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“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Yąnomamö Name Game: He Borara Chapter 9

Yanomami name gameThe Yąnomamö word for poor, hǫri, translates literally to “out of tobacco.” Sometimes, when you insist you’re hǫri to discourage a beggar, they take you to be saying just that. A man who came looking for a machete once grew exasperated at Lac’s declarations of impoverishment, and, looking disgusted, turned away and exited the hut, leaving the tobacco wad from his own mouth on the table. The Yąnomamö share with each other direct from their own mouths like this all the time, out of one and right into another; it’s no wonder epidemics tear through villages as fast as they do.

Much of the Yąnomamö’s garden space is devoted to tobacco, and they start tucking the wads beneath their bottom lips the moment they roll out of their hammocks in the morning by age seven or eight—it’s hard to tell anyone’s precise age. Tobacco is also an important trade item whenever they travel to neighboring villages for feasts. Many a time, Lac has heard some Yąnomamö complaining about his cravings—because he was truly hǫri—and, knowing something about the struggle himself, laughed his most sympathetic laugh.

 But tobacco doesn’t qualify as a currency; they don’t trade it in place of other valuables. It’s merely a commodity. Still, Lac sees how, with a few adjustments, the culture could potentially evolve to use the crop as the basis for an abstract system of exchange, with people calculating the value of every purchase in the number of tobacco wads perhaps. This would be a clear instance of the larger society evolving. It’s like language: speaking is only adaptive if there are listeners, and using tobacco as money only works when everyone accepts it as such. Dr. White and Dr. Service insist this society-wide cultural evolution is the proper focus of anthropology. In this, they’re carrying on the traditional thinking that harks back to Emile Durkheim, the original sociologist. But doesn’t natural selection operate at the level of the individual organism, in this case the individual human? Cultures, to be sure, develop over the course of their histories and in response to shifting ecologies, but that type of change is quite distinct from the change wrought by the eternal struggle for survival and reproduction.

Quite distinct? Then why, he wonders, are you having so much trouble disentangling the two threads? For entire societies to evolve organically, wouldn’t there have to be entire populations of them competing with each other, some leaving more offspring than others? That’s clearly not what’s happening when a culture transitions from, say, consuming tobacco as a commodity to using it as a currency. But both sociologists and a seeming preponderance of cultural anthropologists discuss such phenomena in just these terms. If large groups compete to recreate themselves over the generations—but what constitutes a generation for a population of societies?—then what role does competition among individuals play? Or are individual minds the environment in which the competition of cultures takes place?

Lac smiles, giving his head a subtle shake. It was handing over the cash for a bundle of cheap machetes that instigated the train of thought. He’s come to this hardware store to get as many steel tools as he can get his hands on before packing everything up and starting the trip back into Yąnomamöland tomorrow. Manufactured goods also have obvious practical value to the Yąnomamö, and these tools are in fact passed along as items of general value among people who already possess one or two of the items in question; each individual knows that other individuals will find them valuable even when they themselves don’t currently need one. Might machetes become a currency?

Laura is waiting outside by the car with Dominic and Kara, the car they borrowed from the Hofstetters, whose patriarch in nowise resembles the Hollywood heart-breaker Lac has been living in dread of, but he and his wife are plenty charming and kind nonetheless. Still, Lac wishes their help wasn’t so indispensable to his family; he feels their kindness—irrationally, he knows—as a rebuke, evidencing his inability to provide for his own wife and his own children. The sense of powerlessness is made worse by Lac’s recent discovery that Laura is burning through his grant money from the National Institute of Mental Health like wildfire—they’ll be out of cash by August unless they start budgeting more prudently.

Laura, it turns out, has acquired a fondness for the wine on offer in the low-end grocery stores of Venezuela’s capital city. After piling the machetes in the trunk and sliding into the driver’s seat, he puts the key in the ignition, exhaling as he tries to think of the most delicate way to broach the topic again.

“When you said we’d be going to study some primitive culture in the Amazon jungle,” she says to preempt him, “I never imagined it would mean me waiting for you with the kids on the campus of a giant research institution.”

He knows she’s right. He’s marooned her here. The living quarters at IVIC are splendid though. Laura has admitted she loves the view of the mountains. It really is a beautiful facility. “Chuck will be back in the village soon,” he assures her, sounding more confident than he has any right to sound. “When he gets there, I’ll feel better about bringing you and the kids to the village.”

He tells her again about the myriad dangers—insect bites, snake bites, dysentery—and about how many sick children there always seem to be, but he hasn’t told her much about the risks posed by the people themselves. That, he doesn’t know how to explain to her. He doesn’t know how he’ll explain it to anyone. It sounds like a reprisal of the outdated, pre-Boaz colonial themes, meant to justify pacification, a euphemism for conquest. “You should see the hut I’m building,” he goes on as he pulls onto the main road. “There’ll be an attic so we can sleep where it’s cool and dry. There’ll even be an indoor shower if I get the damned thing to work.”

Do Yąnomamö raiders understand, he wonders, that white nabä women are off-limits? Clemens has brought his wife to the village before; he’ll have to sound him out on the topic of how safe he thinks it is for women and children.

Many of the roads in the outskirts of Caracas are barely worthy of the name, but at least, for all the compromised throughways and all the maniacs careening toward inevitable collision, they still drive on the right side. Lac has been enjoying his time behind the wheel of the Hofstetter car; most of his conversations with Laura occur with her in the passenger’s seat as he goes from store to store preparing for his return to the field. Whenever the topic is serious, her instinct is to look at him directly, open the sensory dimension of their eyes and expressions, intensify the sharing of the remaining time blocked off for them. She’ll put her hand on his knee when they’re stopped at an intersection, squeezing his leg, and he’ll look down, seeing the ring he slipped onto her finger in a church back in Michigan, back in that past life, back in that other world, the one that seems more fantastic by the day. His gaze moves from her hand up along the length of her arm, the texture of her skin causing a stir beneath his sternum, that radiant flesh with its whiff of all things properly feminine and familiar.

“Lac, is there something you’re not telling me,” she asks him, “something about the Indians?”
Looking her full in the eyes now, seeing in them a new set of clues in the case against his fitness as a husband, he says, “I don’t even know how to begin telling you about the Indians. I thought at first they were like overgrown children—and they still strike me like that sometimes, children with machetes and bows and arrows.” He catches the light changing from the corner of his eye and turns back to the road. “Sometimes, though, I think there’s something more authentic about the way they live, less constrained by all the affectation and propriety we labor under. Is it childish to throw a tantrum? Or is it, I don’t know, dishonest somehow not to throw a tantrum when you feel like it? Lately, I’ve been having this disturbing sense that they’re not really as different as I’ve been looking for them to be. They’re just people—people brought up in what to us are bizarre circumstances, but people nonetheless. It’s an unwelcome thought because it has me questioning my own responses to everything, making me realize there’s some belief or value driving them—beliefs or values that can’t be justified through any appeal to pragmatism or wisdom. I’m just a walking waste heap of arbitrary habits accumulated and passed down over generations.”

