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definition - Yąnomamö

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Ya̧nomamö children
Regions with significant populations
Venezuela, Brazil

Yanomaman languages



The Ya̧nomamö are a large population of indigenous Amerindian people in South America. They reside in the Amazon rainforest, among the hills that line the border between Brazil and Venezuela. Due to the remoteness of their residence, they had remained largely uncontacted by the outside world until the beginning of the 20th century. This allowed them to retain several aspects of their culture that factors such as population explosion and growth in material wealth have eradicated from the rest of the world. As a result, the Ya̧nomamö have come to be one of the most widely studied groups by modern science.[citation needed]

The word Ya̧nomamö means 'human being' in their language. A United States anthropologist popularized its use as an exonym to refer to the culture and its people. The word is supposed to be pronounced with thorough nasalisation. As the phonetic sound 'ö' does not occur in English, there has been variation in accounts of how Ya̧nomamö is spelled and pronounced. Some anthropologists had published the spelling Yanomamɨ, but because many presses and typesetters eliminate the diacritical marks, an incorrect pronunciation of 'Yanomamee' has emerged.

This article largely describes a Ya̧nomamö way of life that existed prior to the 1960s. Sustained contact with missionaries, government officials, miners, journalists, tourists, anthropologists and others has led to significant changes to this way of life. Significant variations may exist from village to village. There are always individuals and communities who are exceptions; thus, deviations from the content below may be observed by visitors.


Domestic life, clothing and diet

Ya̧nomamö shabono

The Ya̧nomamö live in villages usually consisting of their kin and marriageable lineages (see below). Village sizes vary, but usually contain between 50 and 400 people. In this largely communal system, the entire village lives under a common roof called the shabono. Shabonos have a characteristic oval shape, with open grounds in the center measuring an average of 100 yards. The shabono itself constitutes the perimeter of the village, if it has not been fortified with palisade walls.

Under the roof, divisions exist marked only by support posts, partitioning individual houses and spaces. Shabonos are built from raw materials from the surrounding jungles, such as leaves, vines and tree trunks. They are susceptible to heavy damage from rains, winds, and insect infestation. As a result, villagers build new shabonos every 1 to 2 years.

The Ya̧nomamö depend on the forest; they use "slash-and-burn" horticulture, grow bananas, gather fruit, and hunt animals and fish. Ya̧nomamö frequently move to avoid areas that become overused — a practice known as shifting cultivation.

Children stay close to their mother; most of the child rearing is done by women. The Ya̧nomamö practiced polygyny (though many unions were monogamous). Polygamous families consisted of a large patrifocal family unit based on one man, and smaller matrifocal sub-families: each woman's family unit, composed of the woman and her children. Life in the village is centered around the small, matrilocal family unit, whereas the larger patrilocal unit has more political importance beyond the village.

The Ya̧nomamö are known as hunters, fishers, and horticulturists, cultivating as their main crops plantains and cassava in "gardens", areas of the forest cleared for cultivation. Another food source for the Ya̧nomamö is grubs.[1] Traditionally they did not farm. The practice of felling palms to facilitate the growth of grubs was the Ya̧nomamö's closest approach to cultivation. The traditional Ya̧nomamö diet is very low in salt. Their blood pressure is characteristically among the lowest of any demographic group.[2] For this reason, the Ya̧nomamö have been the subject of studies seeking to link hypertension to sodium consumption.

The Ya̧nomamö celebrate a good harvest with a big feast to which nearby villages are invited. The Ya̧nomamö members gather huge amounts of food, which helps to maintain good relations with their neighbors. They also decorate their bodies with feathers and flowers. During the feast the Ya̧nomamö eat a lot, and the women dance and sing late into the night.


A Yanomamo Indian in the documentary film Magical Death

In the Ya̧nomamö language Gŭycan, if a vowel is phonetically nasalized, then all vowels after it in the word are also nasalized. So if the ogonek—the symbol denoting nasalized vowels—is written under the first vowel, the whole word is nasalized. All the vowels in the Ya̧nomamö language can be made nasal, but it is unclear whether they are phonemically nasal or nasal just because of the nasal consonants. Also, consonants can be accented with the closing of the epiglottis to form a "flat" sounding consonant; an example of this is 'Maţ' (epiglottis closed), meaning 'bone', while 'Mat' (quasi-soft 't' sound with an open throat) means 'rain'.

There are many variations and dialects of the language, such that people from different villages cannot always understand each other. Linguists believe the Ya̧nomamö language is unrelated to any other South American indigenous languages. The origins of the language are unknown.

It should be noted that "Ya̧nomamö" is not what the Yanomamo call themselves (an autonym), but rather it is a word in their language meaning 'man'. American anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon adopted this as an exonym to refer to the culture and, by extension, the people.


Historically, more than a third of the Ya̧nomamö males, on average, died from warfare.[3] The scholar Chagnon claimed that men who participated in killings had more wives and children than those who did not.[1] Some Ya̧nomamö men, however, reflected on the futility of their feuds and made it known that they would have nothing to do with the raiding.[1] These findings, originally reported by Chagnon, have been empirically replicated several times.[4]

The accounts of missionaries to the area have told of constant infighting by men in the tribes for women or prestige. There is historical evidence of continuous warfare for the enslavement of neighboring tribes, such as the Macu, before the arrival of European settlers and government.


