Where Does Male Honor Come From?

In societies where male honor is highly valued, a man’s worth comes from his family and society in general. This raises the question of what happens when that person no longer has value to their clan?

The “characteristics of an honorable man” is a topic that has been debated for centuries. It is a difficult question to answer, but it is important to know where honor comes from.

Yanomamo tribesman dancing with spears.

Napoleon Chagnon, an anthropologist, came in an almost completely uncharted section of the Amazon Basin in 1964 to spend a year researching the Yanomamö, one of the world’s last major, remote, and totally uncontacted tribes.

Chagnon returned to this region on the border between Venezuela and Brazil 25 times during the following 35 years, spending a total of 5 years with these primitive people. He spent his time there documenting the lives of 25,000 Yanomamö who lived in 250 different communities in a fashion that was remarkably identical to how people lived for tens of thousands of years prior to the modern period. His anthropological degree had not prepared him for what he would see. While Chagnon had been taught that indigenous peoples were largely peaceful, he discovered that among the Yanomamö, fighting was an almost permanent state of affairs that influenced every part of their lives and culture. While his textbooks and lecturers had taught him that tribal fights were virtually always about women, Chagnon discovered that the Yanomamö’s wars were almost completely about women. While Chagnon had assumed that all tribal peoples were egalitarian, he discovered that Yanomamö males were extremely worried about their status, and that there were a number of methods for a man to rise above his village peers.

Napoleon Chignon and a Yanomamo tribesman.

A Yanomamö tribesman with Napoleon Chagnon

In his new book, Noble Savages, Chagnon explains these insights and the debate they sparked in the anthropological community. While every tribe has had its own distinct culture throughout history, what Chagnon observed in the Yanomamö are traits that have been observed in many other primitive peoples as well, and what I found most fascinating about this fascinating book is how many of his observations related to the tenets of honor we discussed last year in our series on the subject. (To refresh your memory, classical honor is described as a reputation deserving of respect and admiration.) We discussed how the code of honor for males has changed through time, from courage and physical prowess to morality and character, although the underlying processes for attaining and enforcing it have stayed the same. By studying how honor was practiced among the Yanomamö, we may find concrete instances of some of the ideas we discussed in the abstract earlier, as well as a plausible explanation for how and why the fundamental male code of honor-as-courage evolved in the first place. At the same time, it makes us think about how this ancient code of honor still resonates in our lives. While the lives of tribes like the Yanomamö may appear to be light years apart from our own, in the grand scheme of things, men have lived like them far longer than they have lived like us; in the grand scheme of things, the many centuries the world has experienced modern civilization is really a blink of an eye. So, in “the world before yesterday,” as Jared Diamond would put it, how did men live and acquire honor?


A War Situation

Yanomamo tribesman war party longbows and spears.

When Chagnon arrived among the Yanomamö, the first thing he saw was that the tribe was always at war, with the “ubiquity of horror” hanging over their heads. Chagnon’s anthropological schooling had primarily shaped his perception of primitive tribesmen as Roussean “noble savages” — communal, peace-loving people at one with nature and one another. His colleagues maintained that warfare was mostly the result of capitalist exploitation and colonialism, and that tribes had had little conflict until they came into touch with industrialized countries. This scholarly picture would be in stark contrast to what Chagnon discovered in the field. While tribesmen do spend many joyful hours hunting, fishing, collecting, and telling amazing tales and myths around the campfire, “one of the most striking elements of their social milieu is the fear of assault from neighbors,” Chagnon says.

Yanomamo children boys training with bow and arrow.

This dread of assault was not unjustified; neighboring villages raided early in the morning on a regular basis, and the effects were sometimes tragic. Chagnon discovered in 1988 that “two-thirds of all surviving Yanomamö over the age of forty [had] lost one or more near genetic kinsman—a father, brother, spouse, or son—to violence” via his rigorous investigation and data-keeping. In contrast, during the notoriously deadly Great War, around one-sixth of Britons lost a member of their immediate family. As a result, the number of Yanomamö males who had murdered another was unusually high; Chagnon reported that 45 percent of these tribesmen had killed at least one other man.

Other anthropologists, according to Chagnon, underestimated the violent nature of tribal cultures because their fieldwork was done with tribes that had already changed their way of life due to contact with outsiders; at the time, there were very few uncontacted, “demographically intact” tribes left to study – places “where populations of tribesmen were still growing by reproducing offspring faster than people were dying and were fighting with each other in complete savagery.”

