"Fierce People" redirects here. For the film, see Fierce People (film).
Yanomami woman and her child, June 1997
Total population
approximately 35,338[1]
Regions with significant populations
 Venezuela (southeastern) 16,000 (2009)
 Brazil (northern) 19,338 (2011)
Yanomaman languages

The Yanomami, also spelled Yąnomamö or Yanomama, are a group of approximately 35,000 indigenous people who live in some 200–250 villages in the Amazon rainforest on the border between Venezuela and Brazil.

Domestic life, clothing and diet

The Yanomami live in villages usually consisting of their children and extended families. Village sizes vary, but usually contain between 50 and 400 native people. In this largely communal system, the entire village lives under a common roof called the shabono. Shabonos have a characteristic oval shape, with open grounds in the center measuring an average of 100 yards (91 m). The shabono shelter constitutes the perimeter of the village, if it has not been fortified with palisades.

Under the roof, divisions exist marked only by support posts, partitioning individual houses and spaces. Shabonos are built from raw materials from the surrounding jungles, such as leaves, vines, plums and tree trunks. They are susceptible to heavy damage from rains, winds, and insect infestation. As a result, new shabonos are constructed every 4 to 6 years.

The Yanomami depend on the rainforest; they use slash-and-burn horticulture, grow bananas, gather fruit, and hunt animals and fish. Yanomami frequently move to avoid areas that become overused, a practice known as shifting cultivation when the soil becomes exhausted.

Children stay close to their mothers when young; most of the childrearing is done by women. The Yanomami are among the few societies in the world to practice true polygamy, though many unions are monogamous. Polygamous families consist of a large patrifocal family unit based on one man, and smaller matrifocal subfamilies: each woman's family unit, composed of the woman and her children. Life in the village is centered around the small, matrilocal family unit, whereas the larger patrilocal unit has more political importance beyond the village.

The Yanomami are known as hunters, fishers, and horticulturists. The women cultivate plantains and cassava in gardens as their main crops. Men do the heavy work of clearing areas of forest for the gardens. Another food source for the Yanomami is grubs.[2] Often the Yanomami will cut down palms in order to facilitate the growth of grubs. The traditional Yanomami diet is very low in edible salt. Their blood pressure is characteristically among the lowest of any demographic group.[3] For this reason, the Yanomami have been the subject of studies seeking to link hypertension to sodium consumption.

Rituals are a very important part of Yanomami culture. The Yanomami celebrate a good harvest with a big feast to which nearby villages are invited. The Yanomami village members gather large amounts of food, which helps to maintain good relations with their neighbours. They also decorate their bodies with feathers and flowers. During the feast, the Yanomami eat a lot, and the women dance and sing late into the night.

Hallucinogenic drugs, known as yekuana, are used by Yanomami shamans as part of healing rituals for members of community who are ill. Women do not engage in this practice, known as shapuri. The Yanomami people practice ritual endocannibalism, in which they consume the bones of deceased kinsmen.[4] The body is wrapped in leaves and placed in the forest some distance from the shabono, then after insects have consumed the soft tissue (usually about 30 to 45 days), the bones are collected and cremated. The ashes are then mixed with a kind of soup made from bananas which is consumed by the entire community. The ashes may be preserved in a gourd and the ritual repeated annually until the ashes are gone. In daily conversation, no reference may be made to a dead person except on the annual "day of remembrance", when the ashes of the dead are consumed and people recall the lives of their deceased relatives. This tradition is meant to strengthen the Yanomami people and keep the spirit of that individual alive.

The women are responsible for many domestic duties and chores, excluding hunting and killing game for food. Although the women do not hunt, they do work in the gardens and gather fruits, tubers, nuts and other wild foodstuffs. The garden plots are sectioned off by family, and grow bananas, plantains, sugarcane, mangoes, sweet potatoes, papayas, manioc, corn, and other crops.[5] Yanomami women cultivate until the gardens are no longer fertile, and then move their plots. Women are expected to carry 70 to 80 pounds (32 to 36 kg) of crops on their backs during harvesting, using bark straps and woven baskets.[6]

In the mornings, while the men are off hunting, the women and young children go off in search of termite nests and other grubs, which will later be roasted at the family hearths. The women also pursue frogs, land crabs, or caterpillars, or even look for vines that can be woven into baskets. While some women gather these small sources of food, other women go off and fish for several hours during the day.[7] The women also prepare manioc, shredding the roots and expressing the toxic juice, then roasting the flour to make flat cakes, which they cook over a small pile of coals.[8]

Yanomami women are expected to take responsibility for the children, who are expected to help their mothers with domestic chores from a very young age, and mothers rely very much on help from their daughters. Boys typically become the responsibility of the male members of the community after about age 8.

