TRAVERSE CITY — Since 1999, one of America’s most famous and controversial anthropologists has lived quietly in a home set far off a wooded road with his wife and a hunting dog named Darwin.
“I was choosing a place to hide out because the world around me had collapsed,” Napoleon Chagnon said.
Chagnon, 75, sits in a kitchen of his now sparsely furnished home. He began teaching last fall at the University of Missouri and considers this home a summer get-away.
He published a book this year, “Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes — the Yanomamö and the Anthropologists,” which has been nominated for a National Book Award. In it, he defends his lifelong research of more than 20,000 primitive people who live in hundreds of small villages, straddling the border of Brazil and Venezuela.
When Chagnon began his journey with the Yanomamö in 1964, they had been largely isolated from the outside world. In his book, he describes getting his first look at a dozen tribesmen, arrows drawn, as vicious and underfed dogs snapped at his legs.
“Strands of dark green snot dripped or hung from their nostrils — strands so long that they drizzled from their chins down to their pectoral muscles and oozed lazily across their bellies, blending into their red paint and sweat,” he wrote.
His 1968 book “Yanomamö: The Fierce People” chronicled a society in which tribal members steal women from neighboring villages and avenge murders. His data showed that the fiercest tribal members had the most wives and offspring, suggesting that brutality carried an evolutionary edge. His descriptions of their bouts of violence are mixed with stories of ingenuity and humor, such as the time village members supplied him with incorrect and highly embarrassing names of prominent family members.
Over three decades, Chagnon visited the Yanomamö, but he said he was ultimately shut out of field work by Catholic missionaries, who held sway with the government. They were angry, he said, that he had publicly outed them for supplying shotguns and shells to the Yanomamö. Without access to the tribes, he retired from the University of California Santa Barbara.
Shortly after moving here, Chagnon’s life took a drastic downturn with the publication of “Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon.” Author Patrick Tierney accused Chagnon of fomenting tribal conflicts and playing a role in triggering a measles epidemic. The book sparked an academic firestorm and was later condemned by a number of professional associations.
The controversy raged across international lines, and Chagnon fed information to his academic colleagues, who posted counter data on websites. He also tried to write his book, an isolating and frustrating process.
“It depressed me,” he said. “For that 10-year period, every time I tried to write something I tore it up and threw it away.”
Finally, Chagnon realized his book should include more than his studies of the Yanomamö. He would write about the other “savages” — his academic adversaries, the Catholic missionary, and those who object to Chagnon’s violent portrayal of the tribes, believing it has led to their mistreatment and land invasion.
Meanwhile, Chagnon lived here in deliberate obscurity. He recalled applying for a teaching job at Northwestern Michigan College early on.
“They sent me an application form for a job, the same you’d give to somebody who wanted a job as a janitor or a groundskeeper. So I didn’t apply.”
His prestigious election last April to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences -- which in itself triggered the resignation of a renowned anthropologist -- went unnoticed by local media. He now looks forward to the rigors of academic life and synthesizing his mountains of data on the Yanomamö.
recently he was asked about his outlook on life. It takes effort, but he manages to say, “I’m really happy.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Napoleon Chagnon will sign hardcover copies of his book at Horizon Books on July 13 from 6 to 8 p.m.