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MAN'S PLACE IN NATURE / Roger Lewin IVLy HEART BEGAN TO POUND as we approached the village," recalls Napoleon Chagnon, an anthropologist at Northwestern University, Illinois. "It was hot and muggy, and my clothing was soaked with perspiration.....The small, biting gnats were out in astronomical numbers, for it was the beginning of the dry season. My face and hands were swollen from the venom of their numerous stings. In just a few moments I was to meet my first Yanomamo, my first primitive man." Chagnon was about to embark on an anthropological study of a people whose bellicose reputation was legendary in their land. For the Yanomamo Indians, whose territory straddles the border between southern Venezuela and northern Brazil, warfare and violence was a way of life. No wonder, then, that Chagnon was more than a little apprehensive as he and his companion pushed their way through brush and dry palm leaves that guarded the low passage into the Yanomamo village. "I looked up and gasped when I saw a dozen burly, naked, filthy, hideous men staring at us down the shafts of their drawn arrows! Immense wads of green tobacco were stuck between their lower teeth and lips, making them look even more hideous, and strands of dark-green slime dripped or hung from their noses." What a welcome! It turned out that the village, Bisaasi-teri, was in a particularly tense state, because the previous day they had been raided by a neighboring group who had abducted seven women during a serious fight. The Bisaasi-teri warriors had managed to rescue five of the women that morning, which mission involved a bloody club fight that nearly exploded into all-out warfare. Further raids were expected. For Chagnon the Yanomamo became known simply and accurately as "the fierce people." By contrast with their simple subsistence technology, which supports hunting and horticulture, and a scarce material culture, the intellectual world of the Yanomamo is rich and complex, centered on a sophisticated mythology. Their cosmos is four-layered, each of which has a definite shape, boundary and function. Although the very top layer, duku ka misi, is now void, it had once been the source of inhabitants of lower layers. The next layer, hedu ka misi, is in the sky and is the home of souls of the departed, a spirit world equivalent in composition to that on earth. Humans live on the 16 ยท The Missouri Review third layer, hei ka misi, or "this layer," which originated when a piece of hedu fell to earth. The Yanomamo are the principal inhabitants of hex, foreigners being derived by a process of degeneration. Foreigners are not "real people." The bottom-most layer is a kind of hell, a place that was formed when a piece of the earth collapsed into the depths taking with it a Yanomamo village, its gardens, but no place to hunt. As a result, the inhabitants of this lowest layer, the Amahiri-teri people, send their spirits up to earth to capture the souls of living children and eat them. A constant battles rages between the evil spirits of the Amahiri-teri and the evil spirits of shamans of "this layer," earth. The Yanomamo weave innumerable stories upon this basic framework, embroidering a richly patterned fabric of mythology and legend. But one of the tales was clearly more important than the rest. "It is the only one they repeatedly told me without my asking for it," says Chagnon. It is a long story and involves elements of Yanomamo daily life intertwined with horrific fantasy. At one point a great flood ensues which destroys many people. Chagnon tells it this way: "After the flood, there were very few original beings left. Periboriwa (Spirit of the Moon) was one of the few who remained. He had a habit of coming down to earth to eat the soul parts of children. On his first descent, he ate one child, placing his soul between two pieces of cassava bread and eating it. He returned a second time to eat another child, also with cassava bread. Finally, on this third trip, Uhudima and Suhirina, two brothers, became angry and decided to shoot him...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 16-32
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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