Using small strings of bark and roots, Yanomami women weave and decorate baskets. They use these baskets to carry plants, crops, and food to bring back to the shabono.[6] They use a red berry known as onoto or urucu to dye the baskets, as well as to paint their bodies and dye their loin cloths.[7] After the baskets are painted, they are further decorated with masticated charcoal pigment.[9]

Female puberty and menstruation

Main article: Yanomami women

The start of menstruation symbolizes the beginning of womanhood. Girls typically get their periods between the ages of 10 and 12, and as soon as the period begins, girls are married off. Due to the belief that menstrual blood is poisonous and dangerous, girls are kept hidden away in a small tent-like structure constructed of a screen of leaves. A deep hole is built in the structure over which girls squat, to "rid themselves" of their blood. These structures are regarded as isolation screens.[10]

The mother is notified immediately, and she, along with the elder female friends of the girl, are responsible for disposing of her old cotton garments and must replace them with new ones symbolizing her womanhood and availability for betrothal.[10] During the week of that first menstrual period the girl is fed with a stick, for she is forbidden from touching the food in any way. While on confinement she has to whisper when speaking and she may only speak to close kin, such as siblings or parents, but never a male.[4]

Up until the time of menstruation, girls are treated as children, and are only responsible for assisting their mothers in household work. When they approach the age of menstruation, they are sought out by men as potential wives. Puberty is not seen as a significant time period with male Yanomami children, but it is considered very important for females. After menstruating for the first time, the girls are expected to leave childhood and enter adulthood, and take on the responsibilities of a grown Yanomami woman. After a young girl gets her period, she is forbidden from showing her genitalia and must keep herself covered with a loincloth.[4]

The menstrual cycle of Yanomami women does not occur frequently due to constant nursing or child birthing, and is treated as a very significant occurrence only at this time.[11]


Main article: Yanomam languages

The Yanomam language family comprises four main languages (or major dialects): Yanam, Sanumá, Yanomámi and Yanomamö. Many local variations and dialects also exist, such that people from different villages cannot always understand each other. Many linguists consider the Yanomaman family to be a language isolate, unrelated to other South American indigenous languages. The origins of the language are obscure.


In early anthropological studies the Yanomami culture was described as being permeated with violence. The Yanomami people have a history of acting violently not only towards other tribes, but towards one another.[12][13]

An influential ethnography by anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon described the Yanomami as living in "a state of chronic warfare".[2] Chagnon's account and similar descriptions of the Yanomami as aggressive and warlike sparked controversy in anthropology and an enormous interest in the Yanomami. The debate centered around the degree of violence in Yanomami society, the question of whether violence and warfare could be seen as an inherent part of Yanomami culture, or whether it was better explained as a response to specific historical situations. Writing in 1985 anthropologist Jacques Lizot, who had lived among the Yanomami for more than twenty years, stated:
"I would like my book to help revise the exaggerated representation that has been given of Yanomami violence. The Yanomami are warriors; they can be brutal and cruel, but they can also be delicate, sensitive, and loving. Violence is only sporadic; it never dominates social life for any length of time, and long peaceful moments can separate two explosions. When one is acquainted with the societies of the North American plains or the societies of the Chaco in South America, one cannot say that Yanomami culture is organized around warfare as Chagnon does"[14]
Anthropologists working in the ecologist tradition such as Marvin Harris, argued that a culture of violence had evolved among the Yanomami through competition resulting from a lack of nutritional resources in their territory.[15][16] However the 1995 study, "Yanomami Warfare" by R. Brian Ferguson, examined all documented cases of warfare among the Yanomami and concluded that:
"Although some Yanomami really have been engaged in intensive warfare and other kinds of bloody conflict, this violence is not an expression of Yanomami culture itself. It is, rather, a product of specific historical situations: The Yanomami make war not because Western culture is absent, but because it is present, and present in certain specific forms. All Yanomami warfare that we know about occurs within what Neil Whitehead and I call a "tribal zone", an extensive area beyond state administrative control, inhabited by nonstate people who must react to the far-flung effects of the state presence."[17]
Ferguson stresses the fact that contrary to Chagnon's description of the Yanomami as unaffected by Western culture, the Yanomami experienced the effects of colonization long before their territory became accessible to Westerners in the 1950s, and that they had acquired many influences and materials from Western culture through trade networks, much earlier.[12]

