Review of Yanomamö Interactive: The Ax Fight. Peter Biella, Napoleon A. Chagnon and Gary Seaman. Harcourt Brace and Company, 1997 [ISBN 0-15-507653-1] [CD-ROM]

Reviewed by Marcus Banks

Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Oxford, 51 Banbury Road, Oxford OX2 6PE. Email:

Cite this as: Banks, M. 2000 Review of Yanomamö Interactive: The Ax Fight. Peter Biella, Napoleon A. Chagnon and Gary Seaman. Harcourt Brace and Company, 1997 [ISBN 0-15-507653-1][CD-ROM], Internet Archaeology 8.

CD-ROM (with User's Guide) for Macintosh (Requirements: OS 7.1 or greater; 8MB minimum RAM, 16MB recommended) or Windows (Requirements: vers. 3.1 or 95; 8MB minimum RAM, 16MB recommended). Price and ordering details can be found on a specially created web site at the University of California Santa Barbara. Also available from for $36.50 and from for £24.85

In an as yet unpublished paper on computer-assisted visual anthropology, Michael D Fischer and David Zeitlyn [1] describe a 'book model' approach to multimedia, not strictly sequenced, but essentially consisting of a main text with hyperlinks to supporting information. At first glance this CD-ROM appears to conform to this model: a dominant text, in this case a complete digitization of Tim Asch and Napoleon Chagnon's 1974 film The Ax Fight, supplemented with a variety of additional information in the form of still photographs, genealogies of the main participants, maps, diagrams, short essays and transcriptions. In short, a main text plus footnotes and appendixes. If this were so, then Yanomamö Interactive would be a valuable but rather limited product, useful really only to those aquainted with the film who wished to learn a little more about it and its content.

 Interactive - selecting a film clip
Selecting a section of the film

But further investigation reveals that the structure is closer to another of Fischer and Zeitlyn's multimedia types, the 'layered' approach, in which a variety of different resources are brought together, either to be examined alone in streams or layers of information, or examined in conjunction, the user moving back and forth between the layers. The digitized film is undoubtedly the dominant layer, but, with some possible exceptions, the additional layers sustain an independence and an argument of their own, working with and sometimes against the main text, but linked to it and each other by an extraordinarily sophisticated and complex web of links. There are at least two reasons for this elevation from the 'film plus notes' model. The first is undoubtedly the skill, effort and most importantly of all ethnographic and theoretical understanding of the authors. The second comes from within the film itself.

As Peter Biella notes in his 'Introduction', Asch and Chagnon's film was and remains groundbreaking in a number of ways. The film opens with a 'blur of violence' in the Yanomamö village of Mishimishimaböwei-teri, in the Venezuelan Amazon. The unedited ten and a half minutes of action depicts a chaotic jumble of people rushing around, shouting, wielding sticks and then axes. The camera seems badly positioned, its operator (Asch) unable to follow the action with any clarity; the few voices that can be heard clearly are unintelligible for non-Yanomamö speakers (though towards the end some sequences of speech - hurled insults, in fact - are subtitled. There then follows four further sequences, each of which serves as a layer of interpretation or commentary on the initial footage. First we hear but do not see Asch the camera operator, Chagnon the anthropologist, and Johnson the sound recordist discussing what they had just witnessed (Johnson kept the tape recorder running after the film had run out). Johnson initially identifies the commotion as 'wife-beating' but is corrected by Chagnon who states that an incestuous relationship between a woman and her classificatory son has led to a reprisal or punishment. The third section of the film however begins with a titlecard stating 'First impressions can be mistaken...' and goes on to use freeze frames and slow motion footage to identify the main participants and to provide an explanation (through narration) for the conflict based on tensions between rival factions of current and visiting former residents of the village. This section is followed by a set of rostrum camera shots of the participants' genealogies, which show how different combatants and their supporters are related to each other. The final section of the film 'replays' the original sequence of action, again without commentary but this time edited for smooth action.

