My name is Eric Dunning and this is my proposal to go and study the Yanomamo tribe in the rain forests of Brazil. I have compiled a historical outline of the Yanomamo tribe and some of their religion and culture, ranging from marital status to the type of food they eat. I have chosen this tribe because according to many anthropologists the Yanomamo are perhaps the last culture to have come in contact with the modern world.
The Yanomamo people of Central Brazil are one of the oldest examples of the classic pre-Columbian forest footmen. The Yanomamo live in almost complete seclusion in the Amazon rain forests of South America. The Yanomamo live in small bands or tribes and live in round communal huts called shabonos, which are actually made up of individual living quarters. The Yanomamo language consists of a variety of dialect, but no real written language. Clothes are minimal, and much of their daily life revolves around gardening, hunting, gathering, making crafts and visiting with one another. These small tribes hold their men in high ranks. Chiefs are always men who are held responsible for the general knowledge and safety of the group’s women. The men are able to beat their wives if they feel the need to and are able to marry more than one woman at a time. This loose form of polygamy is a way of increasing the population of the tribe. Yanomamo people rely heavily on a system of political alliances based upon relationship. As part of that system, they have incorporated a complex feasting and trading system into their culture. One of these methods of forming political alliances is feasting. Feasting is when one village invites another village for a feast or dinner. During the feast there is a lot of social activity. The Yanomamo dance and mingle with each other along with eating a different variety of foods. The only catch is the other village must reciprocate a feast by one village. This feast is more like an American dinner party in which members of family or social group invite others to attend. A feast however can be dangerous and or fatal for those who attend. The Yanomamo can be very conniving and deceiving. They pretend to be loyal friends and invite the other village for a feast. The other very village very trustfully attends the feast not knowing that this might be their last meal. After the feast when the guests are helplessly resting in their hammocks they are attacked and brutally beaten to death.
The Yanomamo live in a constant state of warfare with other tribes and even within their own groups. Marriages are often arranged according to performances of one’s relatives in battles. Ideal marriages are thought to consist of cross cousin marriages and the males of the family and the religious leaders of the tribe perform all marriages. In addition to their strong kinship ties, political alliances and thirst for revenge, the Yanomamo have a detailed religion, based on the use of hallucinogenic drugs and the telling of mythical tales.
The religious beliefs of the Yanomamo are quite complex. According to Yanomamo wise men, there are four levels of reality. Through them, the Yanomamo believe that things tend to fall or descend downward to a lower layer is demonstrated. The uppermost layer of the four is thought to be “pristine” and “tender”. It is called “duku ka misi” and the Yanomamo believe that many things originated in this area. This layer does not play much of a role in the everyday life of the Yanomamo. It is considered to be just “there”, once having some vague function. The next layer down is called “hedu ka misi” and is known as the sky layer. The top surface is supposedly invisible, but is believed to be similar to earth. It has trees, gardens, villages, animals, plants and most importantly, the souls of the deceased. These souls are said to be similar to mortals because they garden, eat and sleep. Everything that exists on earth is said to have a counterpart on this level. The bottom surface of the layer is said to be what the Yanomamo on earth actually see: the visible sky. Stars and planets are attached to this bottom surface and move across it on their individual trails. Humans, or Yanomamo, dwell on what is called “this layer”, otherwise called “hei ka misi”. “This layer” was created when a chunk of hedu broke off and fell down. This layer has jungles, hills, animals, plants and people who are slightly different, variants of the Yanomamo who speak a dialect of Yanomamo that is “crooked”, or wrong. Finally, there is the surface below “this layer” which is formally called “hei ta bebi”, which the Yanomamo say is almost barren. They believe a variant of the Yanomamo live here. These people originated a long time ago when a piece of hedu broke off, crashed down to “this layer”, creating a hole and eventually falling through to become it’s own layer. Here, they have no game animals and have ruthless cannibals. They send their spirits up to “this layer” to capture the souls of children, which are carried down and eaten. In some Yanomamo villages, the shamans contend with the people on the bottom layer, attempting to discourage their cannibalistic ways. In recent years, the influence of gold miners, lumber companies and missions have altered traditional Yanomamo life. Some Yanomamo have become fluent in Spanish and have become Christians. Others have developed relationships with miners or lumberjacks and have entered the cash economy. The introduction of rifles and other western devices have influenced the way the Yanomamo live. Western diseases and medical methods have made the Yanomamo dependant on missions to survive.
In my quest to learn more from the Yanomamos I will need to bring a suffice amount of supplies. Sense the language can vary I will need a book on different languages preferably a Spanish dictionary, considering that to be the most spoken language. I will also need a tape recorder to record all the variations of dialect so that I can decipher them later. A Polaroid camera will be needed to make exchanges with the Yanomamo. I give them pictures of themselves and they in turn help me to understand their culture better and faster than without means of trade. A large food supply will be needed for I don’t know how long it will take to have studied these people and have gotten a good inside look at their everyday life. As far as clothing I hope to fit in as much as possible and not stand out so if that means wearing the standard cloth from my bed than I will.
I hope to contribute much of my knowledge to them as I hope they will to me. I think that my knowledge on medicine and engineering can help them to build stronger dwellings able to withstand the Amazon rain forests weather. I would also like to teach them simple first aid and give them simple medical supplies so that they can live through the spreading Western diseases that make there way to the Yanomamo. Perhaps even introduce some sports from the American culture, knowing that the Yanomamo people are and aggressive tribe I should probably not teach them really competitive sports, as long as I want to stay alive.
I want to contibute to the Yanomamo because hopefully they will contribute to me and we can learn from one another, without ruining the beliefs and original culture of the tribe.