Violence is one of the leading causes of Yanomami death. Up to half of all of Yanomami males die violent deaths in the constant conflict between neighboring communities over local resources. Often these confrontations lead to the Yanomami leaving their villages in search of new ones.[10] Women are often victims of physical abuse and anger. Inter-village warfare is common, but does not too commonly affect women. When Yanomami tribes fight and raid nearby tribes, women are often raped, beaten, and brought back to the shabono to be adopted into the captor's community. Wives may be beaten frequently, so as to keep them docile and faithful to their husbands.[12] Sexual jealousy causes much of the violence.[11] Women are beaten with clubs, sticks, machetes, and other blunt or sharp objects. Burning with a branding stick occurs often, and symbolizes a male’s strength or dominance over his wife.[4]

Yanomami men have been known to kill children while raiding enemy villages.[18] Helena Valero, a Brazilian woman kidnapped by Yanomami warriors in the 1930s, witnessed a Karawetari raid on her tribe:

"They killed so many. I was weeping for fear and for pity but there was nothing I could do. They snatched the children from their mothers to kill them, while the others held the mothers tightly by the arms and wrists as they stood up in a line. All the women wept... The men began to kill the children; little ones, bigger ones, they killed many of them."[18]


In the mid-1970s, garimpeiros (small independent gold-diggers) started to enter the Yanomami country. Where these garimpeiros settled, they killed members of the Yanomami tribe in conflict over land. In addition, mining techniques by the garimpeiros led to environmental degradation. In 1990, more than 40,000 garimpeiros had entered the Yanomami land.[19] In 1992, the government of Brazil led by Fernando Collor de Mello demarcated an indigenous Yanomami area on the recommendations of Brazilian anthropologists and Survival International, a campaign that started in the early 1970s. Non-Yanomami people continue to enter the land. The Brazilian and Venezuelan governments do not have adequate enforcement programs to prevent the entry of outsiders into this land.[20]

Ethical controversy has arisen about Yanomami blood taken for study by scientists such as Napoleon Chagnon and his associate James Neel. Although Yanomami religious tradition prohibits the keeping of any bodily matter after the death of that person, the donors were not warned that blood samples would be kept indefinitely for experimentation. Several prominent Yanomami delegations have sent letters to the scientists who are studying them, demanding the return of their blood samples. These samples are currently being taken out of storage for shipping to the Amazon as soon as the scientists can figure out whom to deliver them to and how to prevent any potential health risks for doing so.[21]

Members of the Secrets of the Tribe.

Haximu Massacre

Main article: Haximu massacre

The Haximu Massacre (or Yanomami Massacre) was an armed conflict in 1993, just outside Haximu, Brazil, close to the border with Venezuela. A group of garimpeiros (gold miners) killed approximately 16 Yanomami. In turn, Yanomami warriors killed at least two garimpeiros and wounded two more.

In July 2012 the government of Venezuela investigated another alleged massacre. According to the Yanomami, a village of eighty people was attacked by a helicopter and the only known survivors of the village are three men who happened to be out hunting while the attack occurred.[23] However in September 2012 Survival International, who had been supporting the Yanomami in this allegation, retracted it after journalists could find no evidence to support the claim.[24]

Groups working for the Yanomami

UK-based non-governmental organization Survival International has created global awareness-raising campaigns on the human rights situation of the Yanomami people.[25]

The US-based World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has created a play to convey what is happening to the people and their natural environment in the Amazon rainforest. It tells of Yanomami tribesmen/tribeswomen living in the Amazon and has been published and performed by many drama groups around the world.

