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Author of the week: Napoleon Chagnon

Anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon was once the butt of an unusual practical joke.

Anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon was once the butt of an unusual practical joke, said Jacki Lyden in NPR.org. In 1964, when the young scholar ventured into the Amazon rain forest to study an indigenous Yanomamo tribe, he worked hard at first to learn the names of his hosts, not knowing that to call a person by name was taboo. But he was still in the dark about that code when he visited another Yanomamo settlement and made a reference to the leader of his host village and the leader’s wife. His listeners burst out laughing. The names he’d been given, it turns out, were slang words for genitalia. “They just had a rip-roaring great deal of fun about that,” he says.

Many fellow anthropologists haven’t been amused by Chagnon’s jungle stories, said Serena Golden in Inside Higher Education. He first stirred controversy by insisting that violence is central to the lives of the Yanomamo he observed, and eventually was accused by peers of having incited violence and even of spreading disease to bolster his theories. Though his 500-page new memoir, Noble Savages, is partly an attempt to set the record straight, he accepts that he’ll probably always be a divisive figure. “People are very interested in the misfortunes of others who have had a little more success in life than they have had, and tend to be willing to accept stories that imply that they got ahead by dishonesty, cheating, subterfuge, or unfair privilege.” He also has a simpler hypothesis: “Some people say that I have the kind of face that people want to punch.”

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