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ETHNONYMS: Guaica, Guajaribo, Shidishana, Shiriana, Shori, Waica, Waika, Yanoama, Yanomama, Yanomami, Xiriana

The names "Sanema" and "Sanima" are autodenominations of people to the north and east who are culturally and genetically very closely related and who speak a partially intelligible dialect of Yanomami.


Identification. The Yanomamö are a South American tribal people who straddle the border between extreme southeastern Venezuela and upper northwestern Brazil. Their name may be derived from the Yanomamö word yano, which designates a provisional house made during treks. Alternative names such as "Shamatari" or "Waica" (Waika) are relative terms used by some Yanomamö to refer to other Yanomamö living to the south or north, respectively.

Location. In Venezuela the extension of the Yanomamö is delimited to the north by the headwaters of Erebato and Caura rivers, east along the Serra Parima, and west along the Padamo and Mavaca rivers in a direct line to the Brazilian border. In Brazil they are concentrated near the headwaters of the Demini, Catrimani, Araçá, Padauiri, Uraricoera, Parima, and Mucajaí rivers. In Brazil and Venezuela the total area inhabited is approximately 192,000 square kilometers. Dense tropical forest covers most of the area, but there are sparse savannas at higher elevations. The topography is flat to gently rolling with elevations ranging from 250 to 1,200 meters.

Demography. Although ethnographers have done extensive and excellent demographic research on Venezuelan Yanomamö, a complete census for Venezuelan and Brazilian Yanomamö is lacking. Current estimates indicate about 12,500 and 8,500 Yanomamö in Venezuela and Brazil, respectively, for a total of 21,000. There are approximately 363 villages ranging in size from 30 to 90 residents each with some Venezuelan villages in the Mavaca drainage reaching 200 and more. Population density ranges from about 6.7 square kilometers per person to 33.5 square kilometers per person.

Linguistic Affiliation. Linguists have been unable to conclusively affiliate the Yanomamö language with any major South American language family. A linguist divides Yanomaman into four major dialectal groups: Sanema (3,262 speakers), Yanam (856 speakers), Yanomam (5,331 speakers), and Yanomami (11,752 speakers). The last two dialects, accounting for 81 percent of the total, are mutually intelligible, whereas the others may not be.

History and Cultural Relations

Archaeologists have done little research in the Yanomamö area. Ethnographers believe that the homeland of the Yanomamö lies in the Parima highlands of the VenezuelanBrazilian border, and that they have recently expanded from there as a result of the decimation of Carib speakers who occupied the upper Orinoco and its major tributaries. Initial contact with Westerners may have begun as early as the mid-1750s, but it was not until the mid-1950s that missionaries and anthropologists made sustained contact. Some Yanomamö have had sustained contact with the Yekuana Indians for at least a hundred years, which has led to warfare, intermarriage, and establishment of partially integrated cosettlements. The contact situation differs sharply between the Brazilian and Venezuelan Yanomamö. In Venezuela, Yanomamö interaction with foreigners is largely limited to Yekuana Indians, missionaries, anthropologists, and government workers. In Brazil, significant portions of Yanomamö lands have been invaded by miners, which has led to the introduction of a variety of diseases that have taken a huge toll in Yanomamö lives and, in some places, open warfare occurs between the Yanomamö and Brazilians.


The Yanomamö live in large single houses that, in close juxtaposition, look like a giant circular lean-to with a large central plaza. Families live in quarters that are not separated by internal walls. This communal dwelling is constructed of poles lashed together to form a framework that is thatched with palm leaves. In higher elevations the house may be reduced in diameter to form a pitched roof to adapt to cooler temperatures. The Yanomamö traditionally located villages near small, nonnavigable streams; since about 1970, however, many Yanomamö have chosen to occupy large river sites to maintain easy contact with missionaries.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Yanomamö may be characterized as foraging horticulturists. Crops, most notably plantains and bananas, compose up to 75 percent of the diet calorically and are cultivated through pioneering shifting cultivation. Wild resources gained through gathering, hunting, and fishing supply important protein needs. Typically, the Yanomamö devote two to three times more effort (measured in hours per day) to these subsistence tasks than to horticulture. Many Yanomamö trek for a month or more during the year, living in provisional camps some distance from their village and depending heavily on wild resources. The Yanomamö associated with missions engage in light commercial trade or wage labor, but such Yanomamö probably amount to no more than 15 percent of the entire population.

