Napoleon Alphonseau Chagnon, age 81, of Traverse City, Michigan, died at Munson Medical Center on September 21, 2019, after a prolonged illness.
Chagnon was a renowned ethnographer, gifted film maker, and pioneer in the application of evolutionary theory to the study of human behavior. He began his college education as a physics major at the Michigan School of Mining, but in his sophomore year he transferred to the University of Michigan and soon became an anthropology major after taking courses from Leslie White and Elman Service, both of whom would later sit on his doctoral committee. After graduating from Michigan in 1966, he taught there until joining Penn State University in 1972, with later appointments at Northwestern University, University of California Santa Barbara, and the University of Missouri.
Chagnon’s Yanomamö (1968) has gone through seven editions and is recognized as among the most widely read ethnographic texts in anthropology. It presents a creative mixture of humanistic firsthand accounts of Yanomamö life with pathbreaking statistical descriptions of Yanomamö sociality. The book’s appeal stems from personal accounts of Chagnon’s work with the Yanomamö and dramatic case studies of Yanomamö culture. In later editions, and drawing on fieldwork comprising 25 trips spread over five years, Chagnon added quantitative accounts of marriage, settlement patterns, kinship, warfare, and the consequences of contact.
One scholarly approach that distinguished Chagnon from his peers can be seen in the extensive series of award-winning films he created with Timothy Asch. Many of these films—such as The Feast, Magical Death, and The Ax Fight—focused on dramatic moments in Yanomamö life. Others portrayed touching domestic vignettes, as in “A Man and a Wife Make a Hammock” and “A Father Washes his Children.”
In 1979, with his longtime collaborator and friend William Irons, Chagnon edited Evolutionary Biology and Human Social Behavior: An Anthropological Perspective. This volume featured early attempts by anthropologists to interpret human social behavior from a Darwinian perspective. More than any other publication, this volume initiated human behavioral ecology in anthropology. That field has now become a specialty in many anthropology departments. Chagnon was one of the founders of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society (HBES) in 1988 (publisher of Evolution and Human Behavior) and served as the society’s president from 1994 to 1996. He received the HBES Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010.
Chagnon’s most cited paper “Life Histories, Blood Revenge, and Warfare in a Tribal Population” set off debates that reverberate even today. In it, Chagnon was able to show that a culturally determined status position, that of being a formidable warrior, was associated with greater reproductive success.
After publicly and privately suffering from a series of misrepresentations of his work, Chagnon was inducted into the National Academy of Sciences in 2012 and, although nearly retired, he continued to publish with students and colleagues. In his 2014 inaugural Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences publication, he noted that a variety of uniquely human cultural traits made understanding the evolution of human social organization quite distinct from our primate ancestors. Thus, Chagnon consistently advocated for a holistic, integrative view of the human condition by combining evolutionary and cultural perspectives.
Cite as: Hames, Raymond. 2019. “Napoleon A. Chagnon.” Anthropology News website, December 6, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1320