This book deals with one of the few New World Indian groups that are still virtually free of European cultural contamination. Isolated in the highland headwater area of the Orinoco on the Venezuelan-Brazilian border, the Yanoama have been the subject of several previous publications by anthropologists and explorers. In the present study Professor Smole, a geographer, emphasizes the spatial patterns of Yanoama settlement and livelihood, basing his information on personal field data obtained in 1970 among the Barafiri dialect group and on published sources.
The authors discusses population distribution and settlement forms, stressing the typical circular community (shabono) of the Barafiri and its relation to kinship units (teri). Nearly half the book describes Yanoama livelihood, especially farming activities. Whereas most Amazonian forest farmers raise bitter manioc for their chief food, the Yanoama cultivate plantains and bananas as their staples, a unique crop specialization for the area. The author suggests that the Yanoama have been horticulturalists for “untold generations,” a view contrary to that held by most writers, who believe that these primitives changed from hunters and collectors to farmers rather recently. Professor Smole implies that the close articulation of farming activities with the kin-group system and settlement pattern, and the use of cultivated plants in religious ceremony, might indicate great antiquity of horticulture among the Yanoama. The use of Old World cultigens as staples—several varieties of plantains and bananas—raises the question as to when and how the Indians acquired these plants (pre- or post-Columbian?). The author, apparently, opted to avoid this controversial topic. His discussion of yields and nutritional values of various crops, however, add depth to the lengthy treatment of horticulture. His material on collecting and hunting is understandably less detailed. The book concludes with a short but significant section on how the Yanoama have modified the soils and natural vegetation by using slash-and-burn cultivation. The scattered grasslands within the forest habitat probably can be attributed to such action.
This is a well written and profusely documented book (40 pages of notes in fine print). It is representative of the growing number of studies that deal with the ecological aspects of extant aboriginal groups in Latin America.