – became the one resource worth fighting over. A group of men from one village might raid another village to bring back some of their women; Chagnon found that 20% of the women in the villages he studied had been abducted from other villages. These raids could then set off a cycle of retaliatory violence; if the original raiding party killed someone during their abduction mission, men from the raided village would plan a counterattack to even the score. Back and forth it would go, creating the aforementioned conditions of constant “war” and fear of attack.

From his observations of the pervasiveness of female-rooted conflict, Chagnon theorized that “if we viewed the human ability to harness, control, and prudently deploy violence for reproductive advantage, we could consider this skill the most important of all strategic resources,” and that need to regulate the deployment of this resource is what gave birth to social as well as political rules and laws. He summarizes his conclusions thusly:

“Regardless of their marital status, most Yanomamö men are trying to copulate with available women most of the time, but are constrained from doing so by the rules of incest and the intervention of some other man with proprietary interests in the same women. This is why there is so much club fighting and why villages split into two or more groups so easily. Conflicts over the possession of nubile females have probably been the main reason for fights and killings throughout most of human history: the original human societal rules emerged, in all probability, to regulate male access to females and prevent the social chaos attendant on fighting over women. Males in this persistent kind of social environment sought the help of other related males—brothers, sons, cousins, uncles, nephews—and formed male coalitions to pursue their selfish reproductive goals as well as to minimize lethal conflicts within their own groups.”

Courage and Fierceness

At last we come to answering the question of how the most basic form of the male honor code came to revolve around prowess and courage. Here Chagnon’s observations are especially interesting, and we will make ample use of them.

The Yanomamö were interested both in maintaining the honorable reputation of their village as a whole, and as individual men within it.

Village-Wide Honor

As the Yanomamö lived in constant fear of an attack and the abduction of their women by a neighboring village, it was crucially important that not only were the men of each village prepared to fend off such an attack, but that the village as a whole had the kind of reputation that made other villages think twice about even attempting a raid. The maintenance of honor was thus a group project; each individual man in a village, if he wished to earn “horizontal honor,” had to do his part to project and demonstrate courage and fierceness (“The Fierce People” was a “phrase the Yanomamö themselves frequently used to emphasize their valor, braveness, and willingness to act aggressively on their own behalf.”) If individual men didn’t pull their weight, and evinced fear and timidity instead, this showed weakness, damaged the village’s reputation for strength, and essentially invited attack. Chagnon explains further:

“Let me emphasize the Yanomamö view that when members of a group acquire a reputation of timidity and cowardice, their neighbors take ruthless advantage of them, push them around, insult them publicly, and take their women. Thus it is strategically important to react decisively to any affront, no matter how trivial. If a group is small, the men try to make up for their numerical disadvantage by acting as if the group is bigger, nastier, more ferocious, and ready to fight on a moment’s notice. Feigning to be “larger than life” is a deception that is widespread in the animal world but is usually a characteristic displayed by individual combatants. The Yanomamö, however, engage in this masquerade as members of social groups. I often deliberately avoided visiting small villages because they were predictably very aggressive and unpleasant to be around in order to compensate for their actual military weaknesses.”

As Chagnon notes, since reputation-maintenance is so important, villages are quick to address any perceived insults as to their manliness, strength, and courage from other villages. Because they don’t want such “offensive rumors” spreading around, “they are immediately addressed by a ‘we’ll show you’ melee.” The Yanomamö have varying degrees of these honor-defending contests that correspond to the seriousness of the insult received.

If one village feels that another has been unfairly spreading gossip about their timidity and weakness, but the insults have not been too serious in nature, the two villages will agree to resolve the issue with a good-natured fight, often when one is visiting the other for a feast. These free-for-alls consist of the men slapping (using a closed fist is considered unfair) each other’s sides, pulling each other’s hair, and wrestling in the mud and dirt. The younger men participate while the older men circle around, waving their axes and machetes, yelling instructions to the fighters, and keeping the skirmish from developing into a more serious fight. The young men hurt each other, but generally avoid causing severe injuries, and after about 40 minutes the fight breaks up. Nobody is declared the winner but the intention of the melee is fulfilled:

The whole purpose of the fight just seems to be to set the record straight as far as rumors of cowardice or unwillingness to fight. When the young fighters regain their breath and composure, they quietly and unceremoniously get to their feet, go outside the shabono to clean up and wash their bodies, maybe even take a leisurely swim in the nearby creek. There seem to be no obvious hard feelings afterward and the more ceremonial events like eating, trading, chanting, and dancing proceed as though the fight had never happened. But they have now sized up each other and are better informed regarding just how far they can push or intimidate each other in the future without triggering an unanticipated and more serious reaction. And they usually learn the possible costs of spreading false rumors about people who are feasting with them.”

If a village feels it has been more seriously insulted, they may challenge the rumor-generating village to a more formal chest-pounding or side-slapping duel. In the former contest, two men face off. One agrees to take the first blows and offers his chest to his opponent as he gazes manfully into the distance. His opponent winds up like a baseball pitcher and delivers several powerful overhand blows to his pectoral muscles. The men then switch roles, and the guy who just got beaten can now deliver the same number of blows to his opponent’s chest. The goal is to bear the blows as stoically as possible and make your opponent cry “uncle” first. A side-slapping duel works much the same way, with the two fighters squatting and kneeling and brutally slapping each other “on the flanks between the rib cage and the pelvis, with an open hand.” In both kinds of duels, the fighters become deeply bruised and sore, and injuries to one’s internal organs can occur; lung tissue is damaged and kidneys tenderized. Occasionally duelists do die from their injuries, but the contests are designed to be a nonlethal means to address honor-impinging insults.

In response to the most serious kinds of slander, as well as things like tobacco and food theft or another man trying to seduce or abduct one’s wife, a club fight becomes the appropriate means of redress. Like in the aforementioned duels, two men square off, and one delivers the first blow — arcing the end of his club all the way from the ground, through the air, and square on top of his opponent’s head. The recipient of the wallop is tasked with bearing the blow stoically, and attempts to remain motionless while leaning on his own club for support. Now the recipient of the first blow, often with “large chunks of their scalp bashed loose, flapping up and down on their crania,” gets to deliver one in turn to his opponent. Club fighting matches start with two duelists, but may progress into all out melees where numerous men grab their clubs and start swinging them at each other with abandon.

Club fighting scars

Scars from club fighting.

“Many accomplished and persistent club fighters have scalps that are crisscrossed with as many as a dozen huge, protuberant, lumpy scars two or three inches long after their scalps are healed,” Chagnon observed. And they’re proud of these scars:

“Men with numerous club-fighting scars like these are not bashful about displaying them prominently. They shave the tops of their heads in a tonsure and then rub red pigment into their numerous deep scars, to exaggerate them. Such a man, if he lowers his face and head to you, is usually not showing deference: he is conspicuously advertising his fierceness.”