“It sounds like you feel your sense of self is unraveling.”

“The thing is, I can’t imagine a Yąnomamö ever saying anything like that—that their sense of self is being undermined, or anything about their sense of self at all for that matter—and it’s making me doubt that concepts like that could ever truly mean anything. Does that make any sense? It’s the first time I’m saying it out loud. It’s something I knew about before: this flimsiness, this historical contingency at the heart of all cultures, the fact that our cherished ideas and experiences aren’t as universal as we think, aren’t as natural. But it’s really hitting me now.”

“Lachlan, I can only relate as far as remembering what it was like finding out how provincial my life and my family’s thinking and traditions were after I went away to college, after I started at U of M. I guess it left me a little queasy and disoriented at times, but it was mostly thrilling. I’ll look back fondly on those days for the rest of my life.” She gazes out through the window, her nostalgia registering as another rebuke to him for not providing the makings of a more satisfying or exhilarating present for her to inhabit, for instead striking this hollow bargain with her, promising her adventure for the cost of hardship and instead locking her away in a sort of cloister—albeit one with a gorgeous view. Turning her eyes back onto him, she asks, “Isn’t there anyone you can talk to, anyone who’s been through a similar experience?”

She’s desperate for someone to talk to herself, he notes, but she thinks of me first.

“My professors back at U of M will be eager to hear about my experiences, I imagine. I can’t say for sure how many ethnographic fieldworkers are staying at IVIC right now, but I wouldn’t have time to talk to them anyway. I go back tomorrow, and I’d much rather spend my time with you and the kids”—the kids who one moment look at him like a total stranger and the next seem to forget that he ever left them to fend for themselves.

“Lachlan, when you said you felt like everything is arbitrary, does that include you and me? Do you mean marriage and family feel like arbitrary concepts too?”

I wish for right now, he nearly says aloud, you could be a little less canny. “The Yąnomamö have wives and families too,” he assures her instead. “Those practices actually are universals as far as I know.” Universal themes, maybe, but with tremendous variation. Yąnomamö men often have more than one wife, for instance. Do they feel love, romantic love, the way we do? If so, he’s yet to see any indication. Of course, that’s something a man would downplay, what with the lowly status of women and the contempt for all things feminine.

Looking over and seeing that his assurance has fallen flat, he says, “Honey, honestly, how much I love you and Dominic and Kara is about the only reality for me that feels grounded at all.” Though, even that reality, he refrains from adding, has been shaken up, just a bit, lately. At the beach yesterday, he watched his children playing in the surf and heard the chanting of shaboris trying to wrest children’s souls back from the clutches of malevolent hekura. The first time he saw them after arriving in Caracas, he noticed again they both have the same constellation of faint freckles across their noses and under their eyes as their mom, and he had a feeling like, these are real kids—this is the natural way for children to be. But spending time with them has eroded the wall dividing them from the other children he’s been surrounded by of late.          

So much of what we see in children—especially our own—is projected there from our own minds, but the kids themselves have a way of announcing their sovereignty; they have their own overriding temperaments, their stubbornly, frustratingly paltry grasp of cultural niceties and higher-order agendas. Kids are just kids. And if you’re not raising them the natural way, the best way, because all you have to go by are those same cultural niceties and abstract agendas, then you have to question your true role. Are you passing on the culture for the benefit of your children? Or have you been duped into passing it on for its own sake? Is culture more like a parasite, one that infects your thoughts and distorts your perceptions while trapping you in boxed spaces—or, in a starkly different setting, trapping you in a tradition of fighting to prove you’re waiteri?

Lac looked at his children, who’d grown quickly bored with sandcastles and were now arguing over which of them should rightly bury the other in the sand, and he thought: How can I teach you anything when everything I know is so—arbitrary, so disconnected from any but the most tenuous ties to the natural order. Everything I know is a belief that came about through some happenstance of history. He considers telling Laura about this moment of doubt at the beach. But his feelings of ineptitude as a parent leave plenty of room for guilt over missing so much of his kids’ lives while he’s off in the jungle listening to all those chants attending the deaths of other people’s children.

The villagers don’t need an anthropologist; they need a doctor. And I need to be with my own kids.

He continues driving silently while his thoughts churn, and he sees how much of a bind he’s in with Laura: he can’t remain silent without making her feel cut off and excluded, but he can’t tell her what he’s thinking because he doesn’t want to worry her. On top of that, he sees that wherever he goes now he’s going to feel the pull of the other place; he’s a cross-cultural being now, a hybrid, and he’ll never again know the peace of being at the center of the universe, a true heir to the truest and best, the pragmatically finest-tuned cultural traditions informed by the firmest grasp on what’s natural and what’s moral and what’s authentic. He won’t say any of this to Laura, not off the cuff, not till he’s wrapped his own mind around it, started to come to terms. If he’s in a tailspin himself, there’s no point dragging her into it. He’ll share when he’s got it all more under control. In the meantime, he’s got axes to buy and small talk to make.

Currency is the lifeblood whose circulation unites the disparate cells of the larger superorganism of the State. I hand you banknotes, you hand me tools. Even if I want to spend my money across the border in the U.S., I only have to exchange my bolívares and céntimos for dollars and cents. A Catholic can buy from a Protestant with the same money he uses to pay taxes to a secular government—nominally secular anyway. Currency cuts across nationalities and creeds, and its rudiments operate even among the most primitive peoples. I can trade these axes and machetes, which I paid for with cash, to the Yąnomamö for labor or information. They understand trade perfectly well, along with reciprocity more generally.

Out of this inchoate instinct for fair exchange emerges simple markets, and then complex economies. Suddenly I’m less tempted to kill you for some miniscule boost in status; instead I see you as a potential customer, partner, or employee. Maybe henceforward we’ll have rules, built from the raw materials of our kinship customs—themselves a mixture of instinctual bonds and conventional obligations—centered on roles governing how I treat people of various categories, and voilà: we have a society capable of cooperating on what was hitherto a superhuman scale. Even if we’ve never personally participated in such grand enterprises as the building of a miles-long suspension bridge or the carving of a canal connecting two of the seven seas, we still support the program at a cellular level, accepting the roles of employee, customer, or merchant, and thus powering the organs of commerce, government, and infrastructural development.