Industrial Arts. The few technological items the Yanomamö make are mostly used for subsistence tasks. They include burden and food-serving baskets, bows and arrows, and a variety of single-use items such as tree-climbing thongs, leaf containers, and vine hammocks. Western manufactures have nearly replaced many traditional artifacts such as crude clay pots and fire drills. Where the Yanomamö have close contact with the Yekuana, they are adept at making tools necessary for manioc preparation and dugout-canoe construction.

Trade. Internal trade among the Yanomamö is extremely well developed. Some trade is the result of differential distribution of primary resources (e.g., hallucinogenic plants) or a temporary surplus of prime domesticates (e.g., cotton or good hunting dogs), but in other instances trade is the exchange of material tokens to symbolize alliances between individuals. Since about 1970, most Yanomamö have become totally dependent on outside sources of axes, machetes, aluminum cooking pots, and fishhooks and line. Most of these items have come from missionaries as gifts and wages. Through mission-organized cooperatives, the Yanomamö recently have begun to market baskets and arrows and some agricultural products. Trade has a much longer history where the Yanomamö are in close contact with Yekuana.

Division of Labor. Weapon making, tree felling for gardening, and hunting are the only exclusively male activities. Women spin cotton thread and plait baskets. Nearly all other activities may be done by either sex, although in many, one sex tends to be predominant. Women do most of the weeding, harvesting, food processing, and collecting of fuel and water. Both sexes frequently cooperate in gathering and fishing. When working cooperatively, however, one sex may concentrate on a particular phase. For example, in house construction men collect heavy poles and lash them together to form the structure, and women collect endless bundles of palm thatch that the men intermesh and tie for the roof.

Land Tenure. Individuals are free to clear and cultivate any forest land near their village. Once land has been cleared of trees and a garden has been planted, it is owned by the cultivator. Theft of garden produce (tobacco, in particular) is a serious offense. Village mobility is such that semiproductive garden plots may be at a considerable distance from one's current village. Owners of such plots may find it difficult to assert ownership to valuable crops such as peach palms.


Kin Groups and Descent. The Yanomamö practice patrilocal residence and trace descent patrilineally. Patrilineal descent does not lead to the development of named kinship groups. Members of the same patrilineage refer to themselves as mashi, which simply means "people who are related patrilineally." Kin groups tend to be localized in villages, and their genealogical depth is rather shallow. Kinship is critical in the arrangement of marriage, and very strong bonds develop between kin groups who exchange women.

Kinship Terminology. Yanomamö kinship terminology is bifurcate merging with Iroquoian cousin terms. Relations between brothers-in-law (cross cousins) are close and intimate, whereas relations between same-age parallel cousins are cool and reserved. A son-in-law should avoid his mother-in-law and be deferential and respectful to his father-in-law.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Yanomamö marriage rules are prescriptive in that marital partners must be cross cousins. Ideally, mates are double cross cousins, a result of the practice of sister exchange. Women typically marry soon after their first menses with men in their early twenties. Although marriage is patrilocal, a husband must live with his parents-inlaw for several years and perform bride-service. This rule may be relaxed for high-status males. Polygyny is permitted and 10 to 20 percent of all males at any time are polygynists. Ideally, polygyny is sororal, and levirate and sororate are practiced. Men and women average 2.8 marital partners during their lifetime, with about 75 percent of those marriages ending as a result of divorce and the balance as a result of death of one of the partners.

Domestic Unit. Monogamous or polygynous nuclear families are the rule among the Yanomamö. Deviations from this pattern occur when aged parents live closely associated with married children or when newlyweds dwell with one or the other's parents.

Inheritance. Neither status or property is inherited among the Yanomamö. At death, kin incinerate the personal property of the deceased.