While the five sections must be viewed sequentially at a normal screening of the film (on celluloid film or videotape) [2], the CD-ROM allows the user to perceive them as a set of layers each offering a different perspective on a single event. Biella's 'Introduction' indicates that the film's structure was always intended to be read in this layered way, despite the restrictions of film as a time-based medium, and thus one could claim that this hypertextual version finally allows the inherent form to be fully appreciated. Liberating the layers of the film from their sequential structure then allows additional layers to be added and for connections between them to be fashioned. A consequence of this is that the additional layers can attempt parity with the original layers of the film, rather than merely being subordinate to it, advancing their own arguments in conversation with various of the film layers, as well as with the film text as a whole.

Yanomamo Interactive - analysing the fight
Selecting images and characters to analyse the fight

The CD-ROM interface is normally divided into four active areas, plus associated control buttons, drop-down menus, a search box and so forth. The top left area is enslaved to the film itself; the top right area displays genealogies (which are far larger than the window but which can be moved around within it), and also displays still photographs; the bottom left area is devoted to text - transcriptions, essays and so forth; the bottom right area contains some control buttons and the search field, and displays basic biographical information when required. Certain actions will cause an image or diagram to fill the whole interface for more detailed examination, such as a plan of the village. Some additional interface windows are also available, including a help screen and a notepad that allows the user to jot their own notes and save them to disk as an ASCII file readable by any text or word processor. [3] Each section of the film can be selected and viewed independently, as can each of the 'scenes' within the initial unedited sequence. Each of the sections can be accompanied by parallel material in other areas of the interface, such as a 'blow-by-blow' description of the unedited scenes describing exactly who is doing what to whom, or a transcription of two verbal commentaries made by Chagnon on watching the original footage (which together with notes from his own research, provided the basis for the analysis in the third and fourth sections of the film). But the contents of the other areas can also call up film sequences together with other material, such as the names of all participants named in the 'blow-by-blow' descriptions, the narration transcription and other text documents (all clickable, causing the film to jump to the relevant point) as well as still photographs and census data concerning the individuals. The complex system of hyperlinks that cause one data item to call up or temporarily enslave another are remarkably stable and intelligently dynamic: no matter how far away one strays away from one line of enquiry to investigate others, the user is able to return to the point from which they originally started. In short, Yanomamö Interactive presents a clean, stable and well-designed interface. The accompanying booklet provides an overview essay on Yanomamö ethnography by Chagnon [4] and a printed version of part of the CD-ROM's 'Help' file which crucially contains an overview of the contents of the CD-ROM and suggestions as to how each data component might be used.

So much for the design and interface, what of the content? In many ways Chagnon's intellectual position is at odds with much contemporary anthropology and this bias inevitably, but identifiably, skews the use of the materials, although to be fair, Biella deals with this head-on in his 'Introduction'. Through his writings, including one essay included on the CD-ROM, Chagnon advocates a neo-Darwinian position that directly correlates the likelihood of individuals coming to aid one another in conflicts such as that depicted with the amount of genetic material they share. To some extent, as Biella claims, this hypothesis can be explored through the materials available on the CD-ROM. However, there are problems, both with Chagnon's 'kin selection' theory and with the user's ability to test it. [5] More profitable, certainly for most students today, is to explore lines of enquiry that are embedded with the various texts, including the film itself, but which are not explicit. One, suggested by Biella in his 'Introduction', involves assessing gender relations in Yanomamö society, by using the 'People' list to track the activities in the film of named men and women (though unfortunately the 'People' list does not identify men or women, and the user has either to browse through the associated photographs, or to pick up names and gender pronouns from the various texts). For example, selecting one woman, Yaukuima, causes her photograph and bio-data to be displayed. Clicking on the 'Film data' button, her twelve appearances in the film can be tracked, and each time her name is clicked in the film descriptions, the appropriate sequence of film is displayed. As Biella points out, she plays a role in the unfolding of the fight that is ignored both by the narration and the camera's viewpoint.

 Interactive - following a character
Assessing the role of Yaukuima in the fight

Similarly, tracking the progress of the initially 'nameless and invisible' Rääiyowä, Yaukuima's brother's son, as he runs back and forth across the village during the course of the fight, gives insight into how young Yanomamö men learn and acquire the qualities of aggressive masculinity that the Yanomamö value.

