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    Yanomamo: People of the Rainforest Essay

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    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 leader 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 map

    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 Subsistence 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 excellent hunting grounds. The thick cover of low vegetation and the fruit from cultivated trees attract game. Birds, monkeys, agouti, deer, and even peccary and tapir are hunted there (Smoles 155). Men have been forced to change their hunting strategies as western civilization has begun to encroach on the forests of the Yanomamo.

    In less acculturated villages, men still practice their traditional form of hunting called rama. Individual men or small groups of kinsmen carry out Rama hunting excursions. They typically leave in the morning, kill a few birds or other small animals, and return soon afterwards. These traditional villagers also participate in group hunts, called heni when preparing for a feast. Most of the men in the village will go out on these excursions, which can last more than a week (Safirio and Scaglion 1982). In more acculturated villages, game is much rarer. To be successful, more than one man must work together at tracking animals.

    It is now rare for men to hunt alone in these villages, and the meat from these group hunts is used subsistence, not feasts (Safirio and Scaglion 1982). Adaptive Behaviors The Yanomamo intensively utilize the land directly around their villages. This soon leads to lessened supplies of game in the forest and mature crops in the gardens. The depletion of their food supply has led them to develop the adaptive behavior of trekking. Trekking is an extended camping trip lasting anywhere from a couple weeks to a couple months in which the entire village travels as a whole or in smaller units.

    Each group that travels together on a trek consists of men, women and children. Trekking keeps families together; this and the extended length differentiate treks from hunting trips where men leave for a week at a time and their families remain in the village (Salamone 36). The fact that families are allowed to stay together lets them bond and lessens tensions that might arise if a man suspects his wife of cheating on him while he was away on a camping trip. Trekking provides several adaptive advantages to the Yanomamo. First, it allows them to supplement their garden diet with protein which is found more easily farther from the village.

    Second, it allows them to settle disputes in the village peacefully by different factions splitting up on different treks. Third, trekking allows the Yanomamo to explore and begin cultivation of new garden sites where they will eventually found a new village. This permits the population to split peacefully, preventing overpopulation in one area. The advantage of avoiding over dependence on their garden food source is clear. If they experience a bad crop yield because of pests, climatic factors or other causes, they have another source of food available to them.

    They are already know how to gather wild foods. When families go trekking, they take along the mature crops from their gardens and obtain the rest of their food from wild sources in the forest. The Yanomamo’s consumption of wild foods increases from 10% of their diet to nearly 70% (Good 61). This also gives them more variety in their diet. Nutritionists stress variety as an essential component of a healthy, balanced diet. The abundance of game increases as the group travels farther from the overexploited land around the village.

    Hunting on treks provides the Yanomamo with two times more meat than hunting around the villages (Salamone 36). This increased intake of protein is necessary to maintain the health of the group. When living in the village, Yanomamo typically eat small portions of meat only twice a week (Good 63). The rest of their diet consists of garden crops that are high in vitamins and minerals, but lack protein (Good 61). This necessitates that they hunt. When the game supply near the village becomes depleted, the village must go on a trek. eating meat

    The Yanomamo are known for their fierce, aggressive natures and their frequent violent disputes. Disagreements can erupt at any time within a village or between villages. If a dispute occurs within a village, it is advantageous for the village to separate into two factions, each going on separate treks. This separation gives the groups time to cool down and make peace with each other. The village splits up into smaller groups when trekking even in peacetime because wild foods are widely dispersed and it is easier to forage for a small group (Good 63). War raids can also precipitate a departure on a trek.

    Often, after a group of warriors returns from a raid, their entire village will leave on a trek to prevent a revenge killing by the victim’s kin group. Another adaptive advantage of the trekking system is that it enables different groups within the village to explore possible cultivation sites and split off into new village groups. When population pressures become too intense in the old village, it is necessary for the group to split. This may happen when the group gets into a conflict and one portion decides to leave. Otherwise, a group within the village may begin cultivating gardens at a distant site while out on a trek.

    When their gardens are producing fully, they leave the village and build a new communal village shelter near their new garden site (Good 63). Research has indicated that Yanomamo abandon the adaptive behavior of trekking when conditions change so that it is no longer necessary. Yanomamo who have migrated and settled along rivers now cultivate fields and hunt across the river from their village as well as on their bank. They also have easy access to manufactured goods and learn from outsiders how to obtain new foods such as fish (Good 64).

    These factors distribute the community’s exploitative activities, enabling them to remain in their village year round. Groups of Yanomamo who have settled along rivers depart on fewer treks than woodland communities. Some villages that have settled along the river do not trek at all. This is evidence that trekking is an adaptive response to the Yanomamo’s inland rainforest environment. When conditions change, the Yanomamo adapt to maximize their efficiency in their new environment. Risk Management A great deal of research has been done on the Yanomamo which has made them well known among western culture.

    Salamone explains that “their ‘fame’ has been a valuable weapon in their self-preservation against the inroads of threats from modernization; such as the influx of illegal gold miners and development schemes that would destroy the ecological basis of their lives” (1997, 33). Though they clearly did not intend to preserve their lifestyle though their fame, the Yanomamo do have several practices and behaviors that act as mechanisms of risk management, allowing them to regulate population and food availability in order to sustain themselves.

    As was previously stated, the Yanomamo live among a number of independent villages. Salamone explains that the spacing of the villages allows the amount of game to increase so each village has more available meat for their community (1997, 36). Another highly effective form of risk management is the Trekking they engage in, as was previously discussed. The Yanomamo spend between 40 and 60 percent of their time Trekking during the dry season (Salamone 1997, 36). Aside from helping to keep families together, trekking produces two times more food than if they simply hunted around their gardens (Salamone 1997, 36).

    Furthermore, trekking allows their fields to continue producing food and allows them to fulfill their protein needs, since their main crops of sweet potatoes, plantains, and bananas do no supply enough protein (Salamone 1997, 37). Polygamy also acts as means for survival, as it helps the villages increase the amount of help for cultivating and hunting the lands, and also keeps population up in times of warfare (Salamone 1997, 38). On the other hand, warfare can actually serve as a function of risk management because it can keep population down in the face of scarce protein supply (Salamone 1997, 38).

    Salamone states, “warfare contributed to the Yanomamo’s ability to survive within the limitation of their ecosystem” (1997, 38). The family and political organization of the Yanomamo distinguish them as a truly unique culture. Their subsistence techniques, adaptive behaviors such as trekking, and risk management strategies have helped them maintain their culture for many generations. Though their environment is harsh, and the modern world is encroaching on their boundaries, the Yanomamo continue to survive and sustain their culture.

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