The German-based non-governmental organization Yanomami-Hilfe eV is building medical stations and schools for Yanomami in Venezuela and Brazil.[26] Founder Christina Haverkamp crossed in 1992 the Atlantic ocean on a self-made bamboo raft in order to draw attention to the continuing oppression of the Yanomami people.[27]

The Brazilian-based Yanomami formed their own indigenous organization Hutukara Associação Yanomami, and website.[28]

David Good, a Yanomami-American (son of the anthropologist Kenneth Good and his wife Yarima) set up The Good Project to help support the future of the Yanomami people.[29]

In popular culture

  • Peter Rose and Anne Conlon, Yanomamo, a musical entertainment published by Josef Weinberger, London (1983)
  • The tribe is mentioned in episode 11, Eye Spy, of NCIS (TV series). The chief medical examiner, "Ducky", states that "Only 9% of the world's population is left-handed. Interestingly, that percentage has remained the same since prehistoric times. ... Curiously enough, the Yanomami tribe in the Amazon are 23% left-handed."[32]
  • The episode "Dethcarraldo" from season 2 of the television show Metalocalypse features the "Yannemango", an Amazon jungle tribe depicted as similar to the Yanomami.
  • The 2007 album Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon by Devendra Banhart includes the song "Tonada Yanomaminista".
  • The 2008 Christian movie Yai Wanonabälewä: The Enemy God has featured one of the Yanomami in the telling of the history and culture of his people.[33]
  • The 2002 novel Fierce People by Dirk Wittenborn features the Yanomami people.
  • The 1996-CD album Ocean of Sound compilation by David Toop Yanomami Rain Song recorded by Toop. Virgin Records
  • The 1984 novel The Sword and the Chain (second book in the Guardians of the Flame series) mentions the Yanamamo reputation for violence to visitors as unique among human cultures

See also

Venezuela portal
Brazil portal


Further reading

  • "Savages, The Life And Killing of the Yanomami"
  • Chagnon, Napoleon. Ya̧nomamö (formerly titled Ya̧nomamö: The Fierce People)
  • Good, Kenneth; with Chanoff, David. Into The Heart: One Man's Pursuit of Love and Knowledge Among the Yanomami.
  • Lizot, Jacques. Tales of the Yanomami.
  • Milliken, William; Albert, Bruce. Yanomami: A Forest People.
  • Pancorbo, Luis. "El banquete humano. Una historia cultural del canibalismo". Siglo XXI de España, Madrid, 2008. ISBN 978-84-323-1341-7
  • Pancorbo, Luis. Amazonas, último destino, Edelvives, Madrid, 1990. ISBN 84-263-1739-1
  • Pancorbo, Luis. Plumas y Lanzas. Lunverg-RTVE, Madrid, 1990. ISBN 84-7782-093-7
  • Peters, John Fred. Life Among the Yanomami: The Story of Change Among the Xilixana on the Mucajai River in Brazil. University of Toronto Press, 1998. ISBN 978-1-55111-193-3
  • Ramos, Alcida. Sanuma Memories.
  • Wittenborn, Dirk. Fierce People.
  • O'Hanlon, Redmond. In Trouble Again: A Journey Between the Orinoco and the Amazon.
  • Valero, Helena. Yanoama: The Story of Helena Valero, a Girl Kidnapped by Amazonian Indians. An eyewitness account of a captive who came of age in the tribe.
  • Ritchie, Mark Andrew. Spirit of the Rainforest: A Yanomamo Shaman's Story. ISBN 0-9646952-3-5
  • Smiljanic, Maria Inês. "Os enviados de Dom Bosco entre os Masiripiwëiteri. O impacto missionário sobre o sistema social e cultural dos Yanomami ocidentais (Amazonas, Brasil.)", Journal de la Société des Américanistes, 2002, pp. 137–158.
  • Tierney, Patrick. Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon.
  • Wallace, Scott. "Napoleon in Exile," National Geographic Adventure, April 2002, pp. 52–61, 98–100.

External links

  • Survival International's Yanomami page
  • Projectgood.net, official website of the The Good Project
  • Hutukara.org, official website of the Yanomami Indians and the Hutukara Association
  • Indigenous Peoples of Brazil—Yanomami