Despite that fact that death was sometimes the result of these different degrees of duels and melees, “none of the fighting…is intentionally lethal,” Chagnon explains, and should rather be classified as “deliberately sublethal ‘alternatives’ to warfare.” Just like the “affairs of honor” and “rough and tumbles” engaged in by men of the 19th century, the fights were not specifically designed to kill, but were a means for a man, or a group of men, to show they were unafraid to fight and bleed in order to maintain their honorable reputation.

Individual Honor

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While individual Yanomamö men had a stake in maintaining their village’s reputation for courage and fierceness and thus minimizing the chance of being attacked, it was not an entirely altruistic effort.

First, protecting one’s relatives and their chances for finding a wife indirectly helped a man’s chances of passing on his own genes even if he himself didn’t have children, as Chagnon writes in explaining the “kin selection” theory:

“since related individuals share genes with each other, an individual could get copies of his or her genes into the next generation by favoring close kinsmen and not reproducing sexually at all. For example, individuals share on average half (50 percent) of their genes with their siblings, they share one-fourth (25 percent) with their half-siblings, an eighth (12.5 percent) with their full cousins, etc. Thus if they engage in certain kinds of “favors” that enhance a full cousin’s reproductive success, then, to the extent that those favors enabled that kinsman to find a mate and produce offspring, their favoring of that kinsman helped them to get some of their own genes into the next generation. As one theoretical geneticist, J. B. S. Haldane, is rumored to have said: ‘I’d lay down my life for eight cousins. . . .’ That’s because eight cousins would carry, on average, 100 percent of the genes that the person who laid down his life carried.”

More directly, a Yanomamö man’s level of courage and physical prowess during melees and battle could enhance or diminish his individual status within a village; those who showed timidity were “branded a coward, an accusation that tends to remain forever in the memories of others,” while fighting with fierceness usually led to an “increased ability to sway public opinion and public action.”

The male desire for honor was so strong that tribesmen would seek to demonstrate their fierceness even as they were dying; the idea of honor being more precious than life was not minted in the modern age. Even if a Yanomamö man knew he would not live to enjoy the benefits that displaying fierceness would bring, his legacy and the memory of his manliness was worth protecting right down to his dying breath, as Chagnon vividly illustrates:

“Valiant leaders like Ruwahiwä sometimes sustain what are apparently—or even certainly—lethal blows to their heads from heavy axes, but still rise, stagger forward, and somehow are able to keep on their feet despite being mortally wounded. My own Yanomamö informants, who were also eyewitnesses to Ruwahiwä’s death, described the first ax blow to his head as a fatal blow from which no man could possibly recover…Yet Ruwahiwä managed to stand up and fall down several times—all the while being shot multiple times with arrows to his face, neck, stomach, and chest. Many years later, one headman I knew—Matowä—was killed shortly after I arrived, as described earlier. He probably also sustained as many lethal arrow wounds as Ruwahiwä, but defiantly stood his ground and cursed his assailants until he could no longer stand. He, too, never acknowledged the pain—nor the terror of knowing that his wounds were fatal—but stoically taunted his assailants with defiant declarations of his valor and fearlessness until he fell, dead, from his many wounds. He died with many six-foot arrows stuck helter-skelter through or into his neck, chest, and stomach. One of my informants, who was part of the raiding party that killed him, told me in whispers that this valiant warrior Matowä bragged about his valor and ferocity even as the raiders continued to shoot arrow after arrow into his body.”

The clearest way to demonstrate one’s fierceness and the surest route to greater honor within a Yanomamö village, outside the size of one’s lineage, was earning the title of unokai – a man who has killed another man. Since “not all men were willing to endure the risks and expose themselves to the dangers that Yanomamö unokais did,” Chagnon explains, “unokais held a special, earned, and respected status that only some men achieved.”

The higher status of unokais is reflected in their greater success in attaining wives; Chagnon found that unokais had 2.5 times more wives and 3 times as many offspring as non-unokais.

Unokais received such honor (and enjoyed the benefits incumbent upon their status) because of the way their personal reputation enhanced a whole village’s reputation as one not to be messed with:

“Unokais are both respected and somewhat feared because they have demonstrated a willingness to kill people and are likely to kill again. In a political context, the military credibility and strength of a village can be measured by how many unokais it contains—with the caveat that village size is extremely important as well. But, if two equal-sized villages are compared, the one with the largest number of able-bodied unokais will be the stronger, the more feared, and the more formidable opponent.”

Chagnon’s observations of how unokais behave compared to men who have not killed is quite interesting, as is his theory that a man’s willingness to kill is ultimately what leads to his power, and from that power, laws and states:

“Many men acquire a reputation for being waiteri, fierce. But someone who is an unokai has demonstrated his willingness to inflict lethal harm on an opponent and to actually behave in an ultimately fierce manner. Publicly and socially, such men can be extremely placid and calm in their outward demeanor, and even very pleasant and charming. By contrast, many men who are not unokais seem to be compelled to behave in such way as to imply that they are killers of men. Such men can be very obnoxious and unpleasant in their public lives—ordering people around, intimidating them, threatening to hit them with their machetes or axes, even threatening to kill them. But if an unokai threatens to strike or to kill someone, he usually means what he says. When an unokai gives an order to some man in the village, that man had better do what is asked of him. That is how power, authority, and coercive force by leaders emerges, adds to, and goes beyond the kind of solidarity and cohesion that inheres in the lesser cohesiveness associated with kinship amity. This is the quality that leads ultimately to the power behind law: the odiousness of sanctions. Without law, political states cannot exist.”


This is not a post where there is a clear and immediate takeaway, but one which seeks to provide some hopefully interesting background information on some of the possible origins of masculine culture and honor. My own belief about manliness is that it involves both the harnessing of primal urges and the discipline to sometimes overcome those urges in pursuit of greater development and virtue. But in order to strike that balance in either direction you have to first understand what kinds of primal behaviors might have been ingrained in your psyche over thousands of years of human history. I think Chagnon’s observations provide a fascinating look at how and why the basic code of masculine honor, as defined by stoic courage, originally developed. And as I mentioned at the start, what stuck out to me is that the lives of Yanomamö men, while incredibly far removed from that of us moderns, still have faint echoes today. Learning about the Yanomamö gave me a dozen random insights that I feel relate to the state of modern men, but as each could be its own mini-post and this article is already quite lenghty, why don’t you share with me what stuck out to you?




Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes — the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists by Napoleon Chagnon 

{ 64 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Count Fingers June 10, 2013 at 8:35 pm

This article saddens me, because the truth of it is incontrovertible. Rather than faint echoes, our culture could be quite nicely superimposed upon theirs. We have created proxies for the more violent acts, but the gist is still the same. Sport affiliations with teams, shows of (material) prowess, even the preferential treatment of male heirs exist today. As much as this article is a useful tool for understanding the origins of male honor, as intended, it does raise the prospect that ‘manliness’ is a blight on the human condition that we may never fully expunge.

2 jmarkalbright June 10, 2013 at 9:37 pm

Honor is a gift that a man gives to himself. It is not earned at the expense of others.

3 Justin June 10, 2013 at 9:54 pm

It seems as though many young people into “alternative” lifestyles these days rather mimic these older cultures: multiple partners, pridefully brandishing their strengths or attractiveness at others, body modifications, disregard for formal education, and pointing out flaws in weaker individuals.

4 RD June 10, 2013 at 10:01 pm

Interesting, I had the opposite reaction as Count /Fingers. It reminded me that the pursuit of male honor is exactly what produced political systems and thus the entirety of what we now call civilization today. No men, no civilization.

The problem today is that men can get women without any work at all. They don’t want the kin part, just the sex and they don’t have to work for it. They don’t have to have any status to have sex. So men are content to be unmotivated and do nothing at all. Wasn’t there a link to an article about this a long time ago on the AoM Trunk…something about the effect of sex being cheap. What happened to the AoM Trunk anyway….

5 Alex June 10, 2013 at 11:12 pm

Brett, have you read the book “Sex at Dawn” by Christopher Ryan? In it, Ryan writes about how Chagnon gave machetes, axes, and shotguns to some groups of Yanomamo in exchange for them telling him the names’ of the dead ancestors of other groups of Yanomamo, in order to record their genealogies. According to Ryan, in Yanomamo culture, speaking the names’ of dead ancestors is considered very taboo, highly disrespectful, and dishonorable. When Chagnon would then speak the names of a group’s dead ancestors to them, the people of the group would grow enraged, which would help Chagnon confirm that the names spoken were, in fact, those of the peoples’ dead ancestors. Chagnon would then tell the enraged group of Yanomamo which other group had told him the names’ of their dead ancestors, give them machetes, axes, and shotguns in exchange for the names of the other group’s dead ancestors, and then warfare between different groups of Yanomamo would commence.

If this is true, I think it is an interesting addition to the story of the Yanomamo, especially since the source you site is from Chagnon’s point of view. I think it might be wise to take Chagnon’s writings about and interpretations of Yanomamo culture with a grain of salt, especially since, according to Ryan, Chagnon has been legally barred from returning to the Yanomamo lands since 1995 because of all the ruckus he caused there.

Another interesting fact from the book (since my post is so long anyways): “The word ‘anthro’ has entered the vocabulary of the Yanomami. It signifies ‘a powerful nonhuman with deeply disturbed tendencies and wild eccentricities’” (p. 196 of “Sex at Dawn”).

I would be very interested in hearing your response to the information I discussed above.

6 Brett McKay June 11, 2013 at 12:03 am


Yes, Chagnon has been dogged by several controversies, including the one you mention. I haven’t specifically read “Sex at Dawn,” but I did extensively read up on the controversies from both sides in conjunction with this post and found that the one you mentioned among others have been (at least in my mind) very convincingly debunked. He did give axes and machetes to the villages, but not shotguns, and the reason he was banned from the Amazon was much more complicated than your source indicates and actually included his criticism of the very powerful Salesian priests in the area for their practice of giving the Yanomamo shotguns!

The American Anthropological Association rescinded a report that once criticized his methods and he was recently elected to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences. Some of Chagnon’s practices may have been questionable, it’s very hard to tell in such cases, and it’s good to examine both sides of an issue for sure. The observations of his I presented here are those which I personally found to be very plausible. But people should always examine both sides for themselves. That should go for Sex at Dawn as well of course. Knowing they parroted these accusations against Chagnon without nuance, and also reading up on some of the criticisms of the book after seeing your comment, makes me as wary of the credibility of the book as they are of Chagnon!

A nice sentiment to be sure, but definitely ahistorical, and really rather dangerous in some ways. If a man is the only judge of his own honor, than he can come up with any standards at all for the earning of that honor. While you personally may believe that honor does not come at the expense of others, a Nazi could easily come up with their own code that said the opposite. More common these days is that because men can create their own honor code, they end up setting the bar very low for themselves, and can then still feel very good about themselves despite taking the path of least resistance.

7 graf June 11, 2013 at 4:42 am

Very interesting article.
It clearly show that honor is not something that should be valued by a clear rational mind.
But as long as we live in society which roots lies thousands years in the past, we should not forget about it. And we should use the idea of honor to keep civility of our society.

8 Grant Michael McKenna June 11, 2013 at 4:56 am

This would suggest that the emergence of monogamy decreased the violence inherent in societies, and that the decline in marriage, because it is associated with easily accessible sex, will not lead to an increase of violence.

9 Scott June 11, 2013 at 5:18 am

As a social anthropology graduate, who’s studied the alwasys controversial Chagnon and the Yanomamö this was a great read! You’ve really managed to flesh out Chagnon’s emphasis on masculinity in regards to the Yanomamö’s “chronic warfare”.

Here’s a link to ‘The Ax Fight’, filmed by Chagnon and Tim Asch in 1971, which demonstrates the “sub-lethal” nature of the fighting. It’s worth noting that while the fight evidently provides a social vent for men to champion their masculinity and release tension, it also highlights the role of the women in enforcing said masculinity. You can observe (@ 2:30) that while the men strut and pose after sparring, the women stand by their sides hurling insults at one another.

10 Josh June 11, 2013 at 5:22 am

haha @RD you didn’t just pull out the ‘sex is too easy these days’ card, I’m posting this with my laptop carefully balanced on my wife’s back cos we’re all balls deep right?

You really could transpose the Yanomamö society directly onto ours couldn’t you (well male society, not much said about the ladies here).
The major differences I see are the institution of monogamy in our culture vs polygny, which must reduce the need for aggression (and manliness?) and the breakdown of family ties. I’m sure much of the honor historically was anchored in family ties and values.

11 Jonathan June 11, 2013 at 6:50 am

“Spirit of the Rainforest” tells the story of Shoefoot, a Yanomamö shaman, as told to Mark Andrew Ritchie. It’s a fascinating look into this culture, as seen by an insider. It’s well worth reading.

