The Yanomamo are a tribal people living in the lowland forests of South America. Yanomamo culture is one culture that eats parts of the bodies of their dead relatives or sometimes they mix the ashes of their dead relatives with water and drink it. This can be termed “Mortuary Cannibalism.” It is intended to allow the dead to remain part of the living. For the Yanomamo and for some other lowland forest people in South America not consuming the ashes of the dead is considered very unkind and insensitive!
Today there are estimated to be about 35,000 or so Yanomamo living in 200-250 scattered villages near the borderlands of Brazil and Venezuela. Their name comes from their word “yanomami” which means “human being.” These people were first reported in 1759 by the Spanish explorer Apolinar Diaz de la Fuente when he encountered the Ye’Kuana people on the Padamo River. In his writing about them he notes how a Uramanavi chieftain told him he and his people had traveled the Orinoco to its headwaters to make war against a people known as the Guaharibo Indians (aka: Yanomami). The chieftain told Diaz that these people were not very brave and would make friends with any kind of Indian.
The Yanomamo do NOT recognize themselves as a united people but rather as individuals associated with their villages which are autonomous. These villages are grouped together based on kinship, similarities, and military alliances. Mature males hold most of the political and religious authority among the Yanomamo. Each village is headed by a “tuxwana” who is the “headman” of “chief.”
The Yanomamo have a tendency toward acting violently towards other tribes and towards each other. Anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon described them as living in a state of chronic warfare. Other accounts also portray them as violent and warlike. Violence is one of the leading causes of death in Yanomamo culture. Yanomamo tribes raid other tribes and they often rape women and beat them. Wives are allowed to be beaten as the male sees fit and they are allowed to brand their women. These things are seen in Yanomamo culture as showing a man’s dominance and strength over his wife. Further, Yanomamo males will often kill children in their raids on enemy villages.
When Chagnon first encountered the Yanomamo anthropology still held the idea of the “noble savage” which was the belief that tribal people lived in peace and harmony with one another but Chagnon proved that was far from being the truth! Further, almost all wars among the Yanomamo are over women and the males are highly concerned about their status. Males have a code of honor in Yanomamo culture and it seems that the most fierce and the one with the most women are on top of the culture. Young males with many connections to older males tend to rise in the culture quickly while those with few older male connections do not.
Yanomamo males can become shamans. They are often called upon to heal the sick or to help someone in need. They are also believed to have the power to send demons to endanger enemies. The people believe the shamans can cast spells on people using plants or other means. When someone in the village is sick it is believed the sickness is the result of a spell from other shamans from the other village(s). The people believe this is achieved through the enemy shaman making their “hekura” (spirit) sicken the body. To recover the village shaman must see what is wrong and pull the demon out of the ill person. This is achieved via a ritual and the inhaling of “yapo” to contact the sick persons “hekura.” The making and use of herbal medicines is also employed including the use of hallucinogenics.
The Yanomamo believe they come from the “first beings who lived on the Earth. These first beings on Earth departed for “hedu” after a major disaster in which most of them were killed. This was the end of the “first beings” and brought about the creation of the “fierce people.” The “fierce people” had a hunger for meat, rape, and cannibalism. Cooperation and sharing are absent!
The Yanomamo Creation Legend says that a Yanomamo mother kept her knowledge of fruit cultivation secret. She gave a piece of fruit to her child who then dies. Another woman hungry for meat then asks the mother if she can eat the child and her request is granted. In turn the father of the eaten child eats the mother of the eaten child, his wife. This man is killed by the sons of the mother who then develop a powerful sexual hunger and to satisfy it the sons then rape the daughter of another “first being”. The girl’s vagina becomes a mouth that bites off the penis of the next male who seduces her. One of the brother’s sons then becomes very thirsty so the father dug a hole but he dug it to deep and water gushed forth causing a GREAT FLOOD. In this GREAT FLOOD many of the “first beings” were drowned and those who survived it did so by climbing up high mountains which is why some say the “first beings” ended “up in the sky” (the hedu). The mother and the girl who had been raped plunge into a deep pool and are changed into serpent-like monsters by one of the brothers. To this day the Yanomamo are fearful of crossing large rivers because they fear these serpent beings will eat them or create large waves of water.
The Yanomamo believe one of the “first beings” to survive all this is the Moon Spirit who came down to the Earth to eat the souls of children after this calamity. Some “earth beings” managed to pierce the flesh of the Moon Spirit with an arrow causing him to bleed profusely. His blood hit the earth and a large population of men but NOT women were born. Most of the Yanomamo today believe themselves to be these offspring of the blood of the Moon Spirit. They note that wherever the Moon Spirit’s blood fell the most on the earth is where war raged intensely and the people in those areas annihilated each other but where his blood did not fall so much is where the people were less fierce and so those people did not go “extinct.” The most docile Yanomamo are believed to have been created from the right leg of these “blood men” and women were created from the left legs of these same “blood men.” In the Yanomamo mind there are, thus, three types of Yanomamo: fierce men, docile men, and women.
Only men are believed to have survived this great flood. But the raped girls mother is also believed to have survived it. What is suggested in all this, say some anthropologists, is a group of men from somewhere else came into the Yanomamo lands and raped the women and killed the men and created a new tribe of people known as the Yanomamo we find today.
The Yanomamo also are animists believing plants and animals have spirits. They believe one of their gods named “Omaama blessed them with the forest and animals. They believe the animals were once people but were made animals because of the evil things they did. The Yanomamo also believe the universe is composed of four parallel levels or layers. The top most layer (duku ka misi) is empty but ancient beings lived in it at one time and they have now dropped to lower levels. The second layer (hedu ka mis) is the sky level where the spirits of the dead dwell. It, they say, is much like the earth except all of the men and women are young and beautiful. Hunting is also easier and better in this second level than it is on the earth. The third level is known as Hei ka misi and the final layer as hei ta bebi (underworld). The underworld is believed to be inhabited by the “arnahi teri” who bring misfortune and harm to humans on the earth.
When a Yanomamo dies there is chanting, singing, and mourning. The body is burned by the men in the village and the women and children are forced to leave the village at this time so they don’t become polluted by the smoke of the burning body. The men then crush the bones of the burned body which are then put into gourds for year or so. After that time the people gather and hold a ceremony known as the “reahu.” During this ceremony the village people mix the ashes of the deceased in a soup and eat it. This, they believe, is a sign of respect and love for the deceased and ensures the soul of the loved one will enter into paradise in the sky.
The Jivaro people are even MORE violent than the Yanomamo and are rather renowned for their “head shrinking” abilities. The Inca could not suppress them and they openly revolted against the Spanish Conquistadors. But, these people are for another post later on.
Cannibalism turns many people’s stomachs and we like to think it is rare in human history. We think of it in terms of the Donner Party or something of the sort BUT, in fact, human cannibalism is far more frequent than most people believe or would like to believe. SOME skeletal remains from almost all ancient human ancestors show signs of being cannibalized since the dawn of man!
The Yanomamo are a very interesting people but can be a very fierce people. You will notice that this “Stone Age tribe” has its own “Flood Story” as well and flood stories are actually very common all over the world in every culture even in these “Stone Age” cultures that dwell among us today. Their culture and their beliefs shine a different light on human history and religious beliefs far different from most modern Westerners today. They busted the bubble of the “noble savage” held for so long in anthropology and exposed the war-like nature of man along with other things. As much as we’d like to believe it, man is NOT a peace-loving creature when it comes right down to it nor is he even a “moral” creature using the criteria of Western religions. We can learn much about ourselves and our species from the Yanomamo still today.