Cultural Overview

The Yanomami are a hunter-gatherer and swidden horticultural society with a population of about 25,000 (10,000 in Brazil and c. 15,000 in Venezuela). The people live in communities of approximately 40-200 individuals. Each village consists of three to eight or more extended families, which are often united by marital relations. Among the Yanomami, in the far south of Venezuela, family homes are built close to each other in a circle. These large palm-thatched circular communal dwellings are called shapono. The members of each family group work, sleep, and socialize around a central hearth. Second or third partners in polygamous marriages as well as unmarried adult family members maintain their own fire nearby. The only household furnishing is a hammock. New roofs are constructed every 2-7 years and the old settlements are abandoned. Several times a year the people leave their village, together or in groups, to spend a few weeks in temporary camps in the forest or as visitors with allied villages.

The main crop is plantain, although manioc has become increasingly common in recent decades, supplemented by maize, sweet potatoes, and sugar cane. Sources of collected protein are small catfish, crabs, crayfish, caterpillars, large insects, grubs, and nuts. A long bow and arrows fitted with a variety of points made from bamboo, wood, or bone are used for hunting.

Yanomami material culture is simple and functional. Baskets, calabash gourds, forked sticks, and fresh leaves serve as their cooking utensils. However, they no longer use their traditional pottery since metal pots have become accessible. The use of metal axes, machetes, and knifes has also become standard.

Linguistically, as well as anthropologically (genetically and anthropometrically), the Yanomami are distinct from the adjacent ethnic groups; their language is an isolate. Although communities are self-sufficient, networks of alliances are intensified by invitations and visits and by the exchange of commodities. Marital ties strengthen affiliations between communities. Local groups, that are not well known to each other, often suspect each other of causing illnesses and misery. The Yanomami are a relatively egalitarian face-to-face society, which is politically structured by kinship. Cross-cousin marriage is central in social interaction. Affinity is socially emphasized more than cognatic ties. Owing to their remote location in the interfluvial area between the Orinoco River, the Rio Branco, and the Rio Negro, the Yanomami lived in relative isolation until the middle of the 20th century. However, they have experienced a long history of direct and indirect contacts (Ferguson, 1995). Acculturation has been quite slow compared with other indigenous societies of South America. In Venezuela, Yanomami territory is protected to some extent as a United Nations Biosphere Reservation. However, on the Brazilian side of the territory, road construction and an invasion of miners between the 1970s to 1990s has brought considerable illness and death. International protests forced the Brazilian government to take decisive steps to put an end to this disastrous situation. Now the Yanomami are trying to deal with the consequences of the intrusion with the help of social workers and anthropologists. A demographic increase observed in the late 1990s should not hide the fact that illnesses like malaria, influenza, tuberculosis, and hepatitis are severe threats to all the Yanomami. Epidemics have the potential to wipe out entire communities within a short time if no professional help is available. The miners and the Brazilian government have also failed to keep their promises to grant land rights to the Yanomami.

Pregnancy And Childbirth

Pregnancy And Childbirth

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