12 guyl June 11, 2013 at 7:18 am

I really like the core concept here and the fact that the major source of conflict was women!!! It makes total sense to me, and you can see this in other cultures from Helen of Troy to Cleopatra, men may be the protagonists but women are the culprits!! Gotta love women! What irritates me is that for some reason changon was being taught that capitalism was the route cause of all conflict? What communist method of sociology was he learning? Annoying.

13 Red Foot June 11, 2013 at 7:20 am

I found it especially interesting that the men who were willing to kill tended to be more peaceful and friendly in their every day lives. They have a better understanding of what it means to take a life, and they seem to know that it is not something you take lightly.

14 Darren June 11, 2013 at 7:29 am

Brett, great stuff. I have a son who is quite shy, but a smart and kind and gentle man. I wonder how his sorts of strengths would be passed along in a tribal culture with violence and status as the main benchmarks of success.

In the end, being a sensitive and kind person may not be an adaptive behavior in the Amazon, and sometimes I wonder if it’s not maladaptive in our culture.

Of course you can be a man and be shy and kind, but stick up for what is right when the occasion necessitates it. I;d rather my son be who he is than a false-bravado-spewing coward who talks big but cries at the sign of anything remotely threatening.

Did we just read something about a WWI soldier who was just that?


15 Alex Becket June 11, 2013 at 7:55 am

I find it interesting that the majority of warlike interactions were non lethal in intent and a warrior who killed another was willing to do so in the face of the danger and possibly lethal consequences. There appears to be no “getting away with it.” I see a resemblance with Counting Coup and other tribal warfare that ended in a few fatalities, but scores settled. I think that the notion of war to eradicate a people or a culture completely is a more modern intent.

16 Radar June 11, 2013 at 8:31 am

Check out “Secrets of the Tribe” if you want to find out more about the accusations thrown at Chagnon, which were true and which were fabricated by his enemies. Anthropology is a very cut throat discipline (as an Archaeologist, I know this all too well) and the majority of the problem other academics had with him was his reporting of Yanomamo violence. There is a lot of “How can he call himself a peace guy and then report this kind of stuff!?” I.E., they were more upset that he disproved the “Noble Savage” hypothesis (rather soundly I might add) than they were at any of the other things that they attributed to him.

Yes, the Yanomamo have a certain disdain for anthropologists anymore but I think you find that in nearly every studied group from the middle of the 20th century. Chagnon is certainly a controversial figure but this article was a fantastic study of Yanomamo “machismo” and was fascinating to read. Check out any of the collaborations between Chagnon and Asch to get a feel for how violence is always an undercurrent in Yanomamo society.

17 Carl June 11, 2013 at 8:45 am

I did extensive research paper on these people while @ University. Also used there culture as reference when teaching team building to advanced management practice.

18 Alan June 11, 2013 at 8:45 am

Fascinating article. I’m not really taking away any negativity from this code of honor, as some seem to be. Their whole concept of honor is based on procreation, and spreading the most successful DNA. Without the “deliberately non-lethal” contests, is also a way to prevent wholesale slaughter of villages. And without the competition to acquire women, up to and including lethal warfare, the gene pools would stagnate. Either route would lead to extinction.

The discovery that these tribes live in a state of chronic warfare is not a new one, although it has been dismissed by many, as referenced in the article. “His education in anthropology had not prepared him for what he would observe. While he had been taught that tribal peoples were mostly peaceful, Chagnon found that war was a nearly constant state of affairs for the Yanomamö that shaped every aspect of their lives and culture.”

Speaking as a Believer, it doesn’t surprise me that war is a constant threat to us all, whether we’re in an Amazonian rainforest, or a Manhattan skyscraper. That is merely evidence of Man’s fall from the presence of the Creator. If you look at the stories from Genesis, particularly up to the time of Noah, you will see that violence and struggle is the constant state of mankind without God.

Brett (and Kaye), I may address my take on this article, and Chagnon’s findings, more fully on my own blog, if you don’t mind. Of course I’ll cite any references to your original materials.


19 Chris June 11, 2013 at 9:03 am

In reading it, something nagged at me about a quote that kind of summarized the whole matter that was in the back of my memory. Retrieved it with the help of Google.

Quote Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan): “Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.”

20 NJ June 11, 2013 at 9:27 am

There is a movie on the Yanonamo tribe, does anyone know the name of it?

21 Alexander June 11, 2013 at 9:39 am

Brett, Kate,

Great post, as usual. The thing that is striking to me is that this is essentially how mankind has lived for many generations until (relatively) recently. Even looking at how relatively violent and male-dominated earlier civilized societies were in this context makes me wonder how sound the basis of our society is today. I feel deeply that it would not take much in terms of social/technological failure to utterly reduce the institutions that we live by to some set of prehistoric standards such as those of the Yanomamo. Interesting food for thought.

22 Cary June 11, 2013 at 10:10 am

We’re just like these men, only with more layers.

Essentially, we’re all a large, mostly hairless, somewhat intelligent, routinely violent, tool using species of ape. We just so happen to be distributed widely across one small planet in one small solar system in one of the smaller galaxies that number beyond our ability to comprehend.

We’re monkeys on a rock hurtling through the Cosmos.

Honor is strictly self-interest. And by “self” I mean the species.

The only “Honor” in our tiny little lives comes from actions that ensure the survival of the species. Whether that’s killing your tribes rival in a fair fight or storming his compound at night killing men and women, putting a bullet in his head and burying him at sea or discovering how to produce and atomic bomb or discovering a cure for polio, they’re all equally “Honorable”.

I don’t find any sadness in any of this. Our whole journey as a species is a wild and amazing journey.

23 Edward June 11, 2013 at 11:58 am

Brett and Kate,

Great post! This is a subject very near and dear to my heart as I recently finished up my BA in Anthropology at the University of Missouri (where Chagnon currently is). Because of his battles with the other dangerous tribe (the anthropologists), I have learned the importance of scientifically explaining human behavior as well as standing up for what you believe is true, even if it is unpopular at the time. I am thoroughly grateful for Chagnon’s work because he inspired many of my professors that had such a great impact on the man I am today.

24 John June 11, 2013 at 12:16 pm

What stuck out at me? A few things. Basically the propensity for “killing genes” to be passed on, regardless of intellect, strength, physical superiority, the killers appear to have more wives and more offspring, It’s seemed to be like a cheat code.

It also makes me not want to have a daughter.

25 Richard F June 11, 2013 at 2:16 pm

While I generally enjoy reading things like this, much of it is very much “up in the air”. Not because of what Chagnon wrote, but because of what others who have studied the Yanomamo have proven him wrong on, along with many Yanomamo themselves saying that what his monographs say is factually incorrect based on their own experience in their own society.