Socialization. Mothers dominate in the care of infants, who spend most of their time suspended in a simple sling that runs diagonally from the caretaker's right shoulder to just above the left hip. During this time the mother carries her infant to forest and garden as she works. While the child is being weaned it is more frequently cared for by older sisters and female relatives. Weaning from the breast and the sling may occur abruptly, especially if the mother is pregnant, and is occasioned by howls of protest by the child. Although fathers will affectionately play with infants, they spend very little time (less than five minutes per day) in care-giving activities. In contrast to boys, girls begin making important economic contributions by the age of 6 as they accompany mothers in gardening and gathering excursions and assist in food preparation. Boys spend most of their time playing rough-and-tumble games, shooting toy bows, and roaming in the nearby forest in same-sex groups. Parents encourage sons and daughters to be assertive and to respond to insults with physical or verbal aggression. Physical punishment (slapping, punching, or striking with objects) is not uncommon. The girl's puberty ceremony (yobomou ) begins immediately during her first menses. During this time a girl is secluded for a few weeks in a small shelter near her parent's hearth and is restricted to a special diet; her head is shaved upon departure.

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.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Yanomamö believe that the cosmos consists of four parallel planes or layers. The upper-most layer is empty but was once occupied by ancient beings who descended to lower layers. The second layer, or sky, is the home of spirits of dead men and women, and it resembles the earth except that the hunting is better, the food tastier, and the spirits of people are young and beautiful. The third layer is the earth, and below the earth is the fourth layer, or underworld. In the underworld live the Amahi-teri, ancient spirits that bring harm to living humans. The Yanomamö have multiple souls that exist in a complex relation to one another. All shamans can use demons over which they have personal control to cure or cause illnesses. Catholic and evangelical Protestant missionaries have been in steady contact with the Yanomamö since the late 1950s but have had very little success in making converts.

Religions Practitioners. The shaman is called upon to divine the causes of illness or misfortune, cure the ill, and sicken the enemy by sending demons that he controls. Shamans are also expert at using wild and domesticated plants that are useful for casting spells. Only men can become shamans, and they must complete an arduous training period requiring food deprivation and abstinence from sex.

Ceremonies. Perhaps the most important and certainly the most dramatic ceremony is the reahu, or mortuary ceremony. It culminates when the bone ash of the deceased is mixed in a plantain puree and consumed by mourners in a demonstration of respect for the dead and in consolation to the close relatives of the deceased. This ceremony has considerable political implications if the deceased was a valiant warrior (waiteri ) slain by enemies and when attended by members of allied villages.

Arts. Yanomamö graphic art is limited and simple. Sparse geometric designs, usually black or red, adorn common objects such as baskets, arrow points, and bodies. The verbal and vocal arts such as oratory, chanting, and myth telling are much esteemed and developed among the Yanomamö. Although these acts may have political and social significance (e.g., when village leaders, employing esoteric metaphors and archaic words, ritually exchange chants), performers are admired and gain status based on their talents.

Medicine. The Yanomamö believe most serious illness to be the handiwork of independently acting hekura or enemy shamans who have caused their hekura to sicken a body. A shaman must diagnose the cause and sometimes figuratively pull the demon out, often with the help of his own demons. To prepare, a shaman frequently decorates himself and his surroundings handsomely and invariably inhales a hallucinogenic snuff to aid contact with hekura. Illness may also be caused by the breach of a ritual regulation or taboo. The Yanomamö employ a variety of herbal remedies as cures.

Death and Afterlife. The Yanomamö attribute a large fraction of deaths to the actions of malevolent shamans who send demons to consume the souls of people. Upon death, there are instantaneous lamentations, singing, and chanting. Usually the corpse is very quickly burned by the men, while women and children absent themselves from the village lest they become polluted by the smoke. The men then collect and pulverize the bones and pour the ash into a set of gourds that are stored in the village. After about a year the Yanomamö stage an elaborate mortuary ceremony (reahu). Close relatives, covillagers, and sometimes allies consume the ash, which is mixed into a large trough of plantain soup. This endocannibalism demonstrates affection for the dead and solidarity with the deceased's relatives. It also helps insure that the soul of the dead will find its way to hedu, a Yanomamö paradise above the earth.


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