Tropical rain forest of Southern Venezuela


The Yanomami are an indigenous tribe also called Yanomamo, Yanomam, and Sanuma who live in the tropical rain forest of Southern Venezuela and Northern Brazil. The society is composed of four subdivisions of Indians. (Yanomami Indians) Each subdivision has its own language. “They include the Sanema which live in the Northern Sector, the Ninam which live in the southeastern sector, the Yanomam which live in the southeastern part and the Yanomamo which live in the southwestern part of Yanomami area.”


The Yanomamo are one of the largest unacculturated aboriginal groups left in South America, with a total population of around 12,000. Their subsistence is based on hunting and slash-and-burn agriculture. The predominant crops are plantains and bananas. Their diet includes yams, sweet potatoes and the fruit of the peach palm. (Beierle, J.M.)

The social construction of the culture is composed of small groups numbering approximately 75 people in each group. A village is composed of related families who live together in a shabano or large circular house.

(The first people of Amazonia)

One of the reasons why Anthropologists and scientists find the Yanomamo Indians so fascinating as a subject for research is that they are considered to be one of the most ancient living people on the earth. The Yanomamo (Yah-no-mah-muh) are “believed to be the most primitive, culturally intact people in existence in the world. They are literally a stone age tribe.” (Indian Cultures from Around the World: the Yanomamo)

These cultural groups have been categorized by anthropologists as Neo-Indians with cultural characteristics that date back more than 8000 years. (ibid)

The general characteristics of the Yanomamo are now well-known. This is largely due to anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, one of the innovators of research in this area. His book entitled, Yanomamo: The Fierce People (1968) brought the tribe to the attention of the public and anthropological discourse.

In this study and others, researchers reiterate the fact that the Yanomamo are seen as “primitive” people. This primitive nature is exemplified by the fact that they have no knowledge of the wheel and “the only metal they use is what has been traded to them from the outside. Their numbering system is one, two, and more than two. ”

What is important in terms of anthropology and the study of human interaction with the environment is that they are “one of the most successful groups in the Amazon rain forest to gain a superior balance and harmony with their environment. ” (ibid) The following extract from Napoleon A. Chagnon’s Yanomamo: The Fierce People outline some of the unique qualities of the Yanomamo tribe.

The remarkable thing about the tribe, known as the Yanomamo, is the fact that they have managed, due to their isolation in a remote corner of Amazonia, to retain their native pattern of warfare and political integrity without interference from the outside world. They have remained sovereign and in complete control of their own destiny up until a few years ago. The remotest, uncontacted villages are still living under those conditions. (Napoleon A. Chagnon. 1983)

It is their relative isolation from historical and contemporary contact that makes the Yanomamo such an ideal research subject for understanding the foundations of human culture. (Weiner B, et al.)

2. The religious foundations of the Yanomamo culture

The traditions and beliefs of the Yanomamo are to a large extent shaped by their interaction with the environment. They believe that the natural world is inextricably linked and intertwined with the spiritual. Their belief in the sacred quality of nature is also linked to the essential Shamanic foundations of their belief system. “They believe that their fate, and the fate of all people, is inescapably linked to the fate of the environment; with its destruction, humanity is committing suicide. Their spiritual leader is a shaman.” (Yanomami Indians)

Another aspect which is central to their belief structure is ancestor worship

While the Yanomamo are essentially Shamanistic, many studies have not emphasized the very important aspect of ancestor worship.

Although it is true that the Yanomamo religion centers on shamans ingesting hallucinogenic drugs and controlling spirits, Chagnon (1983:92) reports that “when the original people [the no badabo] died, they turned into spirits: hekura.” Since the no badabo were clearly the original Yanomamo, ancestors are actually central to Yanomamo religion (see Steadman and Palmer 1994). Indeed, it is crucial to realize that whenever there is reference to ghosts, spirits, or the dead in a society’s religion ancestors will be present, if not predominant, in this category. (Steadman, Palmer and Tilley, 1996)

In simplistic terms the Shaman enters a world of alternate and multidimensional reality which corresponds to the world of nature and ordinary life as well as the various mythical levels of Yanomamo cosmology. He achieves this through entering into trance states which is aided by the use of specific drugs. In the case of the Yanomamo Indians this refers to the ingestion of a hallucinogen called ebene, or “yopo.” (Yanomami: Wikipedia) Understanding the Shamanic word of the Yanomamo and numerous other cultures has been a difficult process for many Western researchers and ethnographers. This is due to the fact that understanding the Shamanic world necessitates a very different mindset which is radically opposed to the rational and logocentric conception and perception of reality.

Western cultures put a premium on alert states of consciousness for people in most public contexts and frown upon states of delirium or ecstasy except in specially defined private circumstances. In other cultures, for instance, among the Yanomami of Venezuela, such states were part of the normal life of adult men, induced by the use of drugs. Religious specialists often called shamans, use drugs or intoxicants in a variety of cultures to achieve cures or contact with the spirit world. Among many African peoples, spirit possession enabled the person in trance to know what his ancestors were thinking. (Reynolds & Tanner, 1995, p. 10)


The Yanomamo view of the spiritual world is divided into four levels of reality. The various elements of the Yanomamo world exist as either ascending or descending through these planes. The top layer of reality is seen as pure and is called “duku ka misi.” This is the area of origin of all things or the ultimate reality. (Yanomamo)

However, these topmost layers of reality seem somewhat distant for ordinary and everyday human life in their mythology. The second layer is known as “hedu ka misi” or the sky layer of reality. This layer is invisible to the human eye but is a reflection of the earth that is commonly known. “It has trees, gardens, villages, animals, plants and most importantly, the souls of the deceased.” (ibid) This level is the counterpart of the earth and is similar in many ways to the Islamic “Imaginal” world. The lower aspect of this level is what is known and seen by ordinary mortals as the sky. This is also the area where stars and planets can be seen to exist.

The third layer is the world in which humans and the Yanomamo exist. This is known as “hei ka misi.” The third layer was formed, according to the Yanomamo myths, from a piece of the second layer which fell down. “This layer has jungles, hills, animals, plants and people who are slightly different variants of the Yanomamo who speak a dialect of Yanomamo that is “crooked,” or wrong.” (ibid)

The last layer is known as “hei ta bebi” and is barren. This area is believed to host different specie much like the Yanomamo. This is possibly the Yanomamo equivalent of the Western concept of hell as it is populated by cannibals and has no game. Furthermore, the beings in this region “send their spirits up to ‘this layer’ to capture the souls of children, which are carried down and eaten.” (ibid)

The above brief outline provides some indication of the rich and complex spiritual belief system of the Yanomamo. This view of reality is also made more complex by the belief that individuals have a number of different types of soul.

One is the buhii (“will” or “spirit”), which at death turns into the no borebo and travels to the hedu layer of the Cosmos, wherein dwell the souls of the dead. In addition, each person has a noreshi, a sort of spirit or portion of the soul, and an animal in the jungle to which this spirit corresponds. These noreshi animals are inherited patrilineally for men and matrilineally for women.” (Beierle, J.M.)

The cause of illness among the Yanomamo, as well as among many non-western traditional cultures, is related directly via the spirit world. For the Yanomamo illness is caused when the noreshi soul leaves the body.

Most internal illnesses are believed to have been caused by the intrusion of hekira or by foreign objects injected by this spirit. (ibid)

The spiritual world of these people becomes increasingly complex. They also believe that every specie of animal or plant has its own “hekira”: or spiritual prototype of the species. As stated, the Shaman is the central conduit of the religious and spiritual perceptions of the Yanomamo. He or she establishes contact with the multifarious spiritual world through the use of hallucinogenic drugs. The chief function of the Shaman is healing. Sorcery is also practiced against enemies.