Of course, this goes much deeper than simply reading “Noble Savages”. For instance, many of the men who have most of the group honor in a village are in fact the village leaders and not the everymen Yanomamo. Ruwahiwä had much honor and had to uphold it, not because he was an honorable man (Chagnon certainly describes him to be such) but because he created the village he lived in, he did not inherit it. This means that the fate of the village rested on him and his honor alone. His brothers could bolster the village’s honor but not in a way that Ruwahiwä could. This is how many Yanomamo villages function, as Chagnon describes at laborious length in his monograph on them.

Yanomamo villages are quick to defend themselves but it’s not entirely for honor’s sake, there are much bigger issues at hand: theft of resources (food) and theft of women. The latter is the most prominent reason Chagnon describes as why they fight to defend a village. If a village has a woman killed in it, they will avenge the death by attacking the attackers and killing as many people as possible, especially women. If a woman is stolen from the village, they will exact the same. They are not concerned with protecting each other or the men of the village, they are protecting precious resources and they squarely count women as a resource.

The AAA withdrew their investigation of the issue because of internal politics, which was thoroughly discussed and debated when “Darkness in El Dorado” was published, which is what caused the investigation in the first place. Why? It called into question the AAA’s Code of Ethics and how fieldwork should be conducted because “Darkness” raised the fact that Chagnon’s data may have been at least partially invented/falsified, his rather ambiguous nature in dealing with both the Brazilian and Venezuelan governments both over his permits and their treatment of the Yanomamo, and more. One of the best investigations I’ve found was written by Rob Barofsky in which he analyzes three views on the subject: Patrick Tierney’s (who wrote “Darkness”), Chagnon’s many statements about the issues, and his [Barofsky] own. Then of course, there’s Marshall Sahlins’ letter of resignation from the NAS upon the appointment of Chagnon, which itself is one of the best overall views on both the issue at hand and how the AAA failed itself and the field in properly handling the issue.

26 Nick June 11, 2013 at 2:48 pm

Can you write about Yanomamo’s rite of passage please ? I’ve read about it some time ago and I’d like to read in more details.

27 Cassie June 11, 2013 at 3:26 pm

I actually recently graduated with a BA in anthropology and many of my classes made use of Chagnon. The impression I got from my professors is that they respected his work and his theories and were mostly dismissive of the controversies surrounding that work. I got the sense that the tide has definitely turned on Chagnon and in the anthropological world as a whole, where it seems like the “old guard” that was very critical of him is getting older and dying off while the new guard does not find his theories threatening anymore and embraces them. The old guard was all about culture as a human construct whereas I think modern anthropologists can see how evolution and biology greatly influenced culture, which was Chagnon’s point all along. I think the younger generation embraces the theory of evolution to a greater extent and is much more comfortable seeing how it plays out in culture.

The unfortunate thing about Chagnon is that whenever he is brought up, the discussion tend to be all about his life and controversy, rather than his theories, which are important.

28 Andrew June 11, 2013 at 4:30 pm

My thought while reading this was: “Huh, sounds a lot like chimps behavior”. Which makes sense since we are extremely closely related. Also the whole bit about polygyny is interesting too. Humans, unlike many other animals, don’t seem to have a default “setting”. Gorillas, for example, are naturally polygynous. That’s why you see high amounts of sexual dimorphism (difference in body size between sexes) and smaller genital size relative to body size in males. In humans, the amount of sexual dimorphism is lower, and genital relative to body size is larger in males (much like chimps and bonobos), which can lead to more fluidity in sexual habits but in general means a propensity for promiscuity (sounds like a heavy metal band name, but I digress).

So, humans can be successfully ‘harem’ societies like gorillas, free lovin’ hippies like bonobos, or be monogamous like certain bird species (no apes come to mind, which is maybe telling). So biology has a part in it for sure, but I think that culture has a huge part in it as well.

The sub-lethal fight displays are interesting too. Reminds me of chimps slapping the ground and showing their teeth to warn they’re going to attack. Fighting, in nature, is widely avoided because getting hurt or killed is a pretty poor way of spreading your genes. Better to mock fight than to fight for real.

29 John June 11, 2013 at 4:41 pm

So is it more honor-ly to pick your fights, as in fighting hard and decisively only during important events, or to take all comers like these guys seem to do?

30 Pedro Soares June 11, 2013 at 5:14 pm

One excelent post, in which the diferences of the actual humanity and man, with the (let’s say) ancient ways, really diverge.
And from which i can take, that a men should be all the time ready for anything, so he can take care of his family. And that, if they say, they do it, no trying to be what they are not, since those who do it, only act that way due to they fears and cowardness.

P.S. : Sory for my bad english.

31 Brucifer June 11, 2013 at 5:32 pm

I always shake my head at any “noble savage” narrative that postures ‘primitive’ cultures as not practicing total warfare or genocide … until they learned it from, of course, the big-bad nasty Europeans. What unmitigated balderdash! Before the Conquistadors came to the Americas, the Aztec and Inka empires for example, had brutal dictatorships that would have made Stalin and Hitler green with envy! In fact the only reason that the Conquistadors, even with guns and steel, got anywhere at all, was that the tribes the Inka and Aztec had so brutally oppressed, we eager to join in their downfall and actively sided by the thousands with the Spaniards.

And yes @ Brett, I am continually saddened the the bar for what constitutes manliness and honor is now pretty much a watered-down DIY affair, resulting in a self-defined and often self-delusional notion. Simply living and breathing seems to be the common definition.

32 Michael June 11, 2013 at 6:13 pm

Hey Brett, my research on this topic has lead me to question large parts of Napoleons tales – this year several renowned Anthropoligists who worked with the Yanomami signed an open letter to oppose what Chagrin wrote. You might want to dig a bit deeper and rethink it – still a very interesting read! :)

(Also check wikipedia sources)

33 Mike June 11, 2013 at 6:57 pm

RD – as a long time academic anthropologist, I find your statement about men being the sole driving force behind civilization (with women as a passive force that men simply fought over), somewhat alarming. The thing that most laypeople don’t understand is that anthropology, like any human pursuit, is highly biased by the person doing the pursuing. Most anthropologists until recently were men who were either only interested in other men or were otherwise only permitted access to male societies. As such, we come away with these impressions that the driving force of all societies “primitive” and modern alike are fundamentally male. This is simply not true. Women, even in highly violent, patriarchal societies such as the Yanomamo, are political and social forces unto themselves, and certainly NOT simply as “resources”.

Additionally, the Yanomamo are are not representative of all “simple” societies. Most tribe level societies are not a fraction as extreme in their notion of male honor, and still others are much more egalitarian and even quasi-matriarchal, with the most significant male relationships relating to who their mother is, and sons gaining social status via their maternal line.

Women’s power features heavily wherever anyone bothers to look, it’s just been traditionally ignored by the discipline of anthropology. The way human beings came to exist together is as diverse as the human race itself. It worries me that a lot of people are getting the take away message that the Yanomono are representative of the very fundamental nature of humanity instead of but one particular human expression amid many others.

34 Mike June 11, 2013 at 7:00 pm

Also, this isn’t some sort of look at evolutionary underpinnings, the Yanomono exist today. This society is not “earlier” but as contemporaneous as any other living, breathing society. So to say that a contemporaneous society points to our own “origins” as people is a bit like suggesting modern humans evolved from modern apes.

35 Vincent Milburn June 11, 2013 at 11:28 pm

This all reminds me of high school. You had to know how to act tough, but not over do it or you’d have to fight constantly. Also, violence was often recreational. I think the adult world is more subtly competitive. This is a metaphor for what many go through everyday in some capacity. It’s all about your article on not being a pushover.

This kind of thick-skinned culture I would imagine destroys a lot of “weak” men, not to mention how it objectifies women.

It makes you wonder what the outside world should do with these people because you don’t want to go all “Gods Must be Crazy” on them and corrupt things worse, but it seems weird to be an objective observer of such terrible behavior.

36 Mr. Nguyen June 12, 2013 at 1:24 am

Honor is a concept shared and protected by real men. Contemporary culture does not promote honor, which makes our effort to revive it that much more crucial.

37 dan m June 12, 2013 at 8:17 am

I find it disturbing that modern society especially academia is so obsessed with political Correctness that they invent myths about tribes like the noble savages mentioned. I think that being constrained from speaking facts, and when simply speaking in facts is somehow racist that modern man suffers greatly by being unable to speak his mind. The whole pcness of socierty has been damaging to masculinity

im not defending stupid stuff like “asians are bad drivers” or various “get back in the kitchen” jokes. IM talking about how modern men are judged less on the conent. Of their thoughts but by whether what they say fits in with socially acceptable theories that all seem to paint the modern male as a jackass

38 Richard June 12, 2013 at 10:29 am

I’m skeptical that the mores of an isolated stone-age tribe can be generalized to the rest of humanity. If you really wish to understand the species Homo sapiens why not study successful cultures like the ancient Romans, Chinese, or even present day Americans. In these societies conflict is generally rooted in the drive for resources and power, not access to more women.

39 Josh June 12, 2013 at 11:17 am

When I read about these guys in school, honor never seemed like a concept that fit for them. Their behavior fits into “honor” as much as grade-school kids fighting on the playground. The strongest and most fierce doesn’t have honor, just power. Every village is the same, but they disdain whoever isn’t their own group. How is it honor if it isn’t based on behavior as much as whether or not they are an ally?
This culture hasn’t brought any benefit to anyone. Nothing has been gained by their way of thinking. It’s held them back so much that their continued existence is due to some odd pity that academics and preservationists have toward them.
Granted, the cultures of us…civilized peoples… has brought world wars and a genocide or two, but at least we have android phones.

40 taoan June 12, 2013 at 11:19 am

Reminds me of Freuds theory to the origin of God as the all father who had all the girls. HIis sons killed him for that and afterwards dealt with the guilt by laws and rituals that would prevent another similar act. Which is of course inaccurate as monotheism is in itself pretty young a concept as would be monoga-nism? Honor is not something to strive for. The honorable men seldomly strive for honor. We go for what we desire that is seldomly an intellectual process but a gratification of senses. Drawing our paths through life we come to learn through experience that not everything that shines is gold and so whe balance our white horse with our appetites and let reason be the light that illuminates our future ways. (was a nice read btw) Hopefully we will turn out as honorable men. But as long as we desire what inspires us to become great we will become small and not grow beyond the point where we actually desire to get down and dirty and to embrace our shadow sides of us. But that is all just my view of a night.

41 taoan June 12, 2013 at 11:34 am

o let me clarify, inspirational stuff is important to educate for what we should strive for. But
our culture over emphasizes education and got it all figured out the light of our ratio does not know where its rays does not reach anymore. That striving and getting inspired seems to be the only interest to gratify. To realize that for attainment one has to travel in the opposite direction is not very popular at all. And maybe not appropriate at all for this kind of forum. what has gotten into me

42 Preston Camp June 12, 2013 at 3:05 pm


“The strongest and most fierce doesn’t have honor, just power.”

Though you dismissed this (your own) idea, I think you’ve hit something important here. What IS the difference between honor and power? Is it practical, or ideal? Philosophers have been trying to separate or unite honor, justice, and power for ages. Plato, Aristotle, and Machiavelli would say very different things about this. Early Rome might disagree with later Rome about this. I bring up justice because it seems related to–but not the same as–honor and power. Plato’s Gorgias and Republic treat of this.

I wish I could say something more substantial but I’m too busy and don’t have the books in front of me. So instead I’ll just pose the question.

One can dismiss Rousseau’s concept of the noble savage, but you’ll need to read the original source and do some work first. His “Discourse on the Origin of Inequality Among Men” is one of the most phenomenal thought-experiments I’ve read. Whether it applies to history or present facts is not the point; Rousseau even says this in his essay. It’s really about stripping away the artifices of modernity one by one and seeing what you get. It’s also beautifully written, even in translation. Rousseau writes so vividly and persuasively and that his writing would have been intimidating if not for its disarming clarity and honesty.

If anthropologists allowed their imaginations to be hypnotized by his ideas, that’s their problem, not Rousseau’s.

The Rousseau edition that I’ve read is “The Basic Political Writings” published by Hackett. HIGHLY recommended.

43 Abdelgader Eldaw June 12, 2013 at 6:46 pm

To be honest, I see the meaning that honor carries from will and is essential to survival, however I think that now the best honor is one that man holds in his heart, the one you chose for yourself not the one decided by another man or a group of men.
I have lived in Africa my entire life and I don’t think anything is worse than having to uphold honor which you do not believe in cause you lose mastery over yourself.
I am much for finding core values and mantras and upholding them from and for yourself rather than measuring it by critique of others.
Now I am fully aware that accountability is important and that is one of the biggest advantages offered by the classical honor but you have to question the limit of the critique of others since they are essentially different people and value these core values and measures of character in a different way to you.
As such, especially in our modern age I think holding yourself true to your core values is a better way to combat the restlessness and depression in our day and is also a better measure of manliness than the honor perceived by other men.

44 Steve Lacasse June 12, 2013 at 9:16 pm

Excellent article Mr. and Mrs. McCay; it’s certainly worth pondering how much weight our modern conventional ethics bear on our language when people want to debate whether violence or violent bravado is a matter of power or honor.