But what role do I play in this superorganism? What do I produce and sell?

Lac poses this question to himself as he stands before the mirror in the bathroom of their IVIC quarters after returning from his currency-armed foray to commandeer madohe. What do I build? If I don’t elevate my status through violence, and I don’t run up any profits through commerce, then where does my worth as a man come from? My wife unhappily waits for me, tending to our children while I follow Indians around their gnat-infested village, trying not to piss them off as I fill out charts and plead with them to forget their proscription against saying names aloud to strangers. She meanwhile seems to be spending us ever closer to penury. He hasn’t told Laura about the figurative and literal meanings of hǫri. You should, he tells himself; she’d be interested.

The bathroom is quiet and he cherishes the privacy, even as he distrusts it—someone must be about to burst in, or is already listening outside. He never feels comfortably alone anymore, so he’s reluctant to return even to the company of his own family.

I am a man with no name of my own, he murmurs to his reflection, just the one my father gave me. I have no status anywhere, having achieved nothing of note by any society’s standards. I can’t truly live here, whether here is IVIC or Ann Arbor.

Lac has a small square mirror in his hut outside Bisaasi-teri but he never uses it. Why would he? He was letting his beard grow until he got to IVIC and Laura requested he shave, and he doesn’t need to see his teeth to brush them. A toothbrush, he thinks: that’s what I forgot to get. In lieu of thorough brushings with toothpaste and multiple rinsings, Lac usually makes some swipes with a dry brush. It’s taking a toll on the bristles. Running his tongue over his tobacco-stained but healthy teeth, he leans over the sink to get a better look at himself. A twenty-six-year-old man with no name, borrowing his grandfather’s name for the time being. Five foot seven with alert, intentional eyes—rimmed with a familiar, comforting hint of mischief. Stepping away from the mirror, he sizes up his body; he may be a good fifteen pounds lighter than he was in November, and losing the weight so fast has left him looking drawn, his cheeks dry and inward draping, his flesh like the rind of a piece of fruit left on the counter for weeks.

“Jesus, I look ten years older.”

He was skinny before; now he’s boney and drooping, but he’s still—what? He still possesses something not apparent in his reflection: a springiness to his joints, a wiriness to his muscles. The last vestiges of the boy he’s grown up being have oozed out through his pores in the jungle heat, or got sucked out of him by gnats, or humiliated to death by the Yąnomamö. What’s left is at once sagging and emaciated, wizened and supple, toughened and enervated. He’ll need to build everything back up from this rubble, atop this pulverized foundation. But he possesses the vim and spirit and eagerness to get started. There just may be enough grit and stubborn drive left in him to make it happen.

There just may be enough mischief left in the corners of his eyes.

If Laura has trouble recognizing me, he thinks, she’ll just have to get to know me again—or we’ll have to get to know each other rather. Because the truth is I do have a name, one I’ve earned for myself. My name is Shaki. It’s not a big name, not one that comes with any warning of how waiteri I am. But I may be able to parlay whatever it does convey into a means for transforming all the other men of the village into named beings as well. When I’m finished with that, I’ll swap it out for my old name, my grandfather’s name, which will have new weight and new meaning.

He’s anxious to get back to work.

The latch on the door to his hut is dangling from screws loosely gripped by splintered wood. Someone has pried it apart from the frame, or just kicked in the door. Ordinarily he’d fume at the invasion, the disrespect for his property, the violation of his space, the thought of the bastards rifling his belongings. But he expected this. So he merely smiles and mutters, “I hope you found something you like, you little shits.” Sure enough, everything inside bears the signature of a frenzied search. Lac is gratified to find the lock on the inner door remains secure; it doesn’t even look like they tried breaking it. He made sure this second door and the separating wall were reinforced, and he half-heartedly concealed the latch by draping a towel over it. The men who helped him build the divider know about the extra space of course, but to thieves making a quick survey it wouldn’t advertise itself, and even if they discovered it, opening it would likely present a bigger challenge than they were prepared for. Still, it’s only a matter of time before a determined thief discovers and breaks through this barrier as well, so Lac determines to keep his valuables as secret as he can for as long as he can.

Is it fair though, he wonders, to call them thieves? Whenever he catches one of them with a stolen item, the culprit insists he’s only borrowing it, or that he plans to give Lac something in return later. And Shaki, the defendant further insists, is being stingy by demanding the item be returned anyway, stinginess being one of the cardinal sins among the Yąnomamö. Everyone in Bisaasi-teri knows everyone else, has known everyone else as long as they can remember, so there is some plausibility to the case for a different understanding of possession and the transfer thereof. It’s also quite plausible they’re just thieves playing their ignorant nabä visitor for a fool.

Maybe I could hire Rowahirawa to guard the place while I’m away, he thinks, but that guy is never where you’re counting on him to be, and it’s all too easy to imagine him smiling innocently as one thing after another goes mysteriously missing, and still smiling as he demands the agreed-upon payment. “And be quick about it or I’ll smash your head.”

Lac catches himself smiling at Rowahirawa’s antics, a frequent occurrence of late. He realizes he’s excited to see his chief informant and get the latest gossip. In his letter to Ken, Lac referred to Rowahirawa as his friend; then again, he also referred to him as Pedro, since he’s not yet sure Rowahirawa is his actual name—he’s only heard it said a couple times and never dares utter it himself. He’s also not sure how he’ll spell it when the time comes. But is this man—Pedro or Rowahirawa or whatever his name ends up being—his friend?

Clearing a space for the many bags he’s schlepped from his dugout, he thinks of how Rowahirawa showed up after the chest-pounding tournament to make sure he was in a safe place, or not in a horrendously unsafe place anyway. But, as he described to Ken, Rowahirawa had once “almost” gotten angry with him for trying to stop him, Rowahirawa, from chopping up poles Lac had just paid him to help collect—paid him with the machete he was now using to chop them up. “Almost”: Lac hadn’t realized the Yąnomamö were using the English word until he’d written about Rowahirawa’s anger to Ken, such is the linguistic muddle in his head.

Lac looks at his thumb, swollen to three times its proper size, and recalls another incident when his maybe friend almost got angry. They were carrying a heavy log when Rowahirawa stubbed his toe on the edge of the pile. Enraged—understandably so—he threw his side down, sending Lac lurching off balance, smashing his thumb between the log he was still trying to hold and the one on top of the pile it landed on. Murderously angry one moment but acting as if nothing had happened the next: it was the same as what happened after the chest-pounding tournament, just on a smaller scale. Flare up, then poof, onto the next thing. Lac’s thumbnail is still broken and the swollen joint aches when he flexes it.

