Yanomamoo Essay

This essay has a total of 2998 words and 13 pages.


Yanomamo: People of the Rainforest
Paper by Becca Weiner, Lisa Bucci and Ilana Schonfeld-Hicks
Yanomamo Child

Located in the Amazon Basin of Southern Venezuela and Northern Brazil, the Yanomamo are an
indigenous group numbering close to 23,000. They utilize slash and burn horticulture,
hunting and gathering to survive within their ecosystem. Napoleon Chagnon termed the
group, "fierce people", citing their numerous disputes within non-allied villages. Aside
from their periodic warfare, they have managed to build and sustain their unique culture
through adaptations to their environment for generations.

Family Organization

Yanomamo families may live together as simply nuclear, polygnous, or extended (Ramos 1995,
188). Each house may have somewhere between one to six family compartments (Ramos 1995,
36). Alcida Rita Ramos explains that the nuclear family is very often so entangled in the
web of kinship that, in order to define it, it is necessary to go through relatives who
are primary neither to the husband nor to the wife (1995, 188). She states, "the wife may
be the mother of a mans children, the daughter of his mothers brother, and the daughter of
his fathers sister" (1995, 188). Frank A Salamone further explains the confusing kinship
system they maintain by explaining that children of siblings of the opposite sex on both
mothers and fathers side is the preferred marriage termed "bilateral cross-cousin
marriage" (1997, 40). Apparently, another explanation for the difficulty in defining
direct and indirect kin among the Yanomamo is in part due to their use of Teknonymy
(Salamone 1997, 42). Ramos explains that Teknonymy does not allow for the use of personal
names, meaning individuals are referred to, for example, as 'daughter of Suli' or 'husband
of Suli' (1995, 188). In families, men do outrank women in status (Salamone 1997, 48).
Women have little, if anything, to say about to whom they are married since marriages are
often arranged for them before puberty (Salamone 1997, 40). Marriages are viewed as a
mechanism to set up and strengthen relationships between family groups, though men are
actually allowed to beat their wives (Salamone 1997, 40).

Political Organization

Their are approximately 22,500 Yanomamo spread among roughly 225 villages in the Amazon
Basin (Salamone 1997, 34). Each village acts autonomously, but has alliances with other
villages that carry on warfare periodically with disputing villages (Salamone 1997, 47).
Salamone explains that no single person leads a Yanomamo village and political decisions
are made by individual villages by consensus (1997,47). He further explains that though a
number of researchers refer to the Yanomamo as an egalitarian society, the Yanomamo see
themselves as more of an achievement based society in which people may gain prestigious
status, though no one person can speak for the group (1997, 47). To support this claim,
Ramos identifies the Yanomamo community as its most meaningful political unit, with the
village as its territorial base (1995, 109). Interesting to note also, is Salamone's
argument that trade acts as an integral part of their political process. He explains that
trade "helps insure peace between otherwise independent villages and provides a stimulus
to the Yanomamo's main political forum, the intervillage feast where many political issues
are resolved through trade and marriage arrangements" (1997, 48).

Physical Geography and Climate

The Yanomamo live in the tropical rainforests of Brazil and Venezuela. Their villages are
centered around Sierra Parima and range east to west from the Rio Orinoco and its
tributaries to the tributaries of Uraricoera-Branco (Smoles 7). This region is fairly
mountainous with altitudes ranging from 374 to more than 7700 feet above sea level. The
average temperature is 80 degree Fahrenheit. The maximum temperature is about 91 degrees,
while monthly averages range from 76 degrees in July to 84 degrees in March (Smoles 34).
Average annual rainfall exceeds 140 inches, which is evenly distributed throughout the
year. Most heavy rains tend to occur after 3pm, but it rains at all hours of the night and
day (Smoles 34). The rainforests that the Yanomamo inhabit include both riverine lowland
and tropical highland. Both habitat subtypes contain huge vine-covered trees and are
relatively free of underbrush. Warm and damp all year round, these forests smell faintly
of decaying organic matter and are filled with the constant drone of insects and frequent
calls of birds and monkeys (Smoles 9). pretty view


The top soil of these tropical rainforests is an acidic and nutrient poor type of soil
called laterite. Without the protective shading of forest vegetation, it quickly dries;
irreversibly clumping into hard masses called ironstone. Erosion and the leaching of
minerals also endanger the thin tropical soil (Moore, et al). To deal with these hazards,
the Yanomamo practice shifting cultivation and other soil conservation methods.

