Read Chagnon’s “Noble Savages” instead – “Falling Sky” is co-written by one of his attackers

A book review by Alice Friedemann at energyskeptic of “The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman” by Davi Kopenawa and Bruce Albert.

Anyone who knows about the baseless, hateful attacks on Chagnon by Tierney and other cultural anthropologists like Bruce Albert, who helped write this book, will not read it. My apologies to Davi Kopenawa, the Yanomamo native co-author, for not reading this book, because such accounts are rare and the insights probably fascinating. But it’s impossible to know how much Kopenawa’s views were twisted or influenced by Bruce Albert.

You can read about Albert’s attack on Chagnon on pages 396-397 in “Noble Savages” (at & the “Look Inside” at amazon).  Here is a short summary. Bruce Albert and Alcida Ramos wrote a letter of complaint to the editors of Science magazine about Chagnon that accused his 1988 article in Science of:

  1. Being “racist,” an accusation often used by radical cultural anthropologists to deprecate anything that can be construed as having been inspired by sociobiology
  2. Chagnon was guilty of complicity in genocide
  3. Chagnon had faked his data
  4. Chagnon had deliveberately concealed the fact that diseases were the main source of death among the Yanomamo in order to make violent deaths appear to be the most common cause of death
  5. Chagnon encouraged and abetted sensational, negative press coverage of the Yanomamo at a time when they were being invaded by miners
  6. Chagnon’s Science article was the main reason Brazilian officiels were going to separate the Yanomamo into 21 “micro” reservations.  This was a false accusation repeated so often by anthropological opponents that it is now an unchallenged “truth” in the community of activist anthropologists.

Chagnon characterizes Albert as a French national who sometimes worked among the Catrimani Yanomamo. “His data came largely from Giovanni Saffirio, a Consolata priest who operated the Consolata mission on the Catrimani River. Both were known less for their ethnographic accomplishments than for their efforts as political advocates of Brazilian Indians in general and the Yanomamo in particular”.

I am appalled that cultural anthropology is still closer to creationism than it is to science, still uninformed by evolution, and stuck in pre-enlightenment superstition – ironic since this field studies superstition in other cultures while thinking it has none itself.

We are at peak everything, but most importantly, peak oil, the master resource that unlocks all others.  97% of transportation runs on oil.  Out of fish?  Take a factory ship to the ends of earth and find the last schools with sonar.  Out of water? Build a desalination plant with fossil fuels that runs on fossil fuels, or use fossil-fueled pumps to drain the last water out of aquifers.  Civilization is about to unwinde.

We need to understand how societies may behave as we slide down Hubbert’s Curve back to the age of wood, since alternate energy doesn’t have the EROI needed to run civilization as we know it (see booklists at energyskeptic).  Can we keep from sliding all the way to the tribal level and lose the rule of law?

As a woman, I’d like to know if we could protect women from being property and subject to male violence as we go back in time to a wood-based society.  Is there a way to maintain equality of work and education besides adopting a Bonobo culture (just kidding)?  If anthropologists could help us figure out rituals, bonding, and institutions based on existing societies or that we could foster now, this would be useful information, and I hope evolutionary anthropologists are working on it.

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5 Responses to Read Chagnon’s “Noble Savages” instead – “Falling Sky” is co-written by one of his attackers

  1. Brian says:

    I take it you fall on the side that we are savages by nature. I have been wondering which side we truly fall on. There are good attacks of Chargnon’s work, a more balanced one here . Looking at our closest relatives in the animal world, bonobos and chimps, and knowing we may fall in between the two, I would say we are probably more likely noble savages. Further, works looking into energetics of systems would suggest it all depends on the nature of energy flows, declining or very low energy loads then you get barbarism while a high stable energy flow gives cooperation.

    • energyskeptic says:

      I don’t understand the controversy about Chagnon. At all. There is so much research that points to to a past where all tribes were much like the Yanomamo, with endless skirmishes and very high death rates of men, such as:
      Steven A. LeBlanc Constant Battles: The Myth of the Peaceful, Noble Savage
      Lawrence Keeley War before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage

      Fossil fuels are a one-time-only candy jar and then it’s back to wood forever. One of the reasons I wish materials scientists would find a cheap material, perhaps sheets of aluminum, to preserve knowledge on is because we can’t do it online with computers/hard drives/discs, that will be one of the first technologies we lose: microchips are the pinnacle of our civilization — the most complex, most precise, most pure, and dependent on the longest supply chains, 60 kinds of metals, and so on. It’s probably not realistic, but I like to think that knowing life doesn’t have to be so damned brutal from preserved books of our age would provide ideas to some future rising tribe, that women would reclaim their lost rights, slaves break away from their forced labor. When Abe Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (still a great read), he said something like “So you’re the little lady who started the Civil war”. Some day there will be another enlightenment, another rise of civilization somewhere.