Chagnon claimed that conflict, rather than being the result of capitalist exploitation and colonialism, was the genuine “state of nature” based on his fieldwork and research into the history of various tribes throughout the globe. He came to the conclusion that 1) “the main driving factor in human social and cultural history was maximizing political and personal security,” and 2) “warfare has been the most significant single force affecting the formation of political society in our species.”

Disputes Over Women

Chagnon was astounded to realize that the Yanomamö were not the peace-loving noble savages he had imagined.

Chagnon’s anthropological school had taught him that primitive peoples, like modern countries, only resorted to war over material resources such as land, food, oil, water, and riches. In the field, Chagnon observed that the Yanomamö did indeed battle over a rare resource, but it was one that his contemporaries had overlooked: women.

Chagnon claims that, like other animals, the Yanomamö were motivated by a biological need to pass on their genes, and that their disputes were almost completely based on reproductive competitiveness. “In the tribal world, the emblems of wealth that we civilized people crave are mostly irrelevant to success and survival, and were irrelevant throughout much of human history,” Chagnon argues. “However, women have always been the most precious single resource that men have fought to protect.”


Vintage Man picked his baby at his arms.

However, the Yanomamö’s drive to find a lady with whom to father kids was not just a biological necessity, but also linked to Chagnon’s third surprise: the tribesmen’s yearning for prestige and honor.

Because prehistoric societies lacked much in the form of tangible prosperity, Chagnon’s colleagues thought their civilizations were highly egalitarian in character. To put it another way, the only status differentiators were regarded to be “automatic” sex or age designations; older people had more status than younger people, and males had higher status than women, but there was nothing individuals could do to rise above their peers and achieve “vertical honor.”

Chagnon, on the other hand, discovered that certain Yanomamö males were accorded greater prominence and respect than others. In numerous ways, these guys achieved a higher level of honor. First, those with the greatest kin and patrilineage were seen as more important, and Chagnon noted that “political leaders in all Yanomamö communities nearly invariably had the biggest number of genetic relations inside the tribe.” They had an advantage in terms of maintaining their elevated status; the more male relatives a young man had, the simpler it was for him to obtain a marriage. Other men in the town preferred to offer their daughters in marriage to those who came from famous lineages anyhow, thus a young man’s father and elder male relatives would assist him in finding a bride. This, according to Chagnon, is the primary purpose of patrilineages: “What these Yanomamö descent groups control and protect are reproductive rights in nubile females, as well as the male relatives who give and take these women from you.”

Polygamy (more precisely polygyny – only males may have numerous marriages) was practiced by the Yanomamö, as it was by most tribes throughout history, and every Yanomamö man wished to have several wives. This right, however, was generally reserved for males of higher social standing. Of course, the difficulty with polygyny is that some men will have six wives while others will have none. Women became scarce as a result of polygyny, and females — the key to reproductive success – became the one resource worth fighting for. Chagnon discovered that 20 percent of the women in the areas he surveyed had been kidnapped from other villages by a gang of men from one community. If the initial invading team murdered someone during their kidnapping operation, members from the invaded hamlet would plot a counterattack to settle the score. It would move back and forth, generating the aforementioned circumstances of perpetual “war” and assault terror.

Chagnon theorized that “if we view the human ability to harness, control, and prudently deploy violence for reproductive advantage, we could consider this skill the most important of all strategic resources,” and that the need to regulate the deployment of this resource is what gave birth to social as well as political rules and laws, based on his observations of its pervasiveness. He describes his findings as follows:


“Most Yanomamö males, regardless of their marital status, attempt to copulate with accessible women the majority of the time, but are prevented from doing so by incest restrictions and the involvement of another man with property interests in the same woman. This explains why communities often break into two or more parties and why there is so much club conflict. Throughout much of human history, conflicts over the ownership of nubile females have most likely been the primary cause of fights and killings: the first human society regulations most likely arose to restrict male access to females and avoid the social instability that comes with fighting over women. In this sort of persistent social context, males sought the assistance of other related guys—brothers, sons, cousins, uncles, nephews—and established male coalitions to achieve selfish reproductive aims while minimizing deadly disputes within their own groups.”

