How to Hang Out With Uncontacted Tribes, by Anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon

Photograph by Ocean/Corbis

The first time I met the Yanomamö, one of the last undisturbed tribes in the Amazon, it was 1964 and I had just made a three-day boat trip up the Orinoco River. We walked apprehensively up to the village to find a half-dozen sweaty, burly men staring at us down the shafts of six-foot-long arrows. I wanted to get out of that village so fast. We slept that night on the other side of the river, but I came back the next day and ended up living with them, off and on, for the next five years. After a few months, the Yanomamö and I got used to each other. Once people start ignoring you and going on with their lives, you know you fit in. We had misunderstandings, as do any people who come from different cultures: They assumed that since I couldn’t understand what they were saying that I was hard of hearing; they’d shout louder and louder until they were screaming at me. I had to learn their language.

There are things you’ll find disagreeable about a culture, and that’s OK. You don’t have to like everything. There were these insect grubs that looked like fly maggots but were two inches long and as big around as your thumb. The Yanomamö harvested them for food, but I never could get used to them. The disgust went both ways. When I’d shoot a tapir—a 500-pound ungulate whose meat tastes remarkably like a high-quality cut of beef—I’d cut off a steak and fry it up rare. Yanomamö slow-roast their meat over many days until it’s so dry and crispy you could hammer nails into it. I’d eat mine all bloody and juicy—and they called me a cannibal. They thought I was repulsive. —As told to Claire Suddath

Chagnon is an anthropologist and author of Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes.