I've recently been reading Comparative Arawakan Histories, a collection of some excellent essays on Arawak societies and their cultural histories edited by Jonathan Hill and Fernando Santos-Granero. Arawak (or 'Maipurean') is a language family of South America and the Antilles, and Arawak languages produced many of the words we use in English for American products and ideas (maize, canoe, hurricane, cannibal, etc). Arawak-speaking groups appear to show remarkable consistencies in social structure and what we might term 'culture'.
In particular, hierarchically-arranged chiefdoms and the deliberate disavowal of endo-warfare (that is to say, warfare within the group) and feuding, as well as the preference for creating strong alliances with other groups (especially other Arawak-speaking groups), mark out Arawak populations across the continent. Arawak languages are found from the Andean foothills in southern Amazonia through to the Caribbean, and these principles, with changes, are recurrent throughout the language area.
Due to a common Arawak preference for limiting endo-warfare, many of the contributors in the volume draw attention to the differences in warfare among different South American indigenous societies. Recently, there has been a lot of discussion about Napoleon Chagnon and the supposed misrepresentation of Amazonian societies as 'fierce' or 'warlike'. Stephen Corry has made his traditional claim again that indigenous Amazonian societies are no more nor less violent than other societies. Chagnon's view that the Yanomami (whose language, by the way, is in a family more-or-less of its own) are or were violent in comparison to modern British or American people has come into question on a number of grounds, few of them empirical. I couldn't help but read the book in the context of these discussions.
It is quite true that Amazonian societies of the past were made up of humans whose genetic material was/is largely the same as mine or yours, and that they were/are human beings in every way. It is also true that Amazonian societies of the past were much more violent than they are today. This change was due, in part, to cruel and vindictive 'pacification' programmes by colonial and state governments, I think, but this dubious origin shouldn't blind us to the phenomenon. Amazonian societies were predominantly tribal or based on chiefdoms with relatively weak power structures. This is not conducive to the suppression of violence.
Amazonian warfare appears to have been endemic and violent, with several traditions of mutilation and cannibalism present throughout. There was considerable diversity in this, as in every other sphere of human life in Amazonia, but one of the persistent features is the endemic nature of war.
Panoan-speaking Conibo-Shipibo societies of the Ucayali region were so dependent on war that their women, traditionally weavers, abandoned the craft upon realising that theft and war were reliable producers of woven products. The men acquired wives from other groups primarily through warfare, resulting in various sorts of polygamous arrangements. They also dried the heads and disembodied hearts of their victims and hung them from the rafters of their houses as symbols of their strength. It is also notable that the elderly, women, and children were all fair game, just as they were for the Piro, an Arawakan-speaking group whose pottery closely resembles the Conibo-Shipibo styles despite their speaking an Arawak language (indicating significant 'Panoanisation' of an Arawakan group).* In northwest Amazonia, Baniwa warriors 'decapitated their vanquished enemies to prevent mystical attacks from the dead [...], whereas the Cubeo wore the smoked genitals of killed warriors over their own as a war trophy' (Comparative Arawak Histories, pg.36).**
Both Arawakan and Panoan-speaking communities on the eastern slopes of the Andes, in the Peruvian Amazon, practiced cannibalism, which was also common among Tupi-Guarani-speaking groups (famously including Tupinamba people of the Brazilian coast, on the other side of the continent, whose cannibalistic proclivities were documented in the sixteenth century by Hans Staden). Cannibalism was once present throughout Amazonia (albeit in circumscribed contexts), serving a variety of functions, almost none of them nutritive. I believe it was primarily a vindictive act, although its origins in the region are obscured by its popularity throughout Amazonia. Slave-raiding was also commonplace, seemingly long before Europeans arrived in force (although it is difficult to find evidence for this in the archaeological record, of course).
These are not random examples of bizarre practices that prove that violence was all-pervasive. They are simply graphic examples of a very common trend: endemic warfare and the rise of warriors whose experience gave them credibility and legitimacy.
Warfare was important in all Arawak societies. It was once common to argue that Arawak societies were inherently more peaceful than those of their neighbours, but this isn't accurate. In reality, Arawak societies were good at suppressing feuds and other minor issues within the community, an attribute likely related to the hierarchical orientation of Arawak societies and the common acceptance of chiefly power (sometimes in divine form). But warfare was part of the way in which peace was maintained internally; chiefs whose powers were respected within certain villages would predicate their claims to legitimacy on success in war. Slave-raiding was a part of this as well. The difference in orientation between Arawak groups and others with regard to warfare - noted long ago in the Caribbean by Europeans - wasn't about the total removal of violence among Arawaks, but rather the different social emphasis on killing people. Arawaks did it outside the village and outside of the alliance. Caribs (n.b., 'Carib' is a very confused term; wiki gives some indication of its problems), Panoans, and others, did it in a wider variety of social situations.
The Yanomami, although linguistically unrelated to other groups in Amazonia, were not bucking a trend by conducting violent raids on one another. They were not unique within Amazonia for the brutality of their activities. Chagnon's claims that the Yanomami were 'fierce' should be uncontroversial in this context, and we shouldn't really be questioning whether he was right about the level of warfare in earlier Yanomami societies, unless we have very good reasons for believing that he was wrong. Chagnon's views were/are flawed primarily in labelling the entire Yanomami community as 'fierce', and also in analysing Yanomami society as if it represented some earliest, primeval example of human society. Jon Marks has written of Chagnon's scientific flaws in an excellent article here; it seems that Chagnon's attempts at explaining Yanomami violence were flawed right from the start. He wasn't wrong about the presence of violence itself, however.
None of this means, of course, that Amazonian societies deserve misery and punishment, or that pre-colonial violence in the region justifies punitive expeditions by colonial and modern governments. I merely think we shouldn't be afraid of the truth: that most non-state, 'tribal', people around the world do very often live in a state of endemic warfare, and that this included, until very recently, many of the native human societies of the South American lowlands. I no more believe that this should determine our attitudes and actions towards native Amazonians than should Tacitus's descriptions determine our attitudes towards the cultural descendants of Germanic peoples or the Romans, and the entire debate seems designed to obscure interesting facts about the world, and about Amazonia in particular.
*On a recent visit to the Pitt Rivers Museum, I saw a Conibo longbow made of palmwood. It was about the height of a man and had a thick, twined string. The bow itself was flat in cross-section and was beautifully tapered. I would not be surprised if arrows shot from it were capable of utterly skewering a human being.
**Cubeo is a Tukanoan language. Panoan languages and cultures hybridised in southwestern Amazonia with Arawakan ones, and Tukanoan ones did with Arawakan in the north.