In the Amazon rainforest, a shaman has a new title: indigenous health agent. For our photo essay, André François watched modern medicine with ancient rituals. Helen Joyce introduces him
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, November/December 2013
In 2008 André François spent a month with the Yanomamo of Xitei, a community of around 1,400 Amerindians scattered between 19 villages several hours' walk from each other, deep in the Amazon rainforest at the top end of Brazil. François, a Brazilian photographer, had already been to the region many times and visited around a dozen tribal peoples, but the Yanomamo were the most isolated from the modern world he has yet met. Two hours' flight from Boa Vista, the capital of Roraima, Brazil's least populous state, their settlement is accessible only by small plane, and only when it is not raining too heavily. Before François could start work, he had to agree to send them a copy of every photograph he took. When a Yanomamo dies his possessions are burnt, and the villagers wanted the photos so they too could be burnt upon the death of the people they depicted. "They didn't mind that there would be other copies still in existence, but they needed a copy of absolutely everything."
The Yanomamo were made (in)famous by the publication in 1968 of "Yanomamo: The Fierce People". In it Napoleon Chagnon, a controversial anthropologist who has studied them since the early 1960s and spent several periods living in Yanomamo villages, documents chronic inter-village warfare and stratospheric rates of murder, rape and wife-beating, from which he infers a violent prehistory for all of humanity. Critics point out that Chagnon may have unwittingly fomented at least some of the violence he saw by handing out machetes as rewards for co-operation with his research, and that the Yanomamo way of life—forest gardening supplemented by hunting—is at most 15,000 years old, making it a poor model of the conditions under which humanity evolved.
Pictured: a party in a xapona, a communal hut shared by several families. The men in the hammock sleep together, though whether they are homosexual seems not to matter to the Yanomamo. "A far more civilised attitude than ours," André François says. Their bird's-eye perch appealed to him, as did the sheer oddness of the event. "We would just never do this—party for three or four days, with the children alongside the adults; eat and sleep right there whenever we felt like it; put a hammock so high. I don't know how they got up there"