Intergroup Relations and Social Distance among the Yanomamo

Yanomamo social process is predominantly concerned with the formation of groups and the regulation of intergroup relations through alliance and warfare. These states are both depended on a single concern: the exchange of women among the groups involved. The central institutions -- marriage and warfare -- can best be depicted as standing at opposite ends of a social distance continuum that extends from close alliances and on one pole to bitter conflicts at the other, assuming intermediate forms of feasting and trading, as shown in the following diagram:

Social Distance and Intergroup Relationships Among the Yanomamo

Groups and group relations can best understood from the perspective of gradations of social distance as follows:

  1. The Localized Partilineal Moiety:

    A group composed of the members of a shallow patrilineage, seldom exceeding more than two adult generations, whose members inhabit the same village. Fellow lineage members are considered to be close relatives and ideally identify each other as brothers and sisters. Accordingly localized lineages are exogamous, and sexual relations among members is viewed as incest. There is an gradation of social distance within patrilineages, and less closely related "brothers" may develop hostile relationships in competition over women. Such hostilities can result in a segmentation of the village in which divisions of a lineage form new settlements which sometimes consider each other as enemies.

  2. The Village Settlement:

    A single nucleated settlement is composed of paired patrilineages which regularly intermarry in a standard moiety pattern. Members of one lineage/moiety are individually and collectively tied to members of an opposite moiety through both affinal and matrilateral ties. (If a village is composed of two patrilineal moieties, A and B, a man from A will marry a women from B and his father will have done the same, so his mother will be a member of moiety B as well.) Members of different moieties refer to one another as in-laws, a term which covers spouse, sibling-in-law, and cross cousin. ( See Yanomamo kin terms). Relations between male in-laws are often more cordial than between "brothers", since their placement in different moieties excludes competition over women. Accordingly when villages divide each patrilineal segment establishes a new settlement in cooperation with their closest affines, with whose families they continue to intermarry.

  3. Marriage Alliances:

    To the extent that marriage exchanges are confined paired moieties within a settlement, a pattern of local endogamy is upheld. However several forces can lead to marriages between different villages. The most common is the need for military allies. Smaller groups are under constant threat and are often forced to enlist allies by giving wives to outsiders. Ideally, the wife-givers will receive women in return at a later time, but stronger groups often choose to renege on their obligations.

  4. Feasting Alliances:

    Settlements which are neither linked through marriage nor divided by war often strive to maintain peaceful relations by inviting each other to elaborate feasts, which will also include contributions of valuable trade items from hosts to guests. Allies who exchange feasts and gifts, will refrain from attacking each other and may join forces against enemies. This relationship can further develop into marriage exchanges but can also deteriorate into hostilities.

  5. Trading Alliances:

    A weaker type of alliance will be formed among groups who are at peace with one another and regularly exchange craft manufactures, which are exclusively supplied by villages which specialize in their production to the exclusion of other items. They do not maintain cordial enough relations to feast together or intermarry. The Yanomamo may have developed specialized production of trade items, such as pottery, primarily to provide an opportunity to contain hostilities though mutually advantageous trade and rather than to create any economic benefits. Villages probably could easily maintain self-sufficiency with little extra effort.

  6. Enemies

    Groups that fall outside of regular trading, feasting and marriage alliances maintain a constant and violent state of war usually associated with seizures of each other's women. War accordingly can be modeled as an inverse to marriage or a negative system of exchanging women among exogamous groups.
The relationship between social distance and social interaction described above is complex. To some extent established degrees of distance determine the ways in which groups treat their neighbours and set conditions for the perpetuation of such relationships. For example affines are expected to arrange marriages between their children and thus maintain the continuity of their alliance through subsequent generations. However, the stability of relationships is frequently challenged by ruptures and rearrangements in existing alliances. Thus the character of exchange, whether it is hostile or benevolent and whether it involves trading, feasting, or marriage, determines social distance in turn. On the whole intergroup relations tend to shift through stages of hostility,irregular trading, mutual feasting, marriage exchange, and common settlement. Reversal can occur at any point in this sequence and set both parties back towards a path to war.

© Brian Schwimmer
University of Manitoba
Created: September 1996
Last Updated: September 2003