Fierceness and Courage

Finally, we’ll get to the bottom of how the most basic version of the male honor code came to be based on prowess and bravery. Chagnon’s views are particularly intriguing in this regard, and we shall make extensive use of them.

The Yanomamö were concerned with maintaining the noble character of their community as a whole, as well as the honorable reputation of individual individuals within it.

Honor for the Entire Village

Because the Yanomamö were constantly afraid of being attacked and having their women kidnapped by a neighboring village, it was critical that not only the men of each village were prepared to repel an attack, but that the village as a whole had the kind of reputation that made other villages think twice about attempting a raid. Each individual man in a village had to do his part to project and demonstrate courage and fierceness if he wished to earn “horizontal honor.” (“The Fierce People” was a phrase the Yanomamö themselves frequently used to emphasize their valor, bravery, and willingness to act aggressively on their own behalf.) Individual men who didn’t pull their weight and instead displayed fear and timidity revealed weakness, tarnished the village’s image for strength, and effectively encouraged assault. Chagnon goes on to say:

“Let me underscore the Yanomamö viewpoint that when members of a community get a reputation for shyness and weakness, their neighbors take merciless advantage of them, pushing them about, publically insulting them, and stealing their women.” As a result, it’s critical to respond firmly to every offense, no matter how little. When a group is tiny, the males strive to compensate for their numerical disadvantage by acting larger, nastier, more fierce, and ready to fight at any time. In the animal world, feigning to be “bigger than life” is a common deceit, although it is mainly a trait expressed by individual warriors. The Yanomamö, on the other hand, do this act as members of social groupings. To compensate for their genuine military shortcomings, tiny communities were often belligerent and unpleasant to be around, so I avoided them if possible.”


Because reputation is so important, as Chagnon points out, communities are quick to respond to perceived insults to their manliness, strength, and bravery from neighboring villages. “They are promptly addressed by a ‘we’ll show you’ brawl” because they don’t want such “offensive rumors” circulating around. These honor-defending competitions are held in varied degrees among the Yanomamö, depending on the severity of the offense received.

If one town believes that another has been unjustly spreading talk about their shyness and weakness, but the insults have not been too severe, the two villages will agree to settle the matter with a friendly brawl, usually while one village is visiting the other for a feast. The guys slap each other’s sides, yank each other’s hair, and wrestle in the mud and muck during these free-for-alls (using a closed fist is considered unjust). The younger men take part in the skirmish, while the older men circle about, brandishing their axes and machetes, screaming directions to the warriors, and preventing the skirmish from turning into a more serious conflict. The young guys injure each other but do not cause serious damage, and the battle ends after approximately 40 minutes. Nobody is considered the winner, but the melee’s goal is achieved:

“The combat seems to be solely for the purpose of putting to rest allegations of fear or refusal to fight. When the young boxers recover their calm and breath, they climb to their feet silently and unceremoniously, walk outside the shabono to clean off and wash their bodies, and sometimes even take a leisurely dip in the adjacent stream. After the battle, there seem to be no visible bad feelings, and the more ceremonial acts such as eating, trading, chanting, and dancing continue as if the fight never occurred. They have, however, assessed each other and are now more educated about how far they may push or threaten each other in the future without provoking an unforeseen and more severe response. And they generally find out what it costs them to disseminate false stories about the folks they’re eating with.”

If a town believes it has been more badly offended, it may challenge the rumor-producing village to a more formal chest-pounding or side-slapping fight. Two men compete in the first event. One accepts to take the initial blows and offers his chest to his opponent while looking far away. His opponent wraps up like a baseball pitcher and slams his pectoral muscles with numerous strong overhand smashes. The men then reverse places, and the man who had just been defeated can now throw the same amount of punches to his opponent’s chest. The aim is to take as few strikes as possible while making your opponent scream “uncle” first. A side-slapping battle is similar, with the two combatants sitting and kneeling and slapping each other viciously “on the sides between the rib cage and the pelvis, with an open hand.” Both types of duels leave the combatants bruised and painful, and internal organ problems are possible; lung tissue is destroyed, and kidneys are tenderized. Duelists do die from their injuries on occasion, but the competitions are intended to be a nonlethal manner of dealing with insults to honor.


A club fight becomes the legitimate form of redress in reaction to the most severe types of defamation, as well as things like tobacco and food theft or another man attempting to seduce or kidnap one’s wife. Two men square off, much as in the aforementioned duels, and one strikes first, arcing the end of his club all the way from the ground, into the air, and square on top of his opponent’s head. The victim of the wallop is expected to take the punch in stride, remaining immobile and leaning on his own club for support. The person who took the initial hit now gets to strike again, frequently with “huge pieces of their scalp blasted away, flying up and down on their crania.” Club fighting contests begin with two duelists, but may quickly escalate into all-out brawls in which a large number of guys seize their clubs and swing them about aimlessly.

Yanomamo tribesman Club fighting scars rites of passage.

Scars from a brawl at a nightclub.

“After their scalps have healed, many competent and persistent club fighters’ scalps are crisscrossed with as many as a dozen large, protuberant, lumpy scars two or three inches long,” Chagnon observed. They’re also proud of their scars:

“Men like them who have a lot of club-fighting scars aren’t afraid to show them off.” To accentuate their multiple deep wounds, they shave the tops of their heads in a tonsure and then dab crimson dye into them. If a guy lowers his face and head to you, he is typically not demonstrating deference: he is blatantly flaunting his ferocity.”

Despite the fact that these various degrees of duels and melees sometimes resulted in death, “none of the fighting…is purposely fatal,” according to Chagnon, and should instead be regarded as “deliberately sublethal ‘alternatives’ to combat.” The battles were not intentionally planned to kill, but were a way for a man, or a group of men, to demonstrate they were fearless to fight and bleed in order to keep their honorable character, similar to the “affairs of honor” and “rough and tumbles” participated in by men in the 19th century.

Individual Recognition

Vintage man standing and open his arms.

While individual Yanomamö males had a vested interest in preserving their village’s reputation for bravery and ferocity in order to reduce the risk of being attacked, it was not wholly selfless.

First, as Chagnon explains in his explanation of the “kin selection” idea, preserving one’s relatives and their chances of finding a mate indirectly increased a man’s chances of passing on his own genes even if he didn’t have children:

“Because related people share DNA, a person might pass on copies of his or her genes to future generations by selecting close relatives and without reproducing sexually.” Individuals, for example, share half of their DNA (50 percent) with their siblings, one-fourth (25 percent) with their half-siblings, an eighth (12.5 percent) with their full cousins, and so on. Thus, if they participate in specific types of “favors” that improve a full cousin’s reproductive success, their liking of that kinsman helped them get some of their own genes into the next generation to the degree that those favors allowed that kinsman to find a partner and create kids. ‘I’d lay down my life for eight relatives,’ one theoretical geneticist, J. B. S. Haldane, is alleged to have declared. That’s because an average of eight relatives would inherit 100 percent of the genes carried by the guy who lay down his life.”


More specifically, a Yanomamö man’s bravery and physical prowess during melees and battles could improve or degrade his individual status within a village; those who showed timidity were “branded a coward, an accusation that tends to remain forever in the memories of others,” whereas fighting with ferocity usually resulted in a “increased ability to sway public opinion and public action.”

The masculine drive for honor was so great that tribesmen would try to prove their ferocity even as they died; the concept of honor being more valuable than life was not coined until the modern era. Even if a Yanomamö man knew he wouldn’t survive long enough to reap the rewards of demonstrating ferocity, his legacy and the memory of his manliness were worth preserving until his last breath, as Chagnon graphically illustrates:

“Valiant leaders like Ruwahiwä have been known to survive apparent—or even certain—lethal hits to the head from heavy axes by rising, staggering forward, and somehow remaining on their feet while being terminally wounded. My own Yanomamö informants, who were also eyewitnesses to Ruwahiwä’s murder, reported the first ax hit to his skull as a deadly blow… Ruwahiwä, on the other hand, managed to rise up and fall down numerous times despite being shot several times in the face, neck, stomach, and chest. Many years later, one of the headmen I knew—Matowä—was assassinated soon after I arrived, as I had previously reported. He most likely received the same number of death arrow wounds as Ruwahiwä, but he firmly kept his ground and cursed his enemies until he couldn’t stand any more. He, too, never recognized the pain—or the anguish of knowing his wounds were fatal—but taunted his attackers with bold boasts of his courage and fearlessness until he succumbed to his wounds, dead. Many six-foot arrows were thrust haphazardly into or into his neck, chest, and stomach as he died. “This courageous warrior Matowä shouted about his heroism and fury even as the raiders continued to fire arrow after arrow into his body,” one of my informants, who was part of the raiding group that murdered him, informed me in whispers.”