(See Gold mining)
In the mid-1970s, garimpeiros (small independent gold-diggers) started to enter the Ya̧nomamö country. They killed members of the Ya̧nomamö tribe in conflict over land, where they settled. In addition, mining techniques by the garempeiros led to environmental degradation. In 1990, more than 40,000 garimpeiros entered the Ya̧nomamö land.[citation needed] In 1992, the president of Brazil, Collor de Mello, accepted the opening of a Ya̧nomamö Park founded by Brazilian anthropologists and Survival International, a project that started in the early 1970s.

Today, non-Ya̧nomamö people continue to enter the land. The Brazilian and Venezuelan governments do not have adequate enforcement programs to prevent the entry of outsiders into this land.[citation needed].

Ethical controversy has arisen about Ya̧nomamö blood taken for study by scientists such as Napoleon Chagnon and his associate James Neel. Although Ya̧nomamö religious tradition prohibits the keeping of any bodily matter after the death of that person, the donors were not warned that blood samples would be kept indefinitely for experimentation. Several prominent Ya̧nomamö delegations have sent letters demanding the return of their blood samples to the scientists who are studying them. While the scientists have promised to return or destroy the samples, years have passed without confirmed action.[citation needed]

Members of the American Anthropological Association weighed in on a dispute that has divided their discipline, voting 846 to 338 to rescind a 2002 report on allegations of misconduct by scholars' studying the Ya̧nomamö people. The dispute has raged since Patrick Tierney published Darkness in El Dorado in 2000. The book charged that anthropologists had repeatedly caused harm—and in some cases, death—to members of the Ya̧nomamö people whom they had studied in the 1960s in Venezuela and Brazil.[5]

Haximu Massacre

The Haximu Massacre (or Yanomami Massacre) was an armed conflict in 1993, just outside Haximu, Brazil (close to the border with Venezuela). Approximately 16 Ya̧nomamö were killed by a group of garimpeiros.

In a newsletter published on August 7 2006, the Indianist Missionary Council reported that:

"In a plenary session, the [Brazilian] Supreme Federal Court (STF) reaffirmed that the crime known as the Haximu massacre [perpetrated on the Ya̧nomamö in 1993]"[6] was a genocide [...] It was a unanimous decision made during the judgment of Extraordinary Appeal (RE) 351487 [7]

Commenting on the case, the NGO Survival International said,

"The UN convention on genocide, ratified by Brazil, states that the killing 'with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group' is genocide. The Supreme Court ruling is highly significant and sends an important warning to those who continue to commit crimes against indigenous peoples in Brazil."[6]


The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has created a play to convey what is happening to the people and their natural environment in the Amazon rainforest. It tells of a Yanomamo tribesman/tribeswoman living in the Amazon. It has been published and performed by many drama groups around the world.

See also

Venezuela portal


  1. ^ a b c Yanomamo: The Fierce People(Chagnon 1998; Chagnon 1992; Chagnon 1983)
  2. ^ "Yanomami Indians in the INTERSALT study" (accessed 14 January,2007)
  3. ^ Keeley: War before civilization: The myth of the peaceful savage
  4. ^ (Ember, 1978; Keeley, 1996; Knauft, 1987)
  5. ^ "Never Mind", Inside Higher Ed
  6. ^ a b Supreme Court upholds genocide ruling, Survival International 4 August 2006
  7. ^ Federal Court is competent to judge the Haximu genocide Indianist Missionary Council

Further reading

  • Dennison Berwick, "Savages, The Life And Killing of the Yanomani" [1]
  • Napoleon Chagnon, Ya̧nomamö (formerly titled: "Ya̧nomamö: The Fierce People")
  • Kenneth Good with David Chanoff, Into The Heart: One Man's Pursuit of Love and Knowledge Among the Yanomami
  • Jacques Lizot, Tales of the Yanomami
  • Wiliam Milliken and Bruce Albert, Yanomami: A Forest People
  • (2008) Luis Pancorbo, "El banquete humano. Una historia cultural del canibalismo". Siglo XXI de España, Madrid. ISBN 978-84-323-1341-7 – (1990)Amazonas, último destino, Edelvives, Madrid. ISBN 84-263-1739-1 – (1990)Plumas y Lanzas. Lunverg-RTVE, Madrid. ISBN 84-7782-0937
  • Alcida Ramos, Sanuma Memories
  • Dirk Wittenborn, Fierce People
  • Redmond O'Hanlon, In Trouble Again: A Journey Between the Orinoco and the Amazon
  • Helena Valero, Yanoama: The Story of Helena Valero, a Girl Kidnapped by Amazonian Indians, an eyewitness account of a captive who came of age in the tribe.
  • Mark Andrew Ritchie, Spirit of the Rainforest: A Yanomamo Shaman's Story (ISBN 0-9646952-3-5)
  • Maria Inês Smiljanic, "Os enviados de Dom Bosco entre os Masiripiwëiteri. O impacto missionário sobre o sistema social e cultural dos Yanomami ocidentais (Amazonas, Brasil.)", Journal de la Société des Américanistes, 2002, 88, pp. 137-158**[2]
  • Patrick Tierney. Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon

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