Villagers are already showing up outside the hut. He has to hurry and secure anything that can be easily concealed and walked off with. Then he’ll negotiate to have some of them help him unload the heavier stuff from his dugout. They’re agreeable enough, he thinks, and easier to live with when you know what to expect—which is never—or rather when you know the range of what you might expect anyway. That curtain he spoke of to Laura, the one he has to drop to guard his sanity, his “sense of self,” isn’t the only one he’s contending with. The Yąnomamö have obscuring tactics of their own.

He thinks of the blandly friendly but casually impersonal, or the surly but impersonal, attitude of people in the city, contrasting it with his wife’s intense engagement and nuanced expressions of sympathy. To be seen and treated as a sentient and feeling creature, one whose thoughts and general state of mind matter for something—it was almost overwhelming. He wanted nothing more than to hide in the IVIC quarters, soaking in the pure silence until it percolated to his every cell.

He couldn’t share with Laura much of what preoccupied him for his two-week-long visit. “The Mahekodo-teri did plan to leave before instigating an all-out shooting battle,” Rowahirawa agreed when they discussed the tournament’s aftermath the day after the visitors departed. “But that last thrust they made was a provocation, one the Bisaasi-teri let stand. That was the face-saving move which allowed them to leave without a bunch of killing. It shifted the shame onto the Bisaasi-teri. The men here, in failing to retaliate, accepted that the Mahekodo-teri were the stronger force.”

“So they were humiliated, but tolerated it for the sake of peace?” That wasn’t the impression Lac had taken away, but he was in no fit state of mind to rely on his own assessments. Still, in the days following, the Bisaasi-teri never seemed crestfallen, which may be because their humiliation is like their anger: flare up, fade away, onto the next thing. Lac wonders though if their pique at having been intimidated accounts for some of the bravado on display as they spoke of their friends’ troubles with Patanowä-teri in the days before he left for Caracas.

He steps outside and sees that several men with unfamiliar faces are walking over from the shabono with the Bisaasi-teri men he recognizes. “The Monou-teri are moving back to Bisaasi-teri,” one of the younger men says when he sees Lac’s confused expression. “Towahowä has been killed.”

“Ah, I see, younger brother,” he responds. “So there’s to be more fighting with Patanowä-teri.”

After unloading his supplies and repairing the broken latch on the door of his hut, he ambles over to the shabono and sees a vast construction project underway. “Shaki,” he hears Rowahirawa’s voice calling before turning to see him approaching. Lac's heart gives a lurch, and he can’t tell if he’s overjoyed at seeing his friend or frightened by the wild Indian running up to him. “Why were you away so long? You’ve missed a lot of action for your white leaves.”

Lac smiles as Rowahirawa pushes and pats him like a kid brother—even though Lac is much taller and older. Not only are the Monou-teri moving in, with their sixty or so members, but the second Upper Bisaasi-teri shabono is being dismantled so the entire group can be consolidated within one structure. He looks around and sees only a few men from Lower Bisaasi-teri, so he figures they’ll probably be staying in their homes on the far side of the Mavaca.

It doesn’t take Lac long to observe that the men here are disdainful toward the visitors. Even Bahikoawa wears his disgust at the Monou-teri openly: they failed to avenge their headman’s death, his cousin, whom he called brother. The ambush occurred only a couple weeks after Towahowä had led his own raid on Patanowä-teri. The men there knew the smaller village was hoping to gain some notoriety, and they couldn’t afford to let the attack go and risk encouraging more. Patanowä-teri suffers from a sort of fastest-draw-in-the-west syndrome. Everyone knows theirs is the largest, most formidable village in the territory, so everyone knows attacking them is the ticket to greater renown. Most raiding villages assume that, as big as Patanowä-teri is, they won’t be able to retaliate against every last group who attacks them. But this time the Monou-teri miscalculated; the Patanowä-teri decided on a quick counterattack, going so far as to track the Monou-teri to where they’d recently relocated and planted a new garden, and specifically targeting the hotheaded headman who’d led the raid against them, the man responsible for the death of their covillager and kinsman, the poor bastard who got porcupined while stuck up in a tree harvesting rasha.

Lac wanders about, greeting people with smiles and getting smiles and mild harassment in return. He turns the conversations to the latest news at every opportunity. The Patanowä-teri crossed the river that was supposed to impede their pursuit and found Towahowä with his wives. The rapid response team was disciplined enough to leave the women behind after shooting him full of arrows, listening to him spout his defiance with his dying breath. Lac gets this from the wives themselves, and he searches their eyes for signs of the emotional trauma he knows they must have sustained. They whine and shed tears aplenty, but Lac can’t help wondering if Towahowä was rough with them, a man like that, so blustery and desperate for recognition and authority. He was Bahikoawa’s cousin, headman of a village allied to Bisaasi-teri, hence the headman of this village’s insistence on a counterraid—or counter-counterraid rather. It makes some sense, but so many people have relatives on both sides of the conflict.

After speaking with the women, at a loss how to console them, he steps away and has Rowahirawa explain how the Bisaasi-teri are reconstructing the shabono to accommodate the larger numbers, and how they’ll also be fortifying the place against attack. He describes what sounds like a palisade, a row of pikes surrounding the lean-to structure, which they’ll cover with dried brush so the dogs will hear the rustling if anyone tries to sneak over. In the cities, barking dogs are a nuisance, but here they’re serving their original purpose. Lac’s eyes wander the area, searching for the underfed but eager little servants. They circle the children, but no one could be said to be playing with them. They merge with the background, helping with hunts on occasion, and sounding the alarm if need be, but not on such friendly terms with their masters as they would be in most parts of the States.

“He was searching for honey,” Rowahirawa says, abruptly shifting topic. They’re standing side-by-side, watching the complex structure being raised one manageable piece at a time. Thatching the roof must be the most difficult part to get right, Lac thinks. “Two of his wives were there with him,” Rowahirawa continues, “holding his children’s wrists or carrying them on their backs. He stopped because he heard buzzing, looked up to find the hive—and that’s when the Patanowä-teri fire their arrows at him. The wives say they hit him all at once. He was standing there looking up into the branches, and then he was looking down to see a bunch of arrows sticking out of his torso. He would have died from that eventually. But he was still able to nock, draw, and fire an arrow back at the raiders. Who knows if he hit any of them? Then one of them fired a last arrow at him, its bamboo tip piercing the flesh beneath his ear and poking out through the other side of his neck. He staggered and swayed, trying not to die, and fell forward, his face landing in the dirt. He bled to death as his wives grabbed the kids and ran back to the shabono, and the raiders, not bothering to kidnap the women, ran to cross back to the other side of the river, fearing immediate retaliation. But Towahowä was the only waiteri in the village—I’ve told you this before. After hearing about what happened, the rest of the village fled and hid in the forest, thinking the Patanowä-teri would attack again. They fled and hid like a bunch of women.

