Focusing New Light on the Yanomami as a Microcosm of Anthropology

October 9, 2023

Leslie Sponsel

The Yanomami of the Amazon in Brazil and Venezuela are one of the most famous, fascinating, studied, misrepresented, exploited, and endangered Indigenous people in the world. The Yanomami are reflected in various ways and degrees in many of the theoretical approaches and issues in the history of anthropology since the 1960s. They are a microcosm of anthropology. Moreover, they have suffered horrifically from devastating alien invasions of their traditional territory, most of all waves of illegal gold miners in the 1980s, and again in recent years. Every aspect of their population, culture, and ecology has been impacted, and for many communities in devastating ways. Building on his recent book, The Yanomami in the Amazon: Toward an Ethical Anthropology beyond Othering, Les Sponsel will discuss in historical perspective the research and controversies and scandals surrounding the Yanomami and as well as a few of the more than one hundred anthropologists who have had the unique privilege of living and studying with them. Sponsel will home in on professional ethics and human rights, as well as the changing political ecology of the Yanomami and of anthropology. The talk will also inform the Yanomami case as a component of the “human nature industry” which erroneously and dangerously celebrates the ubiquity of warfare through ideologically driven Hobbesian pseudoscience.

Dr. Leslie E. Sponsel is Professor Emeritus at the University of Hawai’I. He earned his B.A. in Geology from Indiana University (1965), and the M.A. (1973) and Ph.D. (1981) in Biological Anthropology from Cornell University. Over the last four decades he taught at seven universities in four countries, including two as a Fulbright Fellow (Venezuela and Thailand). In 1981, he was hired to develop and direct the Ecological Anthropology Program at the University of Hawai`i. His courses include Ecological Anthropology, Environmental Anthropology, Primate Behavioral Ecology, Spiritual Ecology, Sacred Places, Anthropology of Buddhism, Ethics in Anthropology, and Anthropology of War and Peace. Although retired since August 2010, usually he teaches one course each semester and devotes the remainder of his time to research and publications. From 1974 to 1981, Sponsel conducted several trips to the Venezuelan Amazon to research biological and cultural aspects of human ecology with the Yanomami and other Indigenous societies. Almost yearly since 1986 Sponsel visits Thailand to research aspects of Buddhist ecology and environmentalism together with his wife, Dr. Poranee Natadecha-Sponsel. In recent years, their research has focused on sacred caves in northern Thailand. Sponsel’s extensive publications include numerous journal articles, book chapters, encyclopedia articles, four monographs, three edited books, and two co-edited books. He also publishes in other fields to better integrate his work with different subjects and broaden his audiences. He is one of the pioneers in developing the interdisciplinary subjects of spiritual ecology, nonkilling anthropology, and ethnoprimatology.