3. Kinship, politics and marriage

The religious and cultural understanding of the Yanomamo is inextricably linked to the social and political context in which they live. Kinship and marriage structure are extremely important in the structure of the Yanomamo society. This also relates to their system of social control and law. As Chagnon states in his work, Yanomamo: The Fierce People

Social life is organized around those same principles utilized by all tribesmen: kinship relationships, descent from ancestors, marriage exchanges between kinship/descent groups, and the transient charisma of distinguished headmen who attempt to keep order in the village and whose responsibility it is to determine the village’s relationships with those in other villages. Their positions are largely the result of kinship and marriage patterns — they come from the largest kinship groups within the village.

(Napoleon A. Chagnon. 1983)

Therefore the issue of law and order is linked to the kinship and marriage issues

In terms of social structure, the village is the basic sociological unit which is occupied by several extended families, composed of nuclear family households. Importantly the “founding nucleus of such a village consists of two intermarried pairs of brothers, their sisters (or wives), and their descendants. The two resulting lineages exchange their women, thus creating a number of affinal alliances.” (Beierle, J.M). The social structure itself is essentially simple and a village consists of ” … A single structure (yano) within which many nuclear families live clustered around their household fire.” (HOWELL, NANCY. 2001)

Yanomamo society is extremely political and there are often feuds and conflicts between the different groups. The Yanomamo have an essentially segmentary society which is constructed around “alliances between small groups … their lives are firmly governed by political considerations.” (Boehm 92)

Marriage as a social contact is a central feature in stabilizing and establishing bonds and alliances between the different groups in the society. The importance of marriage as a constructive factor is underlined by Chagnon’s view of the generally unstable nature of the society.

A given village will have a number of former enemies or non-allies whom it is trying to turn into allies; at the same time its allies today may become its enemies tomorrow. For example, if a village fissions because of a homicide, the aggrieved clan — now on its own as a separate village that is much smaller and therefore more vulnerable — is likely to seek alliance with a former enemy.

(Boehm 94)

The issue of law and order in the society is also closely linked to the marital and lineage issues within the society as the following quotation makes clear.

Each village has its own headman (pata), and one pata is usually more influential than the others. Migliazza (1972: 415) claims that the position of the chief or headman is not really inherited, but is dependent on the chief having many living agnatic relatives and the ability to assert himself among them. There is some indication, however, that the office was once inherited patrilineally from father to son or from elder brother to younger brother. During times of war, a man with experience in combat was often chosen to act as war chief, an office which was not hereditary and which became inactive when hostilities ceased.

(Beierle, J.M)

The institution of marriage in the Yanomamo tends to “bind non-agnatically related groups of males to one another in a system of exchanges involving goods, services, and the promise of a reciprocal exchange of women at a later date.” (ibid) Therefore, in this system the ties between man and wife are relatively weak while the ties between a man and his sister’s husband are strong. The preferred pattern of marriage that serves to strengthen alliances is “brother-sister exchanges and cross-cousin marriages … And … A prescriptive bilateral cross-cousin marriage rule.” (ibid) The bilateral cross-cousin marriage “helps produce strong relationships between families and villages.” (Yanomami Indians)

Essentially this involves a system whereby the marriage partners are doubly related to one anther as matrilateral and patrilateral cross cousins. “The Yanomamo follow a bilateral cross-cousin marriage system whereby marriage partners are doubly related to one another as matrilateral and patrilateral cross cousins as a consequence of similar marriages among their parents … ” (Yanomamo Marriage) ( see Appendix image 1)

The importance of marriage as part of the social structure can also be seen for the relationship of the distance between social distance and intergroup-relationships. (See Addendum figure 2)


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The following is a diagrammatic representation of the bilateral cross-cousin marriage across lineages.

In each generation a man marries a woman who is both his

MBD (matrilateral cross cousin) and FSD (patrilateral cross cousin)


Figure 2. Social Distance and Intergroup Relationships Among the Yanomamo


Chagnon “has been challenged before, notably by Rutgers University Newark anthropologist Brian Ferguson, whose 1995 book on Yanomami warfare suggested that the presence of foreigners, Chagnon in particular, sparked much of the conflict among the Yanomami.” (Yanomami: WHAT HAVE WE DONE TO THEM?)

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