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Internet Source: Cultural Survival
Source URL: http://www.cs.org/yanomami.htm


The Yanomami Scandal

David Maybury-Lewis

The Yanomami (who are also called Yanamamo, Yanomam, and Sanuma) are a remote group of some twenty to thirty thousand Indians who live in over a hundred villages scattered on both sides of the border between Venezuela and Brazil