human rights and Yanamamo infanticide

Mike Lieber (U28550@UICVM.BITNET)
Tue, 6 Dec 1994 12:21:53 CST

As Eve Pinsker and Pat Mann have pointed out, the first thing an anthropologist
has to do is get the data right. My misuse of the Yanamamo infanticide as an
instance of collective interests over personal interests is a case in point.
Here is a note that I got from Ray Hames at the University of Nebraska.

I would like to comment on some of the Yanomamo characterizations
communicated by Mike Leiber on 12/05/94. For your information I have
spent about 28 months doing field work among the Yanomamo.

1. The rainy season does not keep most land under water. In the
rainy season some places near rivers are flooded but this does not
significantly limit agricultural land availability. Although
difficult one can even clear and burn land in the rainy season.

2. Land and game do not run out after two years. In fact, many
villages have existed in the same general area for decades. By the
same general area I mean that they have succesively moved their
villages about a central point no more than two kilometers in

3. The issue of female infanticide requires considerable comment.
Initial reserach by Chagnon and Neel suggested that the inbalance in
males to females for children less than a year of age was a result of
preferential female infanticide. The reasoning went like this: (a)
the Yanomamo engage in infanticide; (b) they prefer boy infants to
girl infants; and (c) the universal secondary sex ratio (ratio at
birth) is about 102-104:100. They concluded that preferential
female infanticide was the cause of the empirical inbalance in infant
and juvenile sex ratios. If fact, I believe that Neel even suggested
that 1 in 4 girls would have to be killed at birth to achieve these
There are a number or reasons why preferential female infanticide
may not be important in establishing the inbalance. First, the
decision to kill a child is made before the child is born but it is
very difficult to collect information on the sex of the child that was
killed. Mothers don't want to talk about it (it is a very painful
topic) and so an anthropologist can't ask. However, kin and friends
usually know the details. I watched Chagnon interview numerous
individuals about the infanticide of others and it is clear that there
appears to be no bias. I hope that Chagnon will publish these data in
due time.
Second, research by Elois Ann Berlin and A. V. Millard (1993 in
Evolutionary Theory, I think) link high male secondary sex ratios with
people with blood type O and Amerinds are about 99% O.
Infants are killed largely because they can't be provided for.
It is usually a matter of birth spacing. For instance, if you have a
1.5 year old and a newborn comes along you can't nurse both and the
older will have to get off the breast which will dramatically lower
his or her nutritional status. There are other reasons such as lack
of a male to invest in the child. Considerably more research must be
done to establish these patterns for infanticide. What I have
described above are my ideas informed by living with the Yanomamo.

I certainly do not believe that Yanomamo infanticide is "a clear
example of subordinating the interest of the individual to the
survival of the collective". They are an egalitarian people and no
one has the right to force or require an individual to sacrifice his
or her children for the good of the group. The Yanomamo engage in
infanticide simply because they do not have safe or effective birth
control. They only birth control techniques they possess (aside from
a two to three year post-partum sex taboo) are blunt instrument trauma
to the uterus and some ineffective herbs.

Ray Hames
University of Nebraska
The Yanamamo case is not comparable to the Australian case, as Birdsell was
told by his informants that the decision was made carried by elders based on
the likelihood of the ability to support the child in an environment of
scarcity. Birdsell also reported that the frequency of infanticide seemed
to correlate with average rainfall over several desert ecozones--most frequent
in areas of low rainfall and least frequent in areas of high rainfall.

Mike Lieber