“This is what the Bisaasi-teri pata can’t abide, this shameful cowardice and refusal to avenge his brother. The Monou-teri have been on the move ever since. You’ve seen them here. They stay with the Lower Bisaasi-teri too, eat all their food too, then they go visit our Shamatari allies to the south, the Mömariböwei-teri and the Reyaboböwei-teri. Then they go back to where they’re planting their new garden in a place the Patanowä-teri won’t know to look for them. But the Monou-teri are hopeless without waiteri. The Patanowä-teri are at war with many enemies now, but Monou-teri is weak. Attacking them, chasing them away for good, taking all their women—that would be an easy way to send a message to all their other enemies. Bahikoawa is saving their lives by insisting on this raid. He’s giving them a chance anyway, as sick as he is. Some of the Monou-teri will need to step up. Towahowä’s brother should be meat hungry.”

Rowahirawa has taken special interest in Towahowä’s story, a man always eager to fight, a man whose tendency to seduce or steal other men’s wives led to the fissioning of Monou-teri from Bisaasi-teri. One waiteri holding an entire small village together—but he pushed it too far. What lesson will Rowahirawa draw from it?

More importantly, Lac wonders, how can I exploit the upheaval to get some more names on my charts?

He’s formulated a plan to pull people aside, promising them some small payment—fishhooks or one of the red loincloths he’s bought—and he’ll whisper the questions in the informant’s ear, encouraging him or her to whisper the answers back into his. That’s the obvious part, but here’s where it gets ingenious: he’s going to follow the gradients of relatedness as they track from yahi to yahi around the shabono, asking each family about the ones nearest. That will bring two advantages: he won’t have to ask the informant for his own name or the names of close family members, and he can use their reactions as a gauge of their neighbors’ honesty as he crosschecks their answers with one another. What he’s counting on is that the Yąnomamö will be slightly miffed when he whispers their names to them—and Yąnomamö don’t exactly have good poker faces—helping to corroborate the identification. He’ll have to be delicate about it; some of the men are bound to get angry, especially when he asks about their deceased ancestors.

So he’s counting on them getting visibly angry but not violently so. He chuckles at the precariousness of the balance he’s hoping to strike. Yeah, totally ingenious. If you end up getting nowhere, you may at least still end up getting killed.

Wandering around the shabono, Lac sees Bahikoawa. It’s late in the afternoon. He’d normally be taking ebene and chanting with the other men but the construction project takes precedence today. Lac can tell from the way he’s moving that his affliction has returned and is causing him pain in his abdomen or lower back—or both. How will he fare in the upcoming battles and raids? Bahikoawa is the one really pushing for the raid against Patanowä-teri, which is difficult for Lac to square with his observations of the headman’s peacekeeping efforts. Really, it sounds like he’s appalled by Towahowä’s brother’s cowardice—as if it amounted to a black mark on the lineage they both represent. But he’s also exasperated with Monou-teri’s begging, not just here and in Lower Bisaasi-teri, but among the Shamatari as well; they start complaining about how much the moochers eat almost as soon as the Bisaasi-teri are done throwing them a feast to force them to leave.

Will Bahikoawa’s status be elevated by the raid if it’s successful? Or is he merely hoping to help Towahowä’s brother and the rest of the Monou-teri achieve a sustainable independence? Lac will have to watch and see how it plays out.

“The plan is to build and fortify the new shabono,” Rowahirawa says, “and then eat the ashes and conduct the raid just as the dry season comes to an end and the rains begin. If the rains flood the trails, the Patanowä-teri won’t be able to pursue us.”

“You’re going too?” Lac blurts. “And what are you talking about, eating ashes?” 

Lac has broken a self-imposed rule against asking more than one question before giving his interlocuter sufficient time to respond. One question, a pause to listen, one statement, then another question—that’s the formula he’s decided on. The Yąnomamö love to hold court and tell stories about how clever they are, how they prevailed over a less clever person in a series of encounters, or about how fierce they are, or how generous—they’re like people anywhere in this regard—and they even like to talk about their lineage’s history. You just have to treat the topic gingerly, and remember that the Yąnomamö, for all their wild hauteur, can be very skittish, or very easy to scare away in any case, though, if he thinks about it, that’s more from annoyance and not at all from fear.

In his most fantastic dreams, he either has a chance to speak with that English-accented Indian who can help him answer all his linguistic questions, or he’s lighted on the key to cracking the Yąnomamö cultural code, learned precisely how to speak and behave to conduce to the divulgence of their secrets—or the unremarkable minutiae of their days—in easily notable nuggets.

“Shaki, you moron. Of course I’m going. I’m waiteri.”

“And the ashes?” he can’t help prying.

Rowahirawa for once doesn’t seem to mind. He’s catching on bit by bit what it means to hail from a place where customs and beliefs and languages are far different. Lac has ceased being merely a defective human, improperly reared, with substandard intelligence and poor hearing. The transformation began some time ago when the two men shared the triumph of a perforated linguistic barrier. Lac had been running his finger along text written in English, emphasizing the gaps between the words, and then pointing to his Yąnomamö transcriptions with their unbroken chain of letters. As he encouraged Rowahirawa to slow down in repeating the phrase they were working on, the young warrior’s face went abruptly blank. He looked like a caricature of the guy with the lightbulb going on over his head. Rowahirawa had of course used words all his life, but he’d never pondered the concept of a word. This pale nabä he calls Shaki, it dawned on him, wants to know where one word starts and the other begins. They howled together with joy, slapping each other on the shoulder. Such a simple thing turns out to be far more complicated than you’ve ever allowed for in the past; you’ll never think of it the same again.

“Towahowä was cremated by the Monou-teri after he was shot to death by the Patanowä-teri. His ashes were gathered up and saved in a calabash—an empty gourd—so they can be eaten during the ceremony that will be held before the raid to avenge him. The women will mix the ashes in with date and drink it down.”

Just the women? Lac manages to refrain from asking.

Rowahirawa gives such a thoughtful answer that Lac suspects he may be starting to realize his foreign friend Shaki may even be an interesting character in his own right, perhaps with something to teach, something to contribute aside from his poorly guarded madohe.

“They won’t use all the ashes,” he continues. “Some they save, storing them above the joists in their yahi. If this raid is unsatisfying, they’ll have another feast, the women will eat more of the ashes, and then the men will go raiding again.”

