The Yanomami are an indigenous people in the Amazon, found in northern Brazil and southern parts of Venezuela. The name Yanomami means human beings. They are also referred to as Yanomama, Yanomano and Yanoama. They are one of the most populous isolated groups in the world. They live in densely forested and mountainous regions, making it difficult to access them. Their area of habitation is more than 9.6 million hectares in Brazil and 8.2 million hectares in Venezuela. The number of Yanomami is about 26, 000 people in both countries. They are one of the few tribes around the world who have not changed their lifestyle for many years, and they have largely resisted civilization. The Yanomami live in villages, which can have 40-300 people. There are close to four hundred Yanomami villages spread across their territories. The people are one of the few cultures in the world that does not delegate power and authority to an individual or group. The Yanomami make decisions by consensus, and everybody participates towards the discussions (Survival International).
The Yanomami practice polygamy and they marry to retain close family bonds. The men marry women from their own communities, and they often marry their cross cousins. This ensures that the family expands and remains strong. The traditional Yanomami do not wear clothes. They tie a form of belt around their waist, to cloth their mid section. They wear ornaments of different kinds made from feathers or flowers. The body decoration is not only for women, and the men decorate themselves, as well.
The Yanomami are mostly farmers, although they engage in other activities including hunting, fishing, and gathering. They have a distinct way of fishing, which involves poisoning the fish by using vines. The people collect the fish once it starts floating on water. Hunting does not constitute a big percentage of people’s food source, but it is valued by the people. The men consider it one of the most prestigious activities, and they design bows and arrows for this purpose. They hunt for animals such as monkeys and deer. Hunting is a preserve for men, and women are left to farm the land. Once the man hunts, he shares the meat among family and friends. He does not consume the meat he has hunted, and he depends on another hunter to give him meat. The women plant the crops in the garden and these crops are the greatest part of the Yanomami diet. The Yanomami supplement their diet by adding insects, nuts, and shellfish. They also value honey, and they collect about fifteen different types of honey. The Yanomami are renowned for their vast knowledge of medicinal plants (Survival International). Sickness has changed the way of life for the Yanomami. It has made them vulnerable, and they no longer have the strength to tend their farms or hunt for their food (Rabben 93). The degradation of their land and encroachment from different people means that the Yanomami cannot practice their traditional beliefs at the same extent they were used. They cannot use the knowledge they have on medicinal plants to cure some of the diseases, since most of these diseases are a new concept to them, which was introduced by the outsiders.
Like most indigenous groups around the world, the Yanomami are facing multiple threats from different angles. One of the biggest threats facing them is an invasion of their land by people looking for gold. The other threat facing them and risking their survival is disease. In the eighties, people invaded the land inhabited by the Yanomami in search of gold. They destroyed parts of the Amazon forest, which the Yanomami occupy, and they brought diseases, which ended up killing many of the Yanomami (Survival International). The Yanomami are an isolated people, and they have never experienced some of the illnesses and diseases common to many people around the world. They are therefore, not immune to these diseases. Many of them died because of flu and malaria. Although there was initial assistance in medical care from outside organizations and some non-governmental organizations, this did not end the health care problems facing the Yanomami. The isolation of the people makes it difficult to reach them. This is problematic in case of sickness because health professionals cannot access them, and this increases the death rates in case of sickness.
When the gold miners first encroached on the Yanomami land, the government responded by kicking the gold miners out. The concerned governments where the Yanomami territory is, do not recognize tribal lands, and this has denied the Yanomami a chance to own land. Many people and organizations around the world support the idea of demarcating the land, and assigning it to the respective indigenous groups. However, this has not yet been achieved for the Yanomami. Although the government dispelled the gold miners, some of the miners continue mining gold illegally. This has affected the Yanomami, as the miners continue to spread diseases and contribute to land degradation. Many people continue supporting the idea of gold mining in the area.
During the eighties, two thousand miners invaded the Yanomami territory in a gold rush, and this led to conflicts between the Yanomami and the miners. The conflict between the two groups was so intense and violent that it led to deaths of many people, most of whom were the Yanomami. The government at that time was not willing to deal with the illegal miners. This increased the number of illegal miners in the Yanomami territory. The miners were not willing to respect the people or recognize their rights. They ended up killing many of the indigenous people, a situation that was similar to a massacre. The Yanomami did not retaliate for the killings in a similar measure. They were limited by factors such as sickness and hunger. Moreover, they have a small physique, and they do not have the weapons and ammunitions to fight back (Rabben 113). This questions the popular belief that the Yanomami are violent people. Were they as violent and warlike as some anthropologists claim, then they would have already expelled the illegal miners from their territory. The government’s reluctance and indecisiveness when dealing with the illegal miners, gave the miners more courage to encroach on the Yanomami territory. International outcry from different countries compelled the government to take some measures to deal with the crisis. The prospects for gaining and benefiting from the gold in the Yanomami territory continue to be a hindrance towards helping the people achieve their rights.
Because of their isolation, the Yanomami have a distinct culture, which is different from many cultures. They have been able to maintain their culture for a long time, despite the existing external influence. The Yanomami have always depended on land and nature for their survival. They derive their food and medicine from nature. They make their houses and create other items and tools using products from nature. They also depend on nature for their spiritual health. They believe that all the creatures, trees, mountains, and rocks have spirits. Therefore, they oppose any move, which they perceive, will lead to the destruction of land. They are especially opposed to the mining of gold, a move they say will destroy their sources of water such as streams and rivers, kill all the fish, which is part of their diet, and destroy the environment. The presence of mercury has already caused water pollution, and it has led to people developing different sicknesses. The Yanomami have a strong belief in the spirits. They believe that the spirits are all around them. Some of these spirits are good, while others are evil, and are believed to cause harm and death. The role of shamans is particularly essential because the people believe that shamans can harass and dispel the evil spirits. They believe that neighboring hostile villages can mobilize a spirit and influence it to cause death. Once a person dies, the Yanomami cremates the corpse and mixes it with a beverage, then consume it. Although the Yanomami live in designated villages, they often disperse and form new villages when there is no food (Rabben 92).
The Yanomami’s first outside visitors were most likely the missionaries who intended to introduce Christianity to the people. The visiting missionaries and anthropologists introduced the Yanomami to different tools and items such as machetes and cooking pans. The goods brought were never enough and the people craved for more. The shortage of these goods caused rivalry among the people, and this led to war as the people sought for the available goods. The outsiders exposed the people to contagious diseases such as measles and tuberculosis. They also brought with them medical equipment and medication, which saved people’s lives. They also introduced education in the Portuguese language. This provided learning opportunities to those who wanted to learn. During the seventies, the Brazilian government decided to construct a highway through the Amazon, and this exposed the Yanomami to more foreigners, and consequently more diseases. The construction of the highway contributed to erosion of the Yanomami culture in areas where the highway was constructed. The wild animals that the people hunted for their survival disappeared, and the people abandoned farming. The Yanomami began craving for the foreign goods in an attempt to show their civilization (Rabben 94).
Most people regard the Yanomami as a violent and aggressive people. This might be because of lack of proper and accurate information, and the fact that these indigenous people continue to isolate themselves. A lot of literature on the Yanomami comes from literature conducted in the sixties (Rabben 40). This literature recognized the Yanomami as a violent, cruel, and aggressive people. The research conducted noted how the Yanomami encourage aggressive behavior, especially among men, from a particularly early age. The Yanomami female does not have much authority in her home. From an early age, girls learn that they have the biggest share of responsibility in the home and that they are not equal to boys. They learn how to take care of their families when they are children. As they grow up, the number of responsibilities that they have increases. Boys have longer playtime than girls do, and it is common to see boys in their puberty engaging in play (Peters-Golden 258).
Boys learn that they can dominate girls, and that they are superior to them from an early age. Thus, they often hit them, at the encouragement from those who are around them. This behavior continues in marriage, where domestic violence tends to be common. Men beat their wives for any reason, which may range from failure to maintain the household to suspected infidelity. The Yanomami are in constant war with each other and surrounding villages. They form alliances with different groups, which appear friendly, and they wage war on the groups that are hostile to them. They form these alliances by trading with each other, and by sharing their food. The Yanomami engage in arguments and bickering during trading as they debate the quality of the products, and these can result to fighting amongst themselves. As they are trading and bargaining with each other, they engage in intimidation and trade insults. This results to chest pounding duels (Peters-Golden 258).
The participants in these duels appear carrying weapons such as axes, arrows, and clubs. The duels are stylized and well calculated. The men participating in the duel give each other a prescribed number of blows as the rest of the people cheer. One of the men may withdraw from the duel if he is injured badly. The villagers call for fighting to continue and escalate. They call for those fighting to use axes, and this causes bloodshed. The fighting men may also use stones when the fighting escalates. This fighting causes severe injury, and it may lead to death (Peters-Golden 258). The Yanomami also attack each other with clubs, especially when they argue over women or food. The clubs are heavy and sharpened, and they are about one foot long. Cases of adultery enhance club fights. When a man suspects that another man has an affair with his wife, he will take a club and confront the other man, but in this case, he will present his head to the other man to be hit. This is a sign of pride for the man, and he will sometimes shave his head to show off the scars he received. The man may choose to retaliate, and other villagers may join in the fight. The fight escalates when the villagers join (Peters-Golden 259-260).
The villagers take sides, and this causes deep division among them, leading to raids. The raids are often serious since the main objective is to kill as many people on the opposite side as possible. Some villagers have a shortage of women, and they take advantage of such raids to abduct the women from the enemy’s side (Peters-Golden 259-260). The Yanomami are not recognizable for their loyalty, and even friends and brothers can deceive each other. Because of this, the people are always aware of the risks of retaliation, feuds, and revenge that may happen. The people will often seek ways that they can benefit individually. They respect routine, and they will avoid anything that will disrupt their routine. This includes getting rid of human life, if they perceive that that person will be an obstacle to them achieving their goals. The society is extremely patriarchal, and instances of female infanticide are common. They will kill an infant, if they think that infant will be an obstacle. They also kill babies born with physical defects. In case a mother gives birth to twins, the weaker twin will be killed or neglected to ensure his or her death in future. In some cases, people who have prolonged illnesses are buried alive (Peters 274)
Most of the research presenting the Yanomami as violent people is questionable. The research was conducted at a time when the people were suffering from disease and hunger, and this could have aggravated the people’s behavior. The people might have felt the need to defend themselves and defend their territories. There is a need to conduct more research on the people, and reexamine the claims of their supposed violence. Were the people violent, they would have continued with their violence nature when the illegal miners encroached and invaded their territory. However, currently, these indigenous people continue to suffer as they see their territories taken away from them.
Peters-Golden, Holly. Culture Sketches: Case Studies in Anthropology. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Companies,Incorporated, 2011. Print
Peters, F. John. Life among the Yanomami: The Story of Change among the Xilixana on the Mucajai River in Brazil. Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1998. Print
Rabben, Linda. Brazil‘s Indians and the Onslaught of Civilization: The Yanomami and the Kayapo. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2004. Print
Survival International. The Yanomami. n. d. Web. 19 October, 2012
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