The structure of kinship and marriage

A student’s imagination can only go so far when creating images and sequences of events based on descriptions from an anthropological text. An ethnographic writing may be able to adequately convey the essence of a culture through detailed descriptions, but a film, or any sort of visual representation, depicting the same culture adds another perspective to the understanding that is being fostered by the student.

By reading a text and subsequently watching an ethnographic film, viewing photographs, or any other sort of visual aid on that culture or a specific event in it, the students gains a new layer of knowledge of the customs and mannerisms imbedded within the society. Implicit in this statement is the idea that a complete, or as close to complete as possible, understanding of a culture is not possible until a visual representation has been presented. The ethnographic novel Yanomamo by Napoleon A. Chagnon and the film The Ax Fight by Chagnon in collaboration with Timothy Asch combine to create an example of this effect.

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The Ax Fight, though only one out of several, is one of the most well-known films in the Yanomamo film series that Asch and Chagnon teamed up to create. These films depict the Yanomamo culture and their natural environment, several significant rituals and customs, as well as everyday activities (Biella, Chagnon, ; Seaman, 1997). Chagnon narrates throughout most of the films, explaining what is going on, though in The Ax Fight he and Asch are audio-recorded having a conversation about the fight that had erupted and was the centerpiece of the film.

In this particular film freeze-frame editing and slow motion replay are utilized to make this film useful as a methodological tool in ethnography and prove essential to the deciphering of complex kinship patterns among the Yanomamo. As a stand-alone the film does not even come close to encompassing every aspect the culture, but it displays a feature that has come to be widely associated with the group. The beginning of The Ax Fight is 11 minutes of raw footage taken by Asch of a fight that had just erupted, escalating from the introduction of clubs to the use of axes in the dispute.

The second part uses the previously described film techniques, such as freeze-framing, to explain what was occurring as well as the complex kinship ties that play a central role in Yanomamo culture. Prior to the existence of any such films, however, Napolean A. Chagnon carried out several years of field study in which he lived with the Yanomamo, essentially immersing himself in their culture. From his efforts arrived the ethnographic work Yanomamo, an account and thorough explanation of the culture and Chagnon’s experiences with the inhabitants of the village in which he was residing.

He provides the reader with his own reactions to various aspects of the culture. For example, he describes his arrival to the village with “I looked up and gasped when I saw a dozen burly, naked, sweaty, hideous men staring at us down the shafts of their drawn arrows! ” (Chagnon, 1968/1997, p. 11). A primary part of the ethnography is the kinship and social organization that is known for being among the most complex and difficult to grasp in the field of anthropology.

After reading Chapter 4, “Social Organization and Demography,” of the work, a student is able to understand the structure and complexities of the Yanomamo social system fairly well. However, without a visual representation the student can only create images in his or her mind of how interactions happen between members of the village. The structure of kinship and marriage ties that is described in the text comes to life in the film, revealed by the participants of the fight as they take particular sides in the fighting. Raw footage, however, is not enough to facilitate the student’s learning.

In this particular case, Chagnon uses film techniques to go through an explanation of what is occurring, ending up with two repetitions of the same piece of footage. Has Chagnon’s explanation not been included in the film, the loudness and commotion of the footage would have proved incomprehensible to the viewers, leaving them only with an image of natives hitting each other with sticks and women screaming at the top of their lungs. Without an explanation in the film itself, the same effect can still be created by having an instructor go through the film and explain it him- or herself.

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