Another form of currency, Lac thinks: a stored-up rationale for murdering neighboring villagers, thus establishing your waiteri credentials. Maybe the women are the ones who eat the ashes because they’re the ones who need the reminder of why the raid is supposedly necessary. Men are never free to forget the necessity of violence.

In his anthropology courses back at U of M, Lac learned that all hunter-gatherer bands are egalitarian—at least when it comes to the men. At most, a man will stand as primus inter pares, a first among equals, to deal with temporary exigencies, as when someone needs to serve as trade representative or lead everyone through a time of threat or drought or famine. It was treated as established fact that the importance of individual status only came about as differential access to strategic resources took hold, be it food or water or land, or possessions like building materials or drugs or steel tools. Or currency. So Lac came to Boca Mavaca expecting to find a tribe of egalitarians, the headman playing, if anything, a slightly more pronounced version of the primus inter pares role.

At some point in the development toward larger, more complex social organization, hierarchies invariably form, but since tribespeople like the Yąnomamö have so few possessions, and nothing by way of accumulated or transferable wealth, they ought to more closely resemble hunter-gatherers, with leveling mechanisms playing a prominent role in customary etiquette. When a !Kung hunter bags a huge gazelle, he has some other band member carve and divvy up the meat, all the while getting teased about the paltry size of the haul he’s brought home. He’ll as likely as not respond with his own self-effacing humor, because self-aggrandizement and superior airs will win you nothing but widespread ostracism and scorn. This is one element of that noble savage idea, the perfect possessionless peoples with nary a concern for their individual ranking. Without the corrupting influence of wealth and inequality, individuals act for the benefit of the larger group—and this is one of the principles underlying the view that societies function as superorganisms, and that cultural evolution operates at the level of the entire society.

But the prediction emerging from this theory—that a group with few possessions will have little concern for individual status—has failed spectacularly in this case. The Yąnomamö, while not rigidly hierarchical, are if anything more obsessed with their status than the average person you meet in the States. Around the time prepubescent boys start trying, unsuccessfully at first, to tie their foreskins to their waist strings, which Lac guesses occurs around age twelve, they also start complaining about other village members saying their names in public. True, there’s a spiritual aspect to the name taboo as well; Lac has learned that while it’s usually safe to utter the name of a child, doing so when that child is sick will get you chased away by outraged relatives. Names fall in with the general category of symbols for intimacy, trust, and liberty-taking—or liberty-allowing.

No one wants me to use his name, for instance, because I’m a nabä, and they’re afraid I’ll use their name to cast an evil spell against them.

All this sickness amid the thoroughgoing ignorance of germs and infections—they can’t be too careful, but at the same time men are far more vigilant when it comes to improper name usage. Lac has yet to see a young girl approaching menarche who throws a fit about someone addressing her by name. And he knows that when relying on teknonomy for circumlocutions—as the Yąnomamö do themselves—it’s safer to name a female child if you have the option. It’s as if layered on top of their concerns about spiritual attack is an entirely separate game of whose name is most important—and it all comes down to who’s better able to enforce the proscription against using his own and those of his kin, especially his recently deceased kin, as it falls on you to hold your father’s or your uncle’s name sacrosanct after he’s gone.

Can the hekura attack one’s ancestor’s bohii in hedu? That never seems to be a concern. The concern is rather that hearing your relative’s name reminds you of that person’s absence, and people are to know they can’t treat a man’s emotions in so trifling a manner—because this man is very important, very waiteri.

Lac has several times run into trouble with the men he interviews even after he’s explained to them what he’s planning to do. “I want to get the names of some of your family members,” he’ll say. The man will agree to provide the information in exchange for some specified item from Lac’s store of madohe, and then Lac will proceed with the questions, doing his level best to show deference by asking for the names in a whisper, cupping his mouth with his hand to the man’s ear. Yet when Lac gets the name and whispers it back for confirmation—or often after he merely asks for the name of, say, a grandfather—the man goes berserk, and Lac ends up fleeing to his hut. Lucky for him, the flare-ups are short-lived. This scenario has played out twice even when Lac tried withholding payment until after the interview was complete.

“I told you what I was going to do, what I was going to ask, and you agreed god damn it! How the hell can you get mad?” He keeps saying this, holding his head in his hands, while pacing his kitchen slash office after being chased to his hut.

When he was just weeks into his fieldwork, the Yąnomamö saw that he was beginning to pick up bits and pieces of their language. On occasion, a man would approach him and give him a message to relay to another man he pointed out. Lac, eager to be helpful, would deliver the message as close to verbatim as he could manage—unaware he was saying the man’s name aloud while insulting him with bitter succinctness. Then the recipient would blow a gasket and chase him with an upraised club or a machete, while the first man laughed uproariously. “But you just saw the other guy tell me what to say,” he once complained, stupidly, in English. “How can you be mad at me for telling you exactly what he said?”

Now Lac is beginning to understand. The point isn’t to dole out just deserts. In that case, they may take circumstances and intentions into account, as we would in the West. The point is to put on a display of sudden temper, advertise how easily angered you are. You weren’t being threatened or punished in way meant to correct your behavior, he tells himself. You were being used as a prop in a demonstration of fierceness.

For the rest of his first day back at Bisaasi-teri, Lac trades off between wandering around, helping the men with the building of their new lean-tos, mostly from parts of the old shabono, and sitting back to observe and take notes. He watches some women making thatch for the roof and thinks it funny that their role in lifting and tying together the supports and rafters is kept to a minimum because everyone knows how clumsy women are. They’re seldom allowed to use clay cooking pots for fear they’ll break them. But the way they chop and gather firewood demands a level of dexterity and strength and athleticism beyond anything he sees the men display. Even the men’s hunts are mostly walking and creeping through the forest, with a quick occasional sprint.

Early in the evening, Lac begins to have the pleasant sense once more that he’s doing good work, being a good fieldworker, contributing substantively to his discipline. He enjoys it. Aside from at IVIC with his family, he can’t think of anywhere he’d rather be. The Yąnomamö seem to have finally habituated to his presence; they no longer make it a point whenever he passes to jeer and demand machetes or pots, tossing in a threat or two to speed up the transfer. He’s becoming a fixture, though the children still flock around him wherever he goes. He entertains them in exchange for the freedom to ask of them the stupid questions he’s hesitant to ask their parents. Then he lies awake at night worrying about them catching upper respiratory infections. Most of his fishhooks and nylon line ends up going to them. Right now, though, he’s squatting next to a fire in the new plaza that’s taking shape, idly slapping mosquitoes, enjoying being left alone.