Although the Yanomamo supplement their diet with wild plant and animal food obtained
through hunting and gathering, the bulk of their food comes from agriculture (Smoles 105).
Seventy percent of their calories come from plantains (cooked bananas) alone (Smoles 117).
The Yanomamo cultivate five major varieties of plantains ranging from red and purple
varieties to a pale yellow type. They range in size from 6 to 10 inches long (Smoles 118).
Tubers are the second most important crop. Starchy tubers such as New World yams, ocumo,
shibujurimo, sweet potatoes, and sweet manioc are the most common varieties. Additionally,
the Yanomamo grow bananas, peach palms, avacados, and papaya (Smoles 120). The Yanomamo
practice shifting cultivation (Smoles 105). This cycle begins with the selection of a site
for a new garden plot. In order to be selected, a site must be ishabena, which means "good
for growing plantains." In order to be ishabena, the site must be covered with trees that
are full height. This prevents old garden sites from being re-cleared too early and allows
the forest time to regrow (Smoles 108). When the site is cleared, the large trees are
felled, the underbrush is uprooted, and the entire clearing is burnt. The ashes provide
fertilizer and the burning kills the remaining plants and any seeds that are in the soil
to prevent the immediate regrowth of the vegetation. The Yanomamo keep no draft animals;
ashes are the only fertilizer they use (Smoles 105). The logs that remain intact after the
vegetation is burnt are not removed. They help prevent soil erosion (Smoles 108).

Several farmers typically share the work of clearing a field. Each man plants the areas he
clears. The Yanomamo prefer to make clearings in places that have a gradual slope. The
farmers recognize that each part of the slope is its own microhabitat, and they each clear
several parcels so that they will have the ideal slope and drainage conditions for each of
their crop varieties (Smoles 113).

The Yanomamo help protect the soil by mimicking the pre-existing natural environment. They
grow a variety of plant species (mentioned above) which occupy a variety of vertical
levels. This provides a closed cover that protects the soil from direct contact with the
elements, prevents the soil from turning into ironstone, and also protects the root crops
from damage (Smoles 104). None of these strategies serve to prevent the colonization of
agricultural fields by weeds, however. Within two to three years, a clearing is usually
overtaken by weeds. It is gradually abandoned, new fields are cleared, and the forest is
allowed to regrow in the older clearing (Smoles 107). New fields are commonly clustered on
the edges of existing fields with small strips of forest separating them to protect
vulnerable crops (Smoles 108)

The Yanomamo often visit their abandoned garden sites on gathering excursions. There, they
gather fruits from peach palms, plantains, bananas, papaya, bita, and kafa. Gathering is
an important component of the Yanomamo subsistence strategy. When gardens aren't producing
well, gathering temporarily becomes their major source of food. Unlike agriculture, which
is a male dominated job, gathering is open to all members of the community (Smoles 157).
Gathering parties ranging from a few households to an entire family line go out and set up
camp in an area where they might expect to find specific things to collect. Most
collecting is for food, though thatching, resins, and fibers are also harvested from the
forest (Smoles 158). Gathered food is usually brought back to the shabono or camp. These
foods include tadpoles, honey, small birds, frogs, and little fish in addition to tree
fruits (Smoles 159). Insects are a particularly important gathered food source. Insects
provide high-quality protein, which can be particularly important when hunting is not
successful (Smoles 163).

While on gathering excursions, the Yanomamo also hunt game. Abandoned garden sites are
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