Apart from the investigations into Yanomamö ethnography and its interpretation, Yanomamö Interactive also suggests and facilitates a whole series of explorations of value to those interested in ethnographic film. The film itself can be deconstructed, scene by scene, cut by cut; the narration can be interrogated for emphasis, bias and omission; the textual background to the making of the film and the additional photographs, including high resolution frame stills, can all be used to locate the film in its context of production. [6] 'The Ax Fight' is undoubtedly a remarkable film, and a milestone within the canon of ethnographic film that justly deserves and repays close study for those interested in creating or simply reading intelligently other ethnographic films. Indeed, as a visual anthropologist with no experience of tribal society, the principal value of the CD-ROM lies in this area for me.

I would, however, suspect that this would be of lesser concern to most archaeological users, who might instead look to other areas. Of those that I can imagine, one that might well be of interest would be an investigation of 'primitive warfare', encouraged perhaps by Chagnon's neo-Darwinian and evolutionist perspective. I suspect, however, that the CD-ROM's focus on a single fight would rather limit that line of enquiry. Perhaps of greater value would be to consider the 'layered' model provided by Yanomamö Interactive as a way of presenting and linking an essentially closed and historical set of data in a way which is neither too constraining nor too open. Biella and I have differed in the past about the value of computer-aided multimedia in anthropology (see our respective papers on the subject), and my own position has been - and remains - that merely lumping together a disparate variety of resources on a topic and asking a user to trace an apparently random path through it and investigate whatever interests them, is to abrogate all intellectual authority and responsibility. Biella, Chagnon and Seaman rightly deserve praise for invoking their respective experience, training and expertise and for investing it in a product that is neither overly didactic nor a mere rag bag of interesting snippets.


[1] Both of the Centre for Anthropology and Computing, University of Kent at Canterbury.

[2] Biella in his 'Introduction' is quick to acknowledge that the small film viewing window in the CD-ROM interface is inadequate for a first viewing of the film, although the quality is surprisingly good and perfectly readable for anyone who has seen a full-screen version. The CD-ROM contains details of [film / video] hire in the US. For those based in the UK, a 16mm film version may be hired from the Royal Anthropological Institute's Film and Video Library. See the RAI site for details.

[3] Rather irritatingly, the interface (a Macromedia Director file) causes the remainder of the screen to blank, rendering it almost impossible to access any other program without quitting the CD-ROM. On the plus side, the user is prompted to save the contents of the notepad when quitting. In addition to the material available from within the program, a series of MS Excel data files are provided on the CD-ROM that allow the user to interrogate some of the raw census data that Chagnon and Paul Bugos used in constructing an evolutionary argument to explain the behaviour of participants in the conflict. The Chagnon and Bugos article is included as part of Yanomamö Interactive, but it is perhaps more conveniently read, together with all the other texts on the CD-ROM, at the associated web site.

[4] The essay is adapted from the latest edition of his core text Yanomamö (Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1997; originally published as Yanomamö: the fierce people. Holt, Rinehart & Winston, Case Studies in Cultural Anthropology,1968).

[5] This is not the place to go into these objections nor, I suspect, am I sufficiently qualified. However, much rests on the Yanomamö genealogies Chagnon collected over the years maintaining a perfect coherence between what Chagnon understands the biological relatedness between particular individuals to be (on the basis of interviews and also perhaps blood work conducted by medical colleagues he worked with in the late 1960s and early 1970s) and what the actual genetic links between these individuals are. As John Barnes pointed out many years ago, long before DNA analysis was available, the well-established anthropological distinction between 'pater' and 'genitor' ('social' father and 'real' father) was inadequate: the 'reality' of the genitor was as much a social construction as social fatherhood, based on what individuals thought (but could rarely prove) to be the case. Only accurate knowledge of which man had inseminated which woman could demonstrate 'real' fatherhood (Barnes, J. A. 1961 'Physical and social kinship'. Philosophy of science 28(3), 296-99).

[6] Here I do have one small point of criticism. Chagnon's somewhat bitter reflections on the film's production, 'Ethnographic and Personal Aspects of Filming and Producing The Ax Fight', can most charitably be described as 'honest' and 'revealing', but of Chagnon rather than the film's production. In it he refers in passing to a 1979 essay by Asch that apparently also describes the film's production, but this is not included on the CD-ROM, nor does Chagnon provide a bibliographic reference.

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