Friday 19 March 2010, 18:51
Here is a lovely fragment of archive I found. It is in the middle of a very serious BBC documentary called "Flightpaths to the Gods" made in 1997 all about the Nazca Lines in the high Peruvian desert. The film tries to explain who or what made the mysterious geoglyphs. After dismissing Erik von Daniken's theory that they are alien runways, the film suggests that they are the product of a drug-taking shaman culture - and that they are really giant drawings that show the visions the shamen had when astral flying on psychoactive drugs over the desert landscape.
Then suddenly we cut to a Shaman using a live guinea pig in a new and unique way - as a diagnostic tool for illnesses in the human body. It is short but it is great.
I found it when looking for footage of the Yanomamo tribe who live on the borders of Brazil and Venezuala. The Nazca film argues that the Yanomamo are the remnants of that drug taking shaman civilisation.
I am fascinated by the way the Yanomamo appear again and again in the BBC film archive. And each time they turn up they play a new role as different Western concerns and ideas about human beings and nature are projected onto them.
In the Nazca programme the Yanomamo hold the key to unlocking the mysteries of an ancient civilisation that knew more about the world and its spiritual dimensions than we do.
But the Yanomamo have played other roles.
They are very much the archetype for the Na'vi tribes in James Cameron's Avatar. An indigenous people that has been ruthlessly exploited by Western commercial interests, but who are also somehow better than us. They are an innocent people with a clearer vision than us. A vision that we have lost because we have been corrupted and driven mad by the sophisticated and amoral society we live in.
This was the version of the Yanomamo that television gave you throughout the 1980s. I just wanted to show two bits of this. The first is from Breakfast Time in 1983 - it is part of "Yanomamo The Musical" performed by some British schoolchildren. The lyrics talk about the Yanomamo worshipping trees and animals (very Avatar).
And this is from a Def II episode in 1989. Six years had gone by and another musical had been written. But this time it is performed by ageing rock stars. It films them in a recording studio and it is the high point of the alliance between rock music and the indigenous peoples of the Amazon.
I particularly like Iggy Pop's revelation that it was the trees of his home state of Michigan that helped him through an emotional crisis.
But prior to this there had been at least three other - very different - versions of the Yanomamo presented by the BBC.
Throughout the 1970s western TV producers paddled up the river with their cameras. And each time the Yanomamo were reinvented to fit with the changing and contradictory demands of those making the films.
The first is from in 1969 (but shot in 1968). It is a film called RIVER OF DEATH - a documentary about an odd collection of Britons, including a reporter called Arthur from the People newspaper, who want to find out about this strange people called the Yanomamo (the commentary also refers to them by another name - the Guaica). They start off in a hovercraft, but switch to small boats and arrive first at a Yanomamo village run by the New Tribe Mission - a group of American evangelicals who had been working with the Yanomamo since the 1950s.
Here is a bit from that part of the film. The crew interview a missionary family. Standing around them you see the Yanomamo trying to please the western missionaries, all dressed up in western clothes
But this is 1968 and the West's expectations and dreams are changing. The journalists want the Yanomamo to be something else.
The documentary makers have heard that upriver there are groups of Yanomamo who have an extraordinary drug. And they want to get hold of it.
It is an odd film. There are two voices narrating it. One is the producer who sees the Yanomamo as noble savages who have been corrupted by the missionaries. The other is Arthur from The People who projects onto the Yanomamo a much older vision - they are primitive savages who know nothing about the world, have never met a white man before and ask him (so he claims) whether he's killed and scalped his wife.
In reality, as some anthropologists have since pointed out, the Yanomamo had been regularly meeting westerners for over a century.
Here is the bit of the film of the explorers finally arriving at the "lost" village only to find that all the Yanomamo men have disappeared (They are "out hunting"). The westerners find the drug - but there is noone around who will take it. There is a wonderful bit of one of the western missionaries demonstrating its effect. But that is all - the Yanomamo men fail to deliver. They remain hidden in the trees. The Yanomamo are a mystery.
But four years later the Yanomamo had got their act together.
This time they give western television exactly what they want. The Yanomamo act out the counterculture hippie dream
The BBC put out a film called SONS OF THE BLOOD. It is narrated by David Attenborough, and in it the Yanomamo men do practically nothing all day except take vast amounts of psychoactive drugs. While the women do the cooking.
The commentary makes it clear that the Yanomamo are a violent people, that they fight wars. But once inside the confines of their own commune - sorry, village - they create a new kind of society based on "trust and loving". The Yanomaomo fight wars because they are proud, but they are also a gentle people.
The film portrays Yanomamo daily life in the village as an idyllic dream world. They have no experts, they do practically no work, they just lie around in the hammocks smiling. The drugs, the films says, are central to their culture and they allow the Yanomamo to experience other realities that are denied to us, fallen westerners.
Here is a bit from the film.
But also in the early 70s the BBC made another film called THE FIERCE PEOPLE in which the Yanomamo played a completely different role. They were shrewd, cunning and above all highly political.
It was at that moment in the Cold War when America and the Soviet Union were beginning the process of Detente. As a result the international tension was easing - but the west was riven by the question of whether one could trust the Soviets.
The film follows a group of scientsists from the US Atomic Energy Commission who have come to study the Yanomamo. A central part of their study is to examine the politics of Yanomamo society and see what it can tell us about our own political behaviour.
The film does this by examining how "primitive" peoples negotiate and form alliances. Here is a bit from the film where the Yanomamo from one village give a feast in order to make an alliance with another village.
It is a different version of the Yanomamo, but yet again underlying the film is the belief that the Yanomamo are a simplified reflection of us and our dreams and aspirations. Simplified because you can see them in their natural clarity.
And yet again the Yanmomamo act out their roles perfectly.
But things changed quickly in the west. And only three years later a new version of the Yanomamo was required by TV.
This time they are no longer political, instead they are programmed robots. And they are used to prove scientifically a new truth about us. That we "civilised" people are also robots driven by immortal codes deep inside our bodies.
The Selfish Gene had just been published, and science programmes had got very excited by the rise of Sociobiology. Horizon made a film called THE HUMAN ANIMAL - and in it the Yanomamo played a central role.
Village life is no longer and idyllic dream. Instead it is full of individuals attacking and defending one another in a continuous churning state of tension. The programme focusses on the work of an American anthropologist, Napoloen Chagnon - and an experiment he conducted about a particular fight in a village.
Chagnon said that the behaviour of each individual Yanomamo in the fight was really controlled by their genes. Who they chose to attack and who they chose to defend was mathematically determined by how closely or distantly related the individuals were.
Here is a bit from a series I made called The Trap - where I use extracts from The Human Animal - about Chagnon's experiment.
In all these examples we in the West - both scientists and TV producers - are projecting our ideas and our dreams and our fears onto the Yanomamo. But the Yanomamo are not just passive in this. Each time they seem to work out what the westerners want and then give it back to them perfectly. Or, as in the case of Chagnon they play with him and trick him in funny ways.
Which makes you wonder. Maybe they are just as sophisticated as us in the west? Or maybe even more so?
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