He pretends to jot down some notes, but he’s daydreaming. It’s getting dark and he’s thinking back to something Laura said while they were enjoying a rare block of quiet, sitting together on the balcony and taking in the vista of forested mountaintops: “The sunsets here are different. In Michigan, the sky turns orange and scarlet and puts on a display that lasts a long time. I guess it’s because we’re so close to the equator and the sun strikes the earth so directly; it takes a shorter route through the atmosphere, so the colors that come from the prisming beams aren’t as impressive and don’t last as long. It’s daylight one minute, and then you look up and it’s nightfall, and then it’s just dark.”

Lac hadn’t noticed it, not enough to remark on it anyway, but he knew immediately she was right. What else might she notice and remark upon that’s right under my nose, he thinks, or right over my head, in this place? Laughing quietly, he wonders if he should have been more stern with her about her spending, or if he should worry about her drinking. Instead, he stood there and let her chide him: “You need to let me know where our finances stand if you want me to budget more prudently.” So, in essence, his response to the discovery of her burning through his NIMH grant was to give her more responsibility over their funds. Yet he feels much better now, knowing he’s set her such a challenge, almost certain she’ll rise to it. That’s how Laura operates.

I also promised I’d get her and the kids into Bisaasi-teri as soon as I can, he thinks. But how can I do that when the villagers are building a palisade against attacks from the larger village they’re about to pick a fight with? How can I do that when my plan is to travel to villages farther inland, villages more removed from the influence of all the damned missionaries?

Will people there use the word “almost” like the ones here do?

He thinks of the giant Shamatari village way up the Mavaca Rowahirawa keeps talking about. He’ll have to travel there sometime before his seventeen months are up. Maybe Chuck will be back at some point soon and Lac will be able to count on him to keep everyone safe while he travels. Maybe Laura will take to the ethnography business and they’ll be like Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson—though, didn’t Bateson divorce Mead after some years? He gazes off into the rapidly dimming treetops beyond the upper edge of the shabono’s thatched roofing. “Mist-shrouded” is how the adventure stories would describe the forest as he views it now, but the white doesn’t form a shroud so much as a bunch of cottony strands, a ghostly substitute for the snow these leaves will never touch.

Before long, it’s dark, and he’s staring at the firelit notebook in his hands. A man is chanting, or orating really, about his plans for tomorrow, and about his grievances. The Yąnomamö do this all the time, making announcements like this as everyone is rubbing the bottoms of their feet together to dust them off before rolling into their hammocks. Lac stands up. He needs to get to his hut, but he’s fearful of what awaits him in the darkening space between here and there. Luckily, he’s too tired for the fear to consume him, or even to deter him.

He has the thought, as he has several times before, that the children who usually surround him a good portion of the day know most of the names he’s after. He’s offhandedly asked for one now and again to see what they’ll do. They refuse, sometimes playing at being violently angry, reminding him of his early days in the field when he was appalled to see mothers goading their sons to return tit for tat in teary-eyed disputes. But Lac senses that if he were to go deviously about his efforts, he’d achieve far easier success with villagers under twelve.

He won’t do it. As tempting as the idea is, he knows he wouldn’t feel the least bit proud later, knowing that he’d had to finagle his data out of small kids.

He wanders out of the shabono. The darkened clearing abounds with terrors just out of view. But he makes his way over the rise, one groggy but cautious step at a time. Rowahirawa sometimes hangs his hammock in Lac’s hut, but he’s nowhere to be seen now.

Late morning: Lac is systematically testing and rejecting different times of day to attempt his genealogical work. Now it’s when the men are returning from their gardening but have yet to take ebene, meaning they should be much less volatile. His time in Caracas has ruined his eating schedule, restoring his appetite to its Western cyclicality. His stomach twists and grates, no longer conditioned to the paltry breakfast of crackers and peanut butter and café con leche that needs to sate him until evening.

He’s also on edge because he woke up this morning in an achingly intense state of arousal. Upon arriving at his IVIC quarters, he was eager to avail himself of the luxury of cascading hot water, and he took the opportunity to release some of his pent-up tension, lest he end up failing in his husbandly duties when he and Laura found themselves alone together. After later accomplishing the deed in a modestly satisfactory manner, though, he still worried that his contribution was lackluster, worried so much in fact that since returning to the field he’s been kicking himself for not properly savoring the few times they had together, for not even coming close to achieving any level of gratification that would tide him over until the next visit.

He groans. Imagine how she feels. Or better yet, don’t. You have work to do.

He’s abandoned the idea of interviewing people separately in the open; if it’s in the open, he’s realized, it won’t be separate. Plus public interviews heighten the temptation for the men to show off their quickness to anger, a risk he’d like to minimize. Instead, he’ll interview them in his hut, making a show of his whispering deference. The key will lie in the crosschecking. He’s already caught them in what he suspects are fabrications on a few occasions. He won’t ask about the most recent among the dead, if he can help it, and he won’t ask informants about their own nearest kin. He’ll ask people from different but related lineages for information about each other, checking for accuracy with actual members later, even if checking amounts to little more than seeing if the latter informant gets angry about what the earlier one has divulged. And he’ll start with the older village members, since they seem calmer. Plus they’re bound to know more of the history he’s after.

A lot of this he’s tried before. He’s still expecting to be chased out of his hut once or twice, given a few false names it’ll be a pain in the ass for him to track down and correct, and robbed any chance he gives them. But this will be the first time he puts all the tactics together into a systematic strategy. He knows the outlines of the culture and the language; it’s time to start digging into the deeper organizational structures, time to see how the kinship system really works, time to start getting the data he promised Dr. Nelson so he can incorporate it into his genetics research.

Lac looks down at his charts. He’s got circles and squares—for women and men respectively—filled in willy-nilly; he doesn’t even know if the names and relationships as diagrammed are accurate. One of the goals of these early sessions will be to identify the most knowledgeable and most reliable informants. He’s essentially holding tryouts. He’s even got a plan for a graduated pay scale for those who keep making it to the next round. Will it work? He laughs. Probably not—at least not as I’m envisioning it now.

He’ll have to make adjustments to the system as he progresses and learns. He keeps telling himself that no matter how compelling what’s going on with Monou-teri and Patanowä-teri may be, he didn’t come here to study warfare. His main research focus requires that he first have comprehensive genealogies. Those should help him understand more about intervillage hostilities anyway. All of it will go into helping him understand how primitive societies evolve into more complex ones, how basic kinship rules get stretched to accommodate larger settlement sizes, how leadership roles emerge. He’ll learn about what drives village fissionings—and village fusionings, like the one taking place now.

