The Nayars Of India And The Inuit Of Canada: Religion And Spirituality Case Studies Example

Type of paper: Case Study

Topic: Culture, Violence, People, War, Anthropology, Society, Human, Nature

Pages: 5

Words: 1375

Published: 2020/10/09

ANT 101 Introduction to Cultural Anthropology

According to the pioneering cultural anthropologists Nowak Laird (2010), “for most of human history people have lived has foraging or hunting and gathering life style. It is the oldest form of human society, dating back to the Paleothlitic period at least a million years ago. People resided in small self- sufficient mobile groups bands. Foragers move over their land year after year, knowing where all the prime locations are for the foods and water needed not only for basic survival but to thrive.” Such observations from the western point of view seems anti-modern, a stereotype that continues inform ethnographies of indigenous cultures within the context of modernity. The relative isolation of various indigenous cultures around the globe from mainstream society renders it very difficult for anthropologists to proffer a fully nuanced ethnography of their cultural practices and social organizations. According to Nowak and Laird (2010), many cultural anthropologists and ethnographers do not fully recognize how the extent to which Western culture has intruded on the indigenous people being studied. Nonetheless, indigenous societies retain an enduring oral tradition even within modern contexts. By examining the cultures of the Nayars of India and the Yanomamo in Brazil, it is unequivocal that the discipline of cultural anthropology continues to suffer from cultural relativism so entrenched in western academia. Nonetheless, the production of ethnographies of these little-known indigenous cultures helps elucidate contributes to epistemologies about indigineity as well as the advancement of cultural anthropology as a whole. By examining the role of war and violence in each respective culture, it is unequivocal that cultural narratives and ethnographers continue to distort objective realities in order to reify a Eurocentric view of the world in which indigenous culture are rendered primitive, backwards, and uncivilized.


The Nayars of southwest India are a militaristic, indigenous group that resides in Kerala and are renowned for their highly sophisticated and fascinating culture. As members of the warrior caste, the Nayars historically sustained themselves through militaristic activities and conquest. It was through such bellicosity that Nayar land lords became owners of large pieces of land and often gave tracts away for long period of time during war (). The Nayars, designated by many as a polyandrous society, follow a matrilineal structure in which many ethnographers argue embrace the practice of polygamy (Nowak & Laird, 2010). Other cultural anthropologists argue that Nayar women possess the right to marry and then separate from their husbands in order to marry someone else. Regardless of external perceptions, Nayar women unequivocally have multiple husbands throughout their lives, which underscores the notion that Nayar women possess much more clout and reverence than their male counterparts (Koktvedgaard, 2008). Indeed, much of the extant literature on the Nayars is largely silent regarding Nayar men, which many cultural anthropologists attribute to the fact that the men are largely absent from their villages because they are away fighting in wars for the majority of the year. Agricultural practices sustain their society, and their staple diet includes rice, and was supplemented by vegetables, fish, chicken, and buffalo meat. In addition to the agriculture, trade was also a major activity among all castes in Kerala including the Nayars because the region was not self-sufficient with the amount of rice produced (Gough, 1952, p. 81).
Unlike most indigenous cultures in other regions of India, Nayar society is not extensively bifurcated, as the chasm between the rich and the poor families is relatively non-existent. Indeed, “the expansion of trade, the introduction of new technological devices, and the opening up of new occupations, produce new economic classes between which there is mobility, and which to some extent cut across the affiliations and ranking of caste.” (Gough, 1952, p. 81). The elimination of caste ranking, social economic and sociopolitical class rankings no longer bound Nayar people from changing class levels and restrictions have become more aligned with performance and education. With the introduction of formal government, monetary systems, increased import and export as well as technological developments, the previous Nayar methods of regulating the distribution of wealth, food and other trade labor and class distinction have resulted in a more capitalistic society. With these alterations, the Nayar people are gradually more integrating practices common in more advanced capitalistic and socialistic society forms of government, business and family relationships. Scholars and government authorities alike have been fascinated by Nayar culture because it is so different from the cultures and social structures of other indigenous groups in India. Thus, their customs, beliefs, and militaristic nature have time and again emerged as contentious yet fascinating topics for public debate and academic dialogue.


The culture of the Yanomamo people has profoundly evolved as a result of the influence of colonialism and western desires to obtain wealth from the valuable natural resources located in the Amazon. Despite the encroachment of colonial powers, the Yanomami are still considered one of the most isolated indigenous societies in South America and the Amazon forest (Ushinahua, 2008). Ethnographers have described them as a semi-nomadic people that still depend on hunter-gatherer techniques, known as slash-and-burn horticulture, while also engaging in hunting and fishing practices for their survival (Chagnon, 1966). Kinship plays an integral role in the institution of marriage, as marital bonds are often forged between members of different villages, which indicates that politics are grounded in kinship networks. A communal society, the Yanomamo are comprised of autonomous villages in terms of the economy and politics yet remain bound by their similar cultural practices, beliefs, and language ().
Similar to the Nayars, the Yanomamo also practice polygamy, although the men are the ones who take on multiple wives. A defining feature of the Yanomamo cosmogony is their steadfast belief in animism, or the belief that all living things have a spirit, suggesting that the Yanomamo peoples believe that they are inextricably linked with their environment and the natural resources that it offers (Ushinahua, 2008). Thus, the intrusion of western, colonial powers profoundly impacted them because land and the beauty is sacrosanct within their cosmogony.