Earning the title of unokai – a man who has slain another man – was the clearest method to exhibit one’s ferocity and the surest path to higher prestige within a Yanomamö community, regardless of the size of one’s lineage. “Unokais had a distinct, earned, and revered position that only few men reached,” Chagnon adds, since “not all males were ready to suffer the risks and expose themselves to the perils that Yanomamö unokais did.”

Unokais have 2.5 times more spouses and 3 times as many children than non-unokais, indicating that their elevated status is mirrored in their better success in obtaining brides.

Because of the way their personal reputation increased a village’s reputation as a not-to-be-messed-with place, Unokais acquired such distinction (and reaped the rewards that came with it):


“Because they have shown a readiness to murder people and are likely to kill again, Unokais are both admired and feared.” In a political context, a village’s military legitimacy and power may be assessed by the number of unokais it has, with the proviso that village size is also very essential. When two towns of identical size are compared, the one with the most capable unokais will be the stronger, more feared, and more fearsome opponent.”

Chagnon’s observations on how unokais act in comparison to men who haven’t murdered are fascinating, as is his idea that a man’s readiness to kill is ultimately what leads to power, and from power, laws and states:

“Many guys get the reputation of being waiteri, or ferocious. Unokai, on the other hand, have proved their readiness to inflict deadly injury on an opponent and to operate in a ruthless way. Such individuals may be exceedingly peaceful and quiet in public and social situations, and even very nice and attractive. Many men who are not unokais, on the other hand, seem to be forced to act in ways that suggest they are men killers. In their public life, such guys may be arrogant and nasty, ordering others about, frightening them, threatening to strike them with machetes or axes, and even threatening to murder them. When an unokai threatens to attack or kill someone, though, he typically means it. When an unokai issues an order to a member of the community, that person must carry it out. That is how leaders’ influence, authority, and coercive force arises, adds to, and goes beyond the sort of solidarity and cohesion inherent in family amity. The odiousness of penalties is the trait that finally leads to the authority of law. Political governments cannot survive without the rule of law.”


This is not a piece with a clear and instant takeaway, but rather one that aims to present some potentially fascinating background material on the roots of male culture and honor. Manliness, in my opinion, is both the harnessing of primordial desires and the discipline to transcend those urges on occasion in the quest of higher growth and virtue. However, before you can strike that balance in either way, you must first understand what sorts of primordial habits may have been established in your mind through thousands of years of human history. I believe Chagnon’s insights provide an intriguing glimpse into how and why the fundamental rule of male honor, as characterized by stoic bravery, came to be. And, as I indicated at the outset, what struck me was how, despite being so far away from our contemporary lives, the lives of Yanomamö men still had faint echoes today. Learning about the Yanomamö provided me with a slew of odd ideas that I believe are relevant to the status of contemporary males, but since each could be its own mini-post and this piece is already fairly long, why don’t you share what stood out to you?



This is not a piece with a clear and instant takeaway, but rather one that aims to present some potentially fascinating background material on the roots of male culture and honor. Manliness, in my opinion, is both the harnessing of primordial desires and the discipline to transcend those urges on occasion in the quest of higher growth and virtue. However, before you can strike that balance in either way, you must first understand what sorts of primordial habits may have been established in your mind through thousands of years of human history. I believe Chagnon’s insights provide an intriguing glimpse into how and why the fundamental rule of male honor, as characterized by stoic bravery, came to be. And, as I indicated at the outset, what struck me was how, despite being so far away from our contemporary lives, the lives of Yanomamö men still had faint echoes today. Learning about the Yanomamö provided me with a slew of odd ideas that I believe are relevant to the status of contemporary males, but since each could be its own mini-post and this piece is already fairly long, why don’t you share what stood out to you?


Napoleon Chagnon’s Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes — the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists 



Honor is a concept that has been around for centuries. It is one of the most important concepts in manliness and masculinity. Honor is what separates men from beasts. Reference: art of manliness honor.

Related Tags

  • masculine honor definition
  • masculine honor in romeo and juliet
  • why is honor important
  • what is honor
  • vertical honor