But I already know what’s bringing these villages together, he thinks. The role of war is central. And is it societies that evolve, the way the early sociologists like Durkheim and the functionalist anthropologists like Radcliffe-Brown envisioned—along with Drs. White and Service? Or is it individual decent lines that evolve? This latter hypothesis seems far likelier based on what he learned from his genetics classes at U of M, which were taught by some of Dr. Nelson’s undergraduate aids. But biological evolution based in genes is distinct from cultural evolution based on—well, that’s one of the things he’s here to figure out.

Ah, Lachlan, one question at a time. And first things first.

He opens the door to his hut and heads to the shabono with its growing palisade to recruit his first informant of the day.

“Tell no one I told you these things.”

Lac hears this admonishment for the third time since this morning. On the boat ride up the Orinoco on his first day in the field, he’d worried about how his professors had all boasted with strained irony of being “adopted” into their research subjects’ society. Missionaries talk about being adopted in the same way. What would it mean if the Waica—whom he would come to know as the Yąnomamö—were to withhold such favor from him? Merely imagining it was devastating.

He needn’t have worried. What all the travelers and missionaries fail to understand—and his professors should have done a better job explaining—is that primitive peoples only know how to interact with a person according to kinship rules. There’s no category, as there must be in civilizations, for the random guy passing on the street, or the scientific researcher conducting a study, the outsider unrelated to anyone. So they confer on you what you mistake for honorary kinship status. The Yąnomamö started calling him shori—brother-in-law—from day one, if he can recall. They needed to do this to end their bewilderment about what rules should govern their dealings with him.

The practice says nothing about their personal feelings toward you, though you may perchance be relieved they’re addressing you at all and not unceremoniously impaling you with the six-foot arrows they have trained on your face. They would call someone shori even if they hated his guts and only tolerated his presence because of the madohe he promised them. Being called shori or any other kinship term doesn’t mean a damn thing.

But nothing signals acceptance—even liking—like the sharing of secrets. Every time one of Lac’s informants tells him not to tell anyone that he’s shared all these names and details of family histories with him, Lac flashes a grin, one he does his best to hide. He’s been in the field for over three months, and this is the first sign he’s received that the people of Bisaasi-teri may be willing to let their guard down with him. He hasn’t been aspiring to honorary group membership, but this small gesture of trust, their enveloping him within their minor conspiracies, feels to him like an ultimate verdict on the substance of his character. If acceptance can be extended across so wide a chasm, he must possess some trait whose appeal transcends language and history and culture. He must just be a solid guy, a good person, a worthy and respectable man. And likeable too.

It feels better than he would have anticipated, if he’d anticipated feeling it. He gives the man sitting on the chair in his office slash kitchen—the Yąnomamö appreciate a sturdy chair as much as anyone—a bundle of fishhooks and a spool of fishing line before walking him to the door. It’s early evening and he’s only conducted three interviews today. Once you get them to sit down and start answering questions, you can’t get them to shut up and leave. No matter. They’re giving him exactly the information he needs. He thinks he may look back on this day in the distant future and see it as the day he truly became an ethnographic fieldworker, an anthropologist—the day he became a scientist.  

With the advent of this process for collecting names, his true work begins, not just his work, his whole life. With the information he’s gathering, he’ll be able to crack the code of Yąnomamö settlement patterns, social organization, and intervillage conflict—with implications stretching back to a time before the earliest civilizations. A fantasy takes up residence in his mind: a year or so from now he’ll be known as the go-to guy for handling impossible field conditions, an indispensable aid to his anthropological colleagues. Need information on a group too warlike for a graduate student to study safely? Call Shackley. Need genealogical information on another group with a taboo against sharing names? Send in the guy who wrote the definitive (and virtuoso) ethnographic study of the Yąnomamö, the guy who demonstrated that violence in tribal societies is rampant, upending decades of previous theorizing about its causes.

And it all starts with the phrase, “Tell no one I told you these things.”

Lac gently, then not-so-gently shoves his still rambling informant out the door and sees more people gathered outside. They’ll debrief the guy, he thinks, which could pose a problem: he’ll have to come up with a lie or two to give them when they ask what we talked about. Lac has to piss. He often pisses right outside the door—though he’s considering repairing Clemens’s old outhouse—but not when there’s such a large audience. If he steps outside, he’ll be surrounded by people begging to be his next informant, or just begging. Not for the first time, he wishes he had a secret side door for sneaking out unnoticed.

For now, he has little choice but to jostle his way out among the crowd. “Ma, I’m done with my ohodemou for today,” he says, repeating himself twice and thrice before managing to thread through the people and make it to the edge of the clearing. He scans the ground before planting his foot for each step into the forest, and then, swatting away the bareto, opens his pants and lets loose the stream, doing an awkward amoebaesque shimmy all the while to avoid suffering more bites than necessary. All the old hardships bring an almost pleasant glow to the edges of his consciousness, now that he can see through to accomplishing his goals.

One detail troubles him. The first informant’s answers were wildly different from many of the second’s and the third’s. But those last two’s answers were in near complete agreement. His plan includes a contingency for this, so he simply determined the first guy, an older man, cousin to the headman, was unreliable, perhaps out of overprotectiveness toward their customs. But how can he be sure? How can he be sure of any of it?

For the moment, he acknowledges he can’t, but as he continues his work, interviewing more informants and crosschecking their accuracy, any discrepancies will be brought to light. He wanders over to the shabono, which is taking shape nicely. He wonders how long it takes them to build one from scratch. The palisade consists of logs, maybe eight feet long, lashed together with vines and buried in postholes about a foot deep. It almost looks like they’re making crude rafts. Building this barrier comprises the bulk of the work the three groups have undertaken.

Remembering Laura’s observation that evening turns to night more precipitously in the tropics, he moves about, taking in all the new construction before returning to his hut. But here’s Rowahirawa approaching. What’s this son-of-a-bitch been doing all day? “Shaki, you’ve started asking for names for your white leaves,” he says, “names of people here and their fathers and grandfathers in hedu.”

Ordinarily, Lac would be worried about Rowahirawa mentioning his work like this, expecting the comment to be followed by a warning that he must desist. But he sees in the waning light that his sioha friend is sporting a toothy grin, like he may at any moment erupt into laughter.

“What’s this joke I still don’t get, you little shit?” 

Links to chapters (Table of Contents)

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And if you want to read some nonfiction stuff on Chagnon and Anthropology:

Why Tamsin Shaw Imagines the Psychologists Are Taking Power

Just Another Piece of Sleaze: The Real Lesson of Robert Borofsky's "Fierce Controversy"

Napoleon Chagnon's Crucible and the Ongoing Epidemic of Moralizing Hysteria in Academia