The Nayars as mentioned previously were renowned as warriors, as Dutch archives meticulous records the details of battles that the Nayars participated in. British and Dutch observers alike described the Nayars’ style of fighting as disorganized and undisciplined, which was expected of indigenous fighters who lacked a general sense of organization and civility. Rather, they were driven by violent impulses. One Commander-in-Chief named Sir Hector Munro, who fought against the Nayars during the eighteenth century, observed that “they lurk behind sand banks and bushes, then they appear like beesthey point their guns and fire them well.” While his description dehumanizes them by comparing them to dangerous insects, Munro’s description nonetheless has informed presuppositions evident in ethnographies that the Nayars were talented at fighting and killing because of their predisposition towards violence and killing. Indeed, the Nayars’ campaigns resulted in heavy losses for the European power that went to war against them (Henderson, 2002).
Anthropologist Napoleon A. Chagnon has done extensive ethnographic fieldwork studying the Yanomamo, of "the fierce people," an indigenous people who live over a vast geographical area, clustered in small villages in the tropical forests of Brazil and Venezuela. Chagnon has observed that they live in a perpetual state of warfare based on his fieldwork and experiences embedded in their society and culture between 1964 and 1991. Thus, Chagnon has concluded that chronic warfare forms an integral component of Yanomamo culture throughout their history. Moreover, he contends, humans are preternaturally predisposed to engage in violence, thereby spanning various geographical, cultural, and temporal contexts. Such statements have incited ire amongst anthropologists and social scientists alike because they ignore the cultural idiosyncrasies that render certain values such as honor vis-a-vis engagement in war as supreme while other cultures glorify filial piety or pacifism. Chagnon's essentialism of the indigenous Yanomamo conforms with discourses about subaltern peoples large predicated on principles of white hegemony and subaltern inferiority and incivility. Because indigenous people are discursively viewed as primordial and "closer to nature," it seems that Chagnon drew his conclusion from this antiquated world view. Ignoring external factors such as politics and culture further limns Chagnon's theory as deficient and unsound as a result.
Many anthropologists such as Barbara J. King (2013) eschew Chagnon's conclusions based on his ethnographic field work on various premises. Although she disagrees with his methodology, however, King asserts that cultural anthropology is nuanced discipline that develops as a result of the publication of controversial works such as Chagnon's. His work still stirs scholarly debate today, as anthropologists continue to dialogue about how prominently biology plays a role in shaping human behavior as well as an amalgam of external factors. Citing renowned anthropologist Marshall Sahlins (2000), who contended that Chagnon’s conclusions regarding Yanomamo violence in order to “support the theory that violence has been progressively inscribed in [their] genes,” King rejects Chagnon's elision of how socio-cultural factors combine with biological ones to influence violent behaviors salient in certain cultures. By theorizing that violence is inscribed on human genes, Chagnon proffers a weak and inaccurate perception of human behavior. Although Chagnon has been highly acclaimed within scholarly circles, many critics decry his ethnographic work as unethical and render him responsible for harm directly inflicted on the Yanomamo people. Anthropologists and ethnographers must tread lightly when attributing genetics as the formative catalyst for human behaviors. King believes that Chagnon did not demonstrate his claims according to anthropological ethics and methodology. Nonetheless, his work should not be discarded. King's response to Chagnon is polemical in nature that makes an argument about the field of anthropology and how controversial works such as Chagnon's regardless of its ethical nature provides nuance to a field of scholars who continue to try and understand the complexities of human behavior and cultural idiosyncrasies of subaltern peoples.


The limitations of cultural anthropology are unequivocal as a result of the isolated nature of these societies within the context of modernity. Indeed, from a Western perspective, indigenous societies are perceived as primitive and backwards as a result of their “deviant” cultural practices such as polygamy. Such perceptions permeate discourses regarding indigineity in the modern day. This fact is evident in how the role of war and violence in indigenous cultures within these narratives is rife with cultural stereotypes. Nonetheless, ethnographies focused on indigenous cultures contribute to the advancement of cultural anthropology while eschew cultural relativism to produce meaningful epistemologies.


Chagnon, N. (1968). Ya̦nomamö: The fierce people. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
Henderson, C. (2002). Culture and customs of India. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.
King, B. (2013, February 28). The Napoleon Chagnon Wars Flare Up Again In Anthropology. NPR. Retrieved September 2, 2014, from up-again-in-anthropology
Nowak, B. and Laird, B. (2010). Cultural Anthropology. San Diego, Bridgepoint Education.
Sahlins, M. (2000, January 1). Darkness in El Dorado. Jungle Fever. Retrieved January 24, 2015, from
Ushinahua, C. (2008). The International Alliance, “Genocide Watch.” Last modified 2012. Accessed January 24, 2014.

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