Napoleon Chagnon’s “Noble Savages” is a sprawling book that explores his complicated relationship with the Yanomamo Indians of Venezuela, as well as his war with anthropology. Author of one of the best-selling anthropology texts of all time, “Yanomamo: The Fierce People” (1968), Chagnon was later vilified by activists, journalists and anthropologists for exploiting the Yanomamo. This occasionally unwieldy yet engaging memoir is his attempt to explain his work to a lay audience while also putting to rest those accusations, which effectively blacklisted him in the field of anthropology.
When Chagnon first met the Yanomamo Indians, their arrows drawn, they were a group of “burly, naked, sweaty, hideous men nervously staring us down,” their lips distended from chewing huge chunks of tobacco. “Strands of dark green snot dripped or hung from their nostrils . . . drizzled from their chins down to their pectoral muscles,” a side effect of the Yanomamo’s tendency to blow hallucinogens up their noses. To Chagnon, the Yanomamo offered the chance to study a population seemingly unsullied by contact with the Western world, although by the time he arrived in 1964, missionaries and Catholic priests had already begun making inroads. Nevertheless, he found these Indians to be sufficiently unacculturated for his studies. He writes that “this was the last chance for an anthropologist to observe this fascinating social and political transition that terminated with the development of the political state and ‘civilization.’ ”