Cultural Anthropology: The Yanomami Tribe

The online article Conflict and Human Rights in the Amazon: The Yanomami, by Stephanie Bier, is one of several case studies in a larger website documenting the intersection of environmental damage and human conflict1. Stephanie Bier, the author, was a 2006 American University graduate in International Service.2 The article takes the perspective of international service and policy development. Bier reviews the impact of intrusion into Yanamamo lands by those wishing to exploit the resources found there in the Amazonian Basin area.

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The author asserts that the environmental and health impacts of contact and extractive development constitute a violation of the Yanomamo human rights as well as an ecological disaster. The article concludes by noting that the regional governments have a responsibility to protect the integrity of the traditional Yanamamo lands. This article uses anthropological information regarding Yanamamo numbers, history, and cultural behaviors in the course of arriving at its conclusion.

This is a relevant and sound example of anthropology’s applicability to the real world. There are no photographs in the article at all. The article, however, does have an extensive list of resources, including many parallel case studies of environmental actions which can be construed as injustices to indigenous peoples. It illustrates how anthropological findings can be used in the real world, but also, how important it is to backtrack and check all sources.

This article uses information that affirms the content in the textbook regarding the declining numbers of Yanamamo who are believed to live in the area, and the impact on their population of introduced disease organisms, as well as what seems to murder of men, women, and children by various outsiders. Despite investigational difficulties, the numbers of unnecessary deaths fully documented and noted in Bier’s article is substantial.

These people were killed when they confronted armed garimpeiros encroaching on their traditional lands. They include a two-year-old child, among other minors. The Bier article makes note of the fact that both deaths by violence and deaths by introduced illnesses are exceedingly challenging to investigate, specifically because of what anthropologists would term Yanamamo, funerary practices, tribal organization, and subsistence system (Scupin 203), as follows:

As a cultural tradition, the Yanomami cremate their dead… {, therefore,} the numbers reported by anthropologists and human rights organizations may only represent a small fraction of deaths… Similarly, measuring the impact of the disease on the Yanomami population is nearly impossible. First, the total population of the Yanomami must be known to judge its relativity.” (Bier)

The horticultural pattern of slash-and-burn agriculture pursued by the Yanomamo requires that the tribe move every few years due to soil depletion (Scupin 203). This means that any accurate census must cope with a population that has no fixed address. Thus, the article confirms practically the observations and lifeway classifications of anthropologists that have studied them, as noted in the textbook.3

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The article takes a slightly different perspective from the textbook on the possible future of the peoples of the area. For example, the article notes that” the environmental situation is unlikely to improve.” (Bier),. Later on, the article asserts that “As long as Yanomami land is not fully recognized by the state, access to precious resources will continue to be a source of conflict between indigenous people and those who seek to exploit its natural resources” (Bier).

Further on, Bier reminds readers and policymakers of, “…the Brazilian government {‘s}… legal responsibility to protect indigenous people…by properly demarcating all Yanomami territory.” (Bier) This is a prescriptive conclusion, recommending action. This tone stands in modest contrast to the textbook’s more dispassionate, descriptive, conclusions, including the following implied questions for future study and investigation:

The resources of the new Amazonas state will probably include mineral wealth and tourism. Thus, the Yanomamo of Venezuela will become increasingly drawn into contact with outsiders. Whether this will mean more tragedy and epidemic diseases and economic problems for these natives is a question that can be answered only in the future. (Scupin 331)

This difference in perspective is perhaps understandable in light of the divergent purposes of the article and the textbook. The article, after all, is generated by a sort of ‘think tank’ providing background data and insights to inform the policy-makers of the hemisphere, as well as to advocates for human rights, and as such, must hew to standards of governmental data collection. The textbook, on the other hand, is taking the long, scholarly, and culturally relativistic view (Scupin 58) of a population under ongoing study.

This web source, as credible as it appears to be from all available information, highlights the persistent problem with internet resources. Although this is not the case here, because the ‘DNA’ and sources of the article are visible in the links, we often do not know what the agenda of the writer is, and therefore their stance on any issue. Without knowing what the background and aims of the site are, it is easy to be misled by selective choices of data. Although in the context of researching for a class like this, we are required, and reminded to check our sources and follow links, thereby seeing that the policy perspective of the above-described site shapes the use of anthropological data, most people, most of the time, probably do not, and this exposes the internet-using public to deception.

Works Cited

Bier, Stephanie. “Conflict and Human Rights in the Amazon: The Yanomami.” 2005. American University: Mandala Project: The Inventory of Conflict & Environment (ICE). Ed. James R. Lee. Web.

Scupin, Raymond. Cultural Anthropology: A Global Perspective. 7. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2008. Print.

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  1. The overall project is titled The Inventory of Conflict & Environment (ICE). This is, in turn, part of a still larger project called the Mandala Project. This project is the brainchild of Dr. James R. Lee of the American University School of International Service.
  2. Ms. Bier went on to graduate work, and as of 2008 she also authored and presented a paper entitled The European Court of Justice and Member State Relations: A Constructivist Analysis of the European Legal Order at the University Of Maryland.
  3. However, the textbook conveys the reports of individuals, exactly as one might expect of an anthropologist: “In August 1993, gold miners massacred Yanomamo men, women, and children in Venezuela. After the attack, a Yanomamo leader described the massacre: “Many miners surrounded the lodge and started to kill Yanomamo. The women were cut in the belly, the breasts, in the neck. I saw many bodies piled up” (Scupin 331).
  4. Contrast this with the article’s more cut-and-dried reporting of what is, one might safely infer, the same event: “July 1993 – 16 Yanomami are killed in the Haximu territory on the Venezuelan/Brazilian border by Brazilian garimpeiros.” (Bier).
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StudyCorgi. 2021. "Cultural Anthropology: The Yanomami Tribe." January 27, 2021.


StudyCorgi. (2021) 'Cultural Anthropology: The Yanomami Tribe'. 27 January.

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