As stated, the Shaman is the central conduit of the religious and spiritual perceptions of the Yanomamo. He or she establishes contact with the multifarious spiritual world through the use of hallucinogenic drugs. The chief function of the Shaman is healing. Sorcery is also practiced against enemies.

3. Kinship, politics and marriage

The religious and cultural understanding of the Yanomamo is inextricably linked to the social and political context in which they live. Kinship and marriage structure are extremely important in the structure of the Yanomamo society. This also relates to their system of social control and law. As Chagnon states in his work, Yanomamo: The Fierce People

Social life is organized around those same principles utilized by all tribesmen: kinship relationships, descent from ancestors, marriage exchanges between kinship/descent groups, and the transient charisma of distinguished headmen who attempt to keep order in the village and whose responsibility it is to determine the village's relationships with those in other villages. Their positions are largely the result of kinship and marriage patterns -- they come from the largest kinship groups within the village.

(Napoleon A. Chagnon. 1983)

Therefore the issue of law and order is linked to the kinship and marriage issues

In terms of social structure, the village is the basic sociological unit which is occupied by several extended families, composed of nuclear family households. Importantly the "founding nucleus of such a village consists of two intermarried pairs of brothers, their sisters (or wives), and their descendants. The two resulting lineages exchange their women, thus creating a number of affinal alliances." (Beierle, J.M). The social structure itself is essentially simple and a village consists of " ... A single structure (yano) within which many nuclear families live clustered around their household fire." (HOWELL, NANCY. 2001)

Yanomamo society is extremely political and there are often feuds and conflicts between the different groups. The Yanomamo have an essentially segmentary society which is constructed around "alliances between small groups ... their lives are firmly governed by political considerations." (Boehm 92)

Marriage as a social contact is a central feature in stabilizing and establishing bonds and alliances between the different groups in the society. The importance of marriage as a constructive factor is underlined by Chagnon's view of the generally unstable nature of the society.

A given village will have a number of former enemies or non-allies whom it is trying to turn into allies; at the same time its allies today may become its enemies tomorrow. For example, if a village fissions because of a homicide, the aggrieved clan -- now on its own as a separate village that is much smaller and therefore more vulnerable -- is likely to seek alliance with a former enemy.

(Boehm 94)

The issue of law and order in the society is also closely linked to the marital and lineage issues within the society as the following quotation makes clear.

Each village has its own headman (pata), and one pata is usually more influential than the others. Migliazza (1972: 415) claims that the position of the chief or headman is not really inherited, but is dependent on the chief having many living agnatic relatives and the ability to assert himself among them. There is some indication, however, that the office was once inherited patrilineally from father to son or from elder brother to younger brother. During times of war, a man with experience in combat was often chosen to act as war chief, an office which was not hereditary and which became inactive when hostilities ceased.

(Beierle, J.M)

The institution of marriage in the Yanomamo tends to "bind non-agnatically related groups of males to one another in a system of exchanges involving goods, services, and the promise of a reciprocal exchange of women at a later date." (ibid) Therefore, in this system the ties between man and wife are relatively weak while the ties between a man and his sister's husband are strong. The preferred pattern of marriage that serves to strengthen alliances is "brother-sister exchanges and cross-cousin marriages ... And ... A prescriptive bilateral cross-cousin marriage rule." (ibid) The bilateral cross-cousin marriage "helps produce strong relationships between families and villages." (Yanomami Indians)

Essentially this involves a system whereby the marriage partners are doubly related to one anther as matrilateral and patrilateral cross cousins. "The Yanomamo follow a bilateral cross-cousin marriage system whereby marriage partners are doubly related to one another as matrilateral and patrilateral cross cousins as a consequence of similar marriages among their parents ... " (Yanomamo Marriage) ( see Appendix image 1)

The importance of marriage as part of the social structure can also be seen for the relationship of the distance between social distance and intergroup-relationships. (See Addendum figure 2)


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The following is a diagrammatic representation of the bilateral cross-cousin marriage across lineages.

In each generation a man marries a woman who is both his

MBD (matrilateral cross cousin) and FSD (patrilateral cross cousin)


Figure 2. Social Distance and Intergroup Relationships Among the Yanomamo


Chagnon "has been challenged before, notably by Rutgers University Newark anthropologist Brian Ferguson, whose 1995 book on Yanomami warfare suggested that the presence of foreigners, Chagnon in particular, sparked much of the conflict among the Yanomami." (Yanomami: WHAT HAVE WE DONE TO THEM?)