Bodies donned in black pelts and beaded necklaces swarm in a hostile crowd. Shrill invectives are hurled across a dirt courtyard encircled by thatched longhouses. The tension between groupings around this courtyard heightens, weapons are brandished, and violence ensues, one man striking another on the head with the blunt side of an ax. This is the opening scene of “The Ax Fight,” one of the best-known works of anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, then a graduate student at the University of Michigan. By initially providing no interpretation, Chagnon intended to create for the viewer the experience of observational naïveté upon watching the behaviors of an unfamiliar group of people, much as a naturalist might watch a pride of lions. This unfamiliar group was the Yanomami, an Amazonian indigenous group living on the border of Venezuela and Brazil. Chagnon researched the Yanomami from the mid-1960s to the late 1990s and was both...
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