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What the Yanomami fear


When the men come back...
Redmond O'Hanlon Writer
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They're after the girls. They've come back from hunting, absolutely everybody knows who's done what, who's picked a spider monkey out of a tree from 200 yards with this arrow. And the entire thing, there it is, it seemed to me. There's theatre, there's the play, there's literature. They are in the centre of the shabono, telling everybody in this chant about what's happened on the hunt. Now that night, I'd got into my hammock, passing out. Well, the yopo, you would, wouldn't you? Tana, tana, tana, argh... And then I flipped my torch on, well I assumed that was alright, but here are these warriors, these young guys, with their feathers up and well, you'll never see people that fit. Not in the Olympics. And they're chewing. What the hell are they chewing? They are chewing plantains, and they're marching around the shabono, and each boy is gobbing it out, and it's a symbol. It's a metaphor for his sperm.

And the girls are lying in their hammocks, gorgeous. And he has to get it onto the mount of Venus. He's deciding, you know, he's just telling them who he really admires and fancies, the girls. So there are shrieks of laughter. And these guys... it's such a violent society. You know, they probably aren't being very kind to people who are already married, you know. Fights, warfare. So that I liked, but also I loved the idea that a woman has the sex charm, really does. It's not ecstasy, but she's got these herbs all mixed up and everybody knows what it is, and she creeps up behind the boy that she really fancies and whops it, from behind, into his nose. And he inhales this and then he just can't help himself, it's boom, always behind a bush. And after this, an evening like that, they were back from the hunt, the girls collect the sperm of the hero or the man who's been most fierce, the bravest. The guy with the shortest fuse, the most dangerous, the best hunter, too. And they drag him off behind a bush, like those hedge-sparrows, and they gather his sperm, and his genes pass right through the society very fast. So it becomes more and more and more violent as time goes on.

[Q] How do they gather his sperm?

Oh well, they get him to make love to them behind the bush, when everybody's out, into the jungle. And like the hedge-sparrow, at the end of the season, the number one boy is very, very likely to die. Because A, he's exhausted, but that's not really it. B, he has the shortest fuse. He's going to get killed. He goes off fighting to bring back his reputation by killing somebody in, you know, a group of Yanomami, 20, 30 miles away through the jungle. He just wa  its and hides outside the shabono. Doesn't matter who, you know, a child, a grandmother, anybody, as long as he can bring back a bit of the body.

[Q] What an extraordinary society.

He... he will be sexually selected. Chagnon's done so much work on this. I mean, the figures are astonishing. He came here and gave a little lecture, just for us and Dawkins. He... I forget the figures now, I'm going to ruin it, but it was... ah, wait a minute. If you've killed somebody, you're five times more likely to breed, etc., etc. I mean, it's as crude sexual selection set of figures as you'd get from lions or whatever.

British author Redmond O’Hanlon writes about his journeys into some of the wildest places in the world. His travels have taken him into the jungles of the Congo and the Amazon, he has faced some of the toughest tribes alive today, and has sailed in the hurricane season on a trawler in the North Atlantic. In all of this, he explores the extremes of human existence with passion, wit and erudition.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: Napoleon Chagnon, Richard Dawkins

Duration: 4 minutes, 42 seconds

Date story recorded: July - September 2008

Date story went live: 11 August 2009