I think that a Yanomamo unokai, or a Japanese samurai, or a Spartan helot would probably fail to see a difference. And I think that’s the point that Brett and Kate are trying to make (and made very successfully in my opinion with their previous article series on the evolution of manly honor) in citing this source.

Arguments over Chagnon’s character and past academic or criminal criticisms miss the point, I think. It might be worth re-reading the article with the ancient Greeks in mind; think of Helen as the object of the mythical Trojan War and the Olympics as a more organized slap-fight.

I think it would be difficult to compare this account with anything we experience in our time and in our own civilized societies. Even if you wanted to sympathize with the tribesmen, I think you might as well be comparing yourself and your experiences with another species.

The gravity of their bids for reputation, honor, and power on their personal lives are beyond the analogies of playground politics or even a heavy-handed modern government. And I’d be careful to say that a modern man who thinks he desires something resembling a more primitive life ought to really think about what that means. I don’t know too many men who would trade club blows to the head stoically for any worthy cause, especially not in order to make his neighbors look good.

One thing that did ring especially sympathetic to me was the behavior of the unokais when compared to non-unokais. I’m an active duty Marine who’s seen a very similar pattern of behavior in Afghanistan, on both the U.S. and Afghan sides of the fight.

Thanks much for the article Mr. and Mrs. McCay; every visit I make to this site is enjoyable and thought-provoking.

45 squid June 13, 2013 at 1:41 am

secrets of the tribe is one of the better documentations of this

46 Herbert West June 13, 2013 at 8:38 am

How, exactly, does a stone age tribe with very limited resources and frequent resource bottleneck in terms of food (hence the need to hoard woman), living in small villages with relatively extended families have any relation to modern society? I know that you guys here pine for the good old days where you could bash those effeminite upstarts who now make twice your wage, but not all of you would be kings and chiefs. You can not all be the boot. Some of you will have to lick it.

@Preston Camp: In keeping with the reductionist dualistic approach of this site, I’d say that power gets people to follow you out of fear (“step out of the line and I’ll beat you down”), while honour gets people to follow you because they agree you should be in charge. Of course, if you get enough loyal retainers, option B turns into option A. See also feudal society.

To the whole noble savage nonsense: why, dear writer/editor, did you pick this tribe. Why not, lets say, the Fore? A tribe where human live has little value, and woman are there to be raped and give birth to children? (yes, deliberate exaggerations) Cherry picking which idealized trie you want to ascribe “honour” and “nobility” to is just that, a false representation of reality.

47 Sean Williams June 13, 2013 at 9:14 am

Interesting article, Brett and Kay. It brought to my mind the conflict between Fred Douglas and his slave master Covey, where Fred was able to harness his innate desire for honor and status and earn it through an expression of violence. Similar perhaps to the methods described of the Yanomamo?

48 Jared June 13, 2013 at 1:48 pm

RD you have a bit simplicistic view of matters. Males still have to work for getting women, but the emphasis is on work, instead of violence because we are a tad more advanced than the yanomamo.
Interesting article but if we are to investigate the roots of male honor we would have to look into the culture of the first cities.
A tribe living in groups of about 100-300 people are definitely not a good analogy to our modern society.
When our ancestors developed agriculture and were forced to live in large groups to defend their gains from raiders,and for better division of labour to ensure more gains,inside aggression became a negative trait, and aggression against the enemy became the measure of honor.
In group violence was substituted by sports. As groups go larger aggression has more chance to escalate and destabilize the group,and the larger the group the further enemies are away. This means men have no means to let aggression out outside group, thusly less aggresive drive in an individual is preferable to more.Thus the transition of the measure of honor from violence to virtue, benevolence and self-control is a necessary and positive process.

49 SPurser June 13, 2013 at 6:33 pm

I remember learning about this tribe in a university anthropology class. Every single one of those hard-won women was beaten and abused daily by their husbands. The text even included pictures of what Changon described as the “most loving couple” he ever met among these people. The husband said he “loved her so much he hardly ever beat her, just a little for show.” The lives of the women in these tribes are pure hell: constant fear of abduction and rape, constant toil to provide food and shelter for the men, who were almost solely focused on war with others. Manliness: you’ve come a long way, baby! Thanks for evolving.

50 Steve June 14, 2013 at 4:45 am

This article gave me a lot of different thoughts. My immediate impression is that it kind of reminds me of junior high on steriods or prison, where you have to fight a few times to gain a reputation (I have never been to prison, so I am basing this on hearsay).

This makes me think that, to be honourable, one must have both the means of honour — the ability to contend — and the proper end for that means — an ethical basis for action. If you are physically strong and courageous, but you use your power for unethically, you are a thug. However, if you have strong ethics, but do not have the courage or strength to defend what is right when it comes down to it, than you are ineffectual. The ideal of courage somewhat straddles the line, as it implies both nerve, which seems to be a natural quality, and the ethical decision to do what is right despite the consequences, which is an ethical quality.

And Brett, I may have to respectfully (somewhat disagree). I do not think that honour kind be completely individually determined; it has to have reference to what is actually ethically right. But in doing what is honourable, one may have to go against the approval of a group, even in the hypothetical case of the Nazis, as you cited. The Nazis made many appeals to “honour“ and “self-sacrifice“ (I hate to put those terms in the same sentence as the word “Nazi“), though they were fiendishly perverted. A man of real honour in those circumstances (like Dietrich Bonhoeffer) would have the courage to go against the approval of a group to do what is actually honourable. A similar example can be seen in Atticus Finch, who did what was honourable, though it was disapproved by the largely racist society around him. I believe that honourable behaviour, then, is directing the right means towards a code of conduct external to oneself, sometimes in defiance of the pack. Ideally, though, good society should reinforce truly honourable behaviour.

51 Kes June 15, 2013 at 6:02 am

What strikes me most about this article is the offensive use of the term primitive. The proper term is hunter-gatherer. The Yanamamo are not a stone-age people or older people (see the comments). They exist. Would you call modern-day Chinese primitive or stone-age just because they have a different culture than modern-day Americans?

52 DDS June 15, 2013 at 11:13 am

It stood out to me that unokais could be quite placid and calm in outward demeanor, even pleasant and charming, and this stood in contrast to those who were not unokais and displayed much posturing behavior, like horrid little chihuahuas that bark and nip at every little thing in a sad attempt to fool others into believing they represent a genuine threat.

And so I conclude — Use your words and body language carefully, saying what you mean and meaning what you say. Earn respect, not annoyed avoidance. Don’t be a chihuahua.

53 phillip h June 16, 2013 at 11:10 am

regarding honor.. I subscribe to both AoM and and read up daily, but I was a little confused and thought this article was from AoM. it’s very well written and brought some interesting new information to me regarding dueling and its role in honor.

