Ferguson, R. BrianYanomami Warfare: A Political History1995Santa Fe: School of American Research Press

Theory|||This is a book about war. Not war in the abstract, but specific wars. Ferguson starts with a general question: Why do wars occur? He answers that question for one partly-acculturated, indigenous South American tribal group: the Yanomami Indians of Venezuela and Brazil. He discusses the various names used by writers for the group and settles on “Yanomami” because “it is the label most commonly used in the campaign to prevent their destruction” (p. 66). He identifies four linguistic sub-groups of the Yanomami (Sanema, Yanomam, Nimam, and Yanomamo), but focuses mainly on the sub-group that is best described in published works: the Yanomamo. Ferguson argues that Yanomami warfare responds to the changing supply of Western goods, especially steel tools. The Yanomami are fighting for their own material well being (p. xii). Ferguson uses the term “Westerner” to mean individuals from various industrialized states (U.S., Venezuela, Brazil, and several European states) who interact with the Yanomami. The presence of Westerners and their steel tools and guns results in a “lowered threshold for war” among the Yanomami. This lowered threshold for war is demonstrated in conflict over access to women, revenge, and the giving and receiving of insults. All these behaviors are familiar to students of the Yanomami. However, Ferguson sees a root cause for all these conflicts: the lack of, shortage of, or unequal access to steel tools. The Westerners are the major suppliers of these tools, items so indispensable in maintaining the Yanomami way of life. Thus, when Westerners and their goods are not present, the Yanomami will not fight. But when a village enjoys preferred access to these goods, other villages will attack them. Those villages with a privileged link to the Westerners manipulate their favored position to form exploitative alliances with other villages and to raid weaker villages. They will act to prevent or limit the access of others to their sources. However, if sources are multiple, adequate, and increasing, or alternatively, if no Western goods are present, warfare will not occur. This is Ferguson’s theory (p. 55). |||Ferguson differs from other theorists on the question of Yanomami warfare. Napoleon Chagnon, the first anthropologist to write an ethnography of the Yanomamo, argues that most wars are fought over women. Marvin Harris insists that the Yanomami fight over a shortage of protein. Ferguson does not deny these motives and causes, but gives historical evidence that the need for steel tools is primary, and that in order to get them the Yanomami will fight.||| Method ||| Ferguson names dozens of rivers in the Orinoco system (Venezuela) and the Amazon system (Brazil), and dozens of Yanomami tribal groups. His data does not center on emic perceptions and statements of those who engage in war, but rather on accounts of empirical behavior set in historical context. He details battles mentioned by the early explorers and traders. He discusses specific wars in each of the four main linguistic groups. He details the activities of dozens of different Westerners: missionaries, traders, military people, government functionaries, explorers, anthropologists and other scientists. What emerges is a complex discussion of certain rivers, mountains, Yanomami village sites, village leaders, Western organizations, functionaries and settlements. This rich context allows him to specify the historical conditions and circumstances surrounding specific wars, and demonstrate the correlation of warfare intensity with access to steel tools.||| Sources ||| Ferguson did no fieldwork among the Yanomami; he scoured hundreds of primary and secondary published sources for any information that may relate to Yanomami warfare. He references writings by the earliest explorers, cultural geographers, historians, and anthropologists. For recent wars, he relies heavily on the amazing biography of Helena Valero. Valero is a Brazilian woman who was captured by the Yanomami in 1933 when she was 13 years old and escaped in 1956. Her biography provides rich details of many specific wars.||| Structure of the book ||| The book includes all known Yanomami wars, throughout all their history. He includes seven maps detailing Amazon basin river systems, Yanomami linguistic divisions, main Yanomami and Western settlements, and major movements of Yanomami groups since the 1800’s. The reader will constantly refer to these maps in order to follow the detailed accounts of contacts and wars. He begins with the scanty evidence of pre-contact wars (he believes they were few, because of the absence of Westerners, p. 75). He ends with the incipient “peasantization” of the Yanomami people (p. 141,316), due to their increasing contact with outsiders and their deepening involvement in the wider marketplace of Western material goods and cultural values. The book is as comprehensive as the published materials on the Yanomami allowed in 1995.||| Critique ||| I worked three years in Venezuela as a pilot (1969-1972), with visits to the Yanomami area about twice a month. None of my own experience there contradicts Ferguson’s version of the facts. For instance, I can confirm the accuracy of his detailed description of the coming of the New Tribes Missionaries to the Parima highlands in 1968, and their trade with, and evangelism of Niyayoba-teri village (p. 325). When I was in Venezuela, I was struck by the differences between the Yanomami and the Yekuana, a tribe in the same general region. The Yekuana were peaceful; the Yanomami seemed warlike. The Yekuana had continuous contact with Westerners; the Yanomami had only sporadic contact. Ferguson neatly accounts for these differences in his historical reconstruction. The Yekuana had a close relationship with Westerners and constant access to Western goods, mainly because they lived near major river systems. The Yanomami, however, had limited access to goods and lived for the most part away from the major rivers. Ferguson would no doubt argue that the Yekuana don’t need to fight today because they have dependable access to Western steel tools.||| Ferguson’s lack of fieldwork is not a great problem in this book. But, occasionally, he puts too much credence on brief references from non-professional writers that seem to support his thesis.||| This is not a textbook for undergraduates. But the volume will be indispensable to anyone studying the causes of conflict and warfare, as well as to anyone interested in the Yanomami or indigenous Amazonian peoples. It is a book for the specialist and for the person with an eye for detail.|||

James P. HurdBethel College, St. Paul, Minnesota, USA 55112


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