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.