Versions of the Yanomamo

Thursday, February 6th, 2014

The Yanomamo appear again and again in the BBC film archive:

And each time they turn up they play a new role as different Western concerns and ideas about human beings and nature are projected onto them.

In the Nazca programme the Yanomamo hold the key to unlocking the mysteries of an ancient civilisation that knew more about the world and its spiritual dimensions than we do.

But the Yanomamo have played other roles.

They are very much the archetype for the Na’vi tribes in James Cameron’s Avatar. An indigenous people that has been ruthlessly exploited by Western commercial interests, but who are also somehow better than us. They are an innocent people with a clearer vision than us. A vision that we have lost because we have been corrupted and driven mad by the sophisticated and amoral society we live in.

This was the version of the Yanomamo that television gave you throughout the 1980s.


But prior to this there had been at least three other — very different — versions of the Yanomamo presented by the BBC.

Throughout the 1970s western TV producers paddled up the river with their cameras. And each time the Yanomamo were reinvented to fit with the changing and contradictory demands of those making the films.

The first is from in 1969 (but shot in 1968). It is a film called River of Death — a documentary about an odd collection of Britons, including a reporter called Arthur from the People newspaper, who want to find out about this strange people called the Yanomamo (the commentary also refers to them by another name — the Guaica). They start off in a hovercraft, but switch to small boats and arrive first at a Yanomamo village run by the New Tribe Mission — a group of American evangelicals who had been working with the Yanomamo since the 1950s.


But this is 1968 and the West’s expectations and dreams are changing. The journalists want the Yanomamo to be something else.

The documentary makers have heard that upriver there are groups of Yanomamo who have an extraordinary drug. And they want to get hold of it.

It is an odd film. There are two voices narrating it. One is the producer who sees the Yanomamo as noble savages who have been corrupted by the missionaries. The other is Arthur from The People who projects onto the Yanomamo a much older vision — they are primitive savages who know nothing about the world, have never met a white man before and ask him (so he claims) whether he’s killed and scalped his wife.

In reality, as some anthropologists have since pointed out, the Yanomamo had been regularly meeting westerners for over a century.


But four years later the Yanomamo had got their act together.

This time they give western television exactly what they want. The Yanomamo act out the counterculture hippie dream

The BBC put out a film called Sons of the Blood. It is narrated by David Attenborough, and in it the Yanomamo men do practically nothing all day except take vast amounts of psychoactive drugs. While the women do the cooking.

The commentary makes it clear that the Yanomamo are a violent people, that they fight wars. But once inside the confines of their own commune — sorry, village — they create a new kind of society based on “trust and loving”. The Yanomaomo fight wars because they are proud, but they are also a gentle people.

The film portrays Yanomamo daily life in the village as an idyllic dream world. They have no experts, they do practically no work, they just lie around in the hammocks smiling. The drugs, the films says, are central to their culture and they allow the Yanomamo to experience other realities that are denied to us, fallen westerners.


But also in the early 70s the BBC made another film called The Fierce People in which the Yanomamo played a completely different role. They were shrewd, cunning and above all highly political.

It was at that moment in the Cold War when America and the Soviet Union were beginning the process of Detente. As a result the international tension was easing — but the west was riven by the question of whether one could trust the Soviets.

The film follows a group of scientists from the US Atomic Energy Commission who have come to study the Yanomamo. A central part of their study is to examine the politics of Yanomamo society and see what it can tell us about our own political behaviour.

The film does this by examining how “primitive” peoples negotiate and form alliances. Here is a bit from the film where the Yanomamo from one village give a feast in order to make an alliance with another village.

It is a different version of the Yanomamo, but yet again underlying the film is the belief that the Yanomamo are a simplified reflection of us and our dreams and aspirations. Simplified because you can see them in their natural clarity.


But things changed quickly in the west. And only three years later a new version of the Yanomamo was required by TV.

This time they are no longer political, instead they are programmed robots. And they are used to prove scientifically a new truth about us. That we “civilised” people are also robots driven by immortal codes deep inside our bodies.

The Selfish Gene had just been published, and science programmes had got very excited by the rise of Sociobiology. Horizon made a film called The Human Animal — and in it the Yanomamo played a central role.

Village life is no longer and idyllic dream. Instead it is full of individuals attacking and defending one another in a continuous churning state of tension. The programme focusses on the work of an American anthropologist, Napoloen Chagnon — and an experiment he conducted about a particular fight in a village.

Chagnon said that the behaviour of each individual Yanomamo in the fight was really controlled by their genes. Who they chose to attack and who they chose to defend was mathematically determined by how closely or distantly related the individuals were.


  1. Magus Janus says:

    Adam Curtis is a little pathetic here, blatantly trying to draw an equivalence between the stellar academic work Napoleon Chagnon did over decades with the prior pathetic projections of the insane left.

    Then again, what would you expect from a hack BBC sociologist? A recognition of the realities of sociobiology and the empirical verification of them by the premier scholar of the tribe?

    Don’t make me laugh. What’s going on here is the Left, having been utterly destroyed in its loony theories is now dropping to the fall back position of “there is no truth” instead of accepting the correct view. What a joke.

  2. Toddy Cat says:

    Yeah, I mean Curtis is right about people projecting their beliefs about human nature onto primitive people, but in fact, the Yanomamo DO exist, they DO have a nature, and one of those picture of the Yanomamo is closer to the truth than the others. The question is, which one? I’d be willing to bet that I know…

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