54 SteamBoy June 16, 2013 at 3:35 pm

Not entirely related, but we’re still talking about deep indigenous people. Read “Peace Child”.

55 Chris June 16, 2013 at 9:40 pm

“I often deliberately avoided visiting small villages because they were predictably very aggressive and unpleasant to be around in order to compensate for their actual military weaknesses.”

Anybody think this sounds a lot like North Korea? Maybe not perfectly accurate, as North Korea isn’t one of the smallest villages, but I feel like the mentality is the same. Just thought that was interesting.

56 Joshua June 22, 2013 at 9:05 pm

I want to echo the shout out to Mark Ritchie’s book, “Spirit of the Rainforest.” It gives a firsthand account from several Yanomamo men who discuss in detail the horrors of everyday life they experience.

In 1998, Thomas Headland reviewed the book and commented: “Anyone who thinks the Yanomamo culture is idyllic must be a male: The women live in chronic danger of gang-rapes, savage beatings by their husbands, and kidnapping. And men suffer one of the highest homicide rates in the world from the frequent raiding between villages. If you think it’s a romantic way of life, why don’t you try it?”

My take-away from reading about the Yanomamo people is this: Mankind, without a standard for morality and truth, will never live with honor or virtue. The Yanomamo concept of honor and virture is distorted and perverted; and what they teach us about mankind is an ugly truth. Rape, murder, and a lust for power reigns in this world and in the hearts of men.

57 Sergio June 23, 2013 at 2:52 am

This set of tribes look like they form a single interconnected system that shares a consistent, rotten culture. They are distinct from the kinds of tribes that produced civilisation. What I can see is narcissism, psychopathy and other personality disorders being the dominant survival tools in such a society. No wonder they have stagnated for over 10,000 years.

If you were to take 1000 western babies and raise them with constant, primitive violence, you would produce such a system. Their flaw is the result of being programmed from birth with a rotten, violent, vaguely self sustaining culture that says nothing about human nature. I don’t think any aspect of who they are and what they do should be used as an example. Instead, look to at the numerous different child-raising methods and cultures, and note the different kinds of individuals and societies they produce.

The most recent innovations in parenting include raising children without violence, verbal abuse, emotional abuse, superstition, and instead being shining examples to your children, showing them honour, respect, life skills, putting goals into practice, a good relationship and always using logic rather than power as the ultimate judge in any situation. Such parents are rare, and these are the ones who produce world changing geniuses with self esteem and rationality, who make a difference in an effective, sane way.

It is because of individuals like these that we have many of the benefits of civilisation: and it is because of the other kinds of parents that we have people who support war, violence, government control over everything, social conformity, codependant/narcissistic cultural values and more. Study how the good world changes were in life – the creators, innovators, rational thinkers (avoid politicians), and how we can make more of them: many of them are men who have far more to teach us about how good ‘manliness’ can be without drudging up barbaric primitive examples.

58 KambizAmini June 25, 2013 at 6:49 pm

I find it very interesting that an Unokai (a man who has killed another man) is very respected. In the book Cosa Nostra by Giovanni Falcone, he wrote that in Sicily someone who had killed another man is seen as an “exceptional man”, a man of respect and honor. The fact that killing another man is the ultimate test to show that you are fearless, is universal in every “primitive”/conservative culture (ex. a culture without any central government as in Sicily). By killing another man you are proving that only you have the right and authority to regulate your life.

Fighting over women is also a matter of honor. In every primitive culture/unmodern culture a mans honor is directly related to the honor of his female relatives. The fact that a woman can get pregnant only once a 9th month while the male body produce new sperms each 20 minutes (hypothetic: males could become fathers more often than women becoming mothers) is what all this honor is about. Males must prove that they are MAN in all cultures both modern and primitive. I presume that every males who read this article regardless cultural boundaries, can relate to almost every aspect of the life of males in the Yanomamö.

59 James June 27, 2013 at 6:16 pm

“Many men acquire a reputation for being waiteri, fierce. But someone who is an unokai has demonstrated his willingness to inflict lethal harm on an opponent and to actually behave in an ultimately fierce manner. Publicly and socially, such men can be extremely placid and calm in their outward demeanor, and even very pleasant and charming. By contrast, many men who are not unokais seem to be compelled to behave in such way as to imply that they are killers of men.”
The real world, and the media, are so full of people who are trying to prove themselves to themselves….It makes me sad for a short period twice a day or more….

60 Frank Zieglar June 30, 2013 at 11:19 am

This makes me think of street gangs – see the movie The Freedom Writers – where much is done to prove oneself and earn/keep respect.

61 Bob July 2, 2013 at 1:17 pm

In response to previous posters, many sound like eggheads, Yes the tribal culture was way messed up, but you don’t have to look far today for similar behavior. The Art of Manliness stresses how we handle these situations, as men, not as socio anthropology sophomores.
The warrior spirit is embodied in the film “Cool Hand Luke.” Luke refused stay down when he was obviously defeated in prison “smoker”. When told to stay down he said “He will have to kill me.” Luke was counterpointed with a “paperhanger”, passer of bad checks, deemed a coward by fellow inmates. Yes Luke was killed, but he remained a legend and a”role model”. “What we have here is a failure to communicate “Do you have the same attitude when facing off with the “Man”? Big boys don’t cry. Die like a man. Your choice.

62 John Jakubczyk July 5, 2013 at 1:41 pm

Interesting article with a lot to consider. Now here is a scary thought. For the last 30 plus years China has imposed a one child policy on its people and coerced abortion has been the law of the land. As a result of this policy there is a disproportionate number of men to women in China (37 million was the last number I saw). Where are these men going to find their mates? India? Southeast Asia? If the article’s research is an indicator of the “natural” inclinations of the human male, the next 50 years are going to be very troublesome.

63 Evan O August 19, 2013 at 6:59 pm

Not exactly sure what I took away from this yet, but what jumped out to me was this:

“If a group is small, the men try to make up for their numerical disadvantage by acting as if the group is bigger, nastier, more ferocious, and ready to fight on a moment’s notice.” Chagnon

I’m a Marine–and that sounds a lot like what the USMC boasts: smaller, stronger, more fierce, and expeditionary. I’m actually using your 7 part series on honor as a major source in a class on Honor that I’d like to prepare for my unit, and I’m sure that little quote will fit in nicely somewhere.

64 Trent January 26, 2014 at 6:12 pm

What stuck out most to me was how no village is ever truly at peace. They are at an almost constant state of warfare. In our lives we try to do everything we can to feel safe, but it is just an illusion. Safety is never really guaranteed nor should it be expected. It is not a right.

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