Yanomamö - Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Each Yanomamö village is an autonomous political entity, free to make war or peace with other villages. Coalitions between villages are important; nevertheless, such coalitions tend to be fragile and ephemeral. Although the Yanomamö are an egalitarian people, age, sex, and personal accomplishments are important in status differentiation. High status is acquired through valor in combat, accomplished oratory, and expertise in shamanism. High status cannot be inherited; it must be earned. Mature men virtually monopolize positions of political authority and religious practice. Local descent groups play important roles in regulating marriages and settling disputes within the village.

Political Organization. The village headman is the dominant political leader and comes from the largest local patrilineage. When a village is large or when two local descent groups are approximately equal in size, a village may have several headmen. To be a successful leader, the headman must rely on demonstrated skills in settling disputes, representing the interests of his lineage and dealing with allies and enemies. Styles of leadership vary: some headmen lead through practiced verbal skills, whereas others resort to bullying tactics. Concerted action requires the consensus of adult males. An individual is free, however, to desert from collective action if it suits him.

Social Control. Conflicts typically arise from accusations of adultery, failure to deliver a betrothed woman, personal affronts, stinginess, or thefts of coveted garden crops such as tobacco and peach-palm fruits. For men, if such a conflict moves beyond a boisterous shouting match, a variety of graded, formal duel may occur. If a fight becomes serious, respected men may intervene to cool tempers and prevent others from participating. Frequently, a duel ends in a draw, with each contestant preserving his dignity. For women, dueling is rare. Instead, a direct attack is made by the aggrieved using hands and feet or makeshift weapons.

Conflict. Warfare or feuding is endemic among the Yanomamö. Although the initial cause of a conflict may frequently be traced to a sexual or marital issue, feuds as such are self-perpetuating because the Yanomamö lack any formal mechanisms to prevent aggrieved parties from exacting the amount of vengeance or countervengeance they deem sufficient once a conflict has started. The primary vengeance unit is the lineage, but coresident nonkin have some obligation to assist since coresidence with a feuding faction is seen as implicit support of the faction by the faction's enemies. Most combat is in the form of surreptitious raids. The goal is to quickly dispatch as many of the enemy as possible (who are frequently found on the outskirts of the village engaging in mundane activities), abduct nubile women if possible, and return quickly home. Although the primary goal is to kill mature men believed to be responsible for a previous depredation or their patrilineal kin, unrelated covillagers may be killed if there is no safe opportunity to kill primary targets. Endemic warfare has a profound effect on politics and settlement size and location. Each village needs at least one allied village it can call upon for assistance if it is overmatched by a more powerful enemy, and village size and distance between villages tend to increase with the intensity of conflict. Peace between villages may develop if conflict has remained dormant for a long period, and there is a mutual need for an alliance in the face of a common enemy. It begins with a series of ceremonially festive visits. If old antagonisms do not flare, visits may lead to joint raids and intermarriage between villages that strongly solidify an alliance. Proximity of missions and government agencies has had little impact on warfare.

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