      Back to our violent propensities — just look at some more more recent history (and I’ve left dozens of books on this topic out):

      Lutz Kleveman The New Great Game: Blood and Oil in Central Asia
      Michael Klare Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict
      Chalmers Johnson The Sorrows Of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic
      Robert Baer Sleeping With the Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude
      Ahmed Rashid Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia
      Peter Turchin War and Peace and War. The Life Cycles of Imperial Nations.
      David Berreby Us and Them. Understanding Your Tribal Mind.
      Azar Gat War in Human Civilization.
      James Waller Becoming Evil. How ordinary people commit genocide and mass killing
      Philip Gourevitch We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda
      Jack Weatherford Genghis Kahn and the Making of the Modern World
      Daniel Goldhagen Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans & the Holocaust
      Wrangham & Peterson Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence
      Michael Ghiglieri The Dark Side of Man: Tracing the Origins of Male Violence
      Richard Rhodes Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist
      Giles MacDonogh After the Reich. The Brutal History of the Allied Occupation.

      • Brian says:

        I think that what anthropologists really want to get at is what we were doing for the first million or so years at the origins of our evolution. This is probably a different question than what we will be doing for the next few millenniums. Chargnon probably has pinned down what we will be doing, since it will probably be hard to put away a lot of early technologies/information (simple metal tools, draft animals, etc) we have today, but at the same time he doesn’t necessarily slay the noble savage idea (how humans interacted with one another the first million years). This is because Chargnon focuses study on modern marginalized societies and not truly the environment humans started in. The important thing going forward for human well being is maintaining energy per capita, which as you have so eloquently pointed out in past posts can only be done by decreasing the capita in the energy per capita equation.

  2. Bruce ALBERT says:

    Dear Ms. Friedemann,
    In response to your review, let me say that, like numerous other anthropologists, I did indeed challenge Chagnon’s ethnographic data and his misrepresentations of the Yanomami, although certainly not on the grounds you claim. I published my challenges in a number of professional publications, as did other specialists. These kinds of challenges represent a perfectly acceptable form of academic debate; your ill-informed ad hominem attacks against me, however, are not. For example, if you read the original sources, misrepresented by Chagnon, you will see that I never accused him of complicity in the genocide that Tierney insinuated. On the contrary, I organized a panel of medical experts in Brazil that reanalyzed Tierney’s data, which found his allegations to be false. I promptly published their report in 2001, in both Portuguese and English, which was widely read and discussed in the U.S., Latin America, and Europe — ten years before the Dreger publication you quote. If you wish to become better informed on this debate, please take a look at Robert Borofsky’s book, Yanomami: The Fierce Controversy, a collection of essays from a balanced array of perspectives, both pro and con.
    Chagnon is correct when he comments on my nationality and the fact that I have long been active on behalf of the Brazilian Yanomami defending their land, health, and cultural rights. Beyond that, however, everything else he alleges against me is demonstrably false. For instance, it would have been impossible for me to use any of Saffirio’s data during my first fieldwork among the Yanomami in 1975-76, precisely because he had no data at the time. In those days, he was a dedicated priest in charge of a remote Catholic mission, with no spare time to gather ethnographic data. He was too busy running his overcrowded local health post to cope with the devastating diseases that hit the Yanomami after the government built a highway through the southeastern part of their territory. At the end of 1977, he left the Catrimani Mission and went to study anthropology in the United States, where Chagnon designed his field research project among the Catrimani River Yanomami in 1979. He did not begin to publish any ethnography about the Yanomami until the 1980s, several years after I already had done so.
    I have continued working with the Brazilian Yanomami ever since my first fieldwork 38 years ago, staying among them several times a year, nearly every year since 1975. The total amount of time I have spent among the Yanomami far exceeds the time Chagnon spent with them, as the Yanomami themselves can attest. I have been doing fieldwork in many different Yanomami regions on a wide variety of ethnographic topics, as well as setting up health and education programs, documenting invasions of their territory by illegal miners, and gathering data for advocacy groups that are defending Yanomami rights on the international stage. My findings have been published in many reports, articles, and books, and are widely available in French, Portuguese, and English, to reach the broadest possible audience of readers who wish to learn about the Yanomami and their plight.
    Having corrected some of the preconceptions about me that you inadvertently picked up from Chagnon, I hope you will put aside your hostility and take this prime opportunity to read The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman. Rather than being yet another book ABOUT the Yanomami, it is the first one authored BY a Yanomami. Davi Kopenawa is a renowned Yanomami shaman, leader, and advocate for his people. This is the first time he or any other Yanomami representative has had the chance to describe his life and his people’s culture and history, using his own words. Since you admit you have not even read the book, you may not realize your rating damages the reputation of the only native Yanomami author ever published. As I explain at the end of the book, my role was that of an interviewer, translator (from Yanomami to French) and editor. Davi Kopenawa has no interest whatsoever in the polemics between Chagnon (whom he never even mentions by name) and his academic opponents. He simply wants the voice of his people to be heard by outsiders and to make all of us know what they have been suffering for so many decades as the surrounding industrial society encroaches on their lands and lives. That, at least, should deserve your respect and attention.

    • energyskeptic says:

      You have made a good defense of yourself, and I admire your protection and care for the Yanomami. I sure hope they aren’t becoming too addicted to Western comforts given the coming die-off on the other side of the energy cliff — they have a good shot at surviving if they can hang on to their old ways in this remote region. But I still don’t like your letter to Science that attempted to ruin the career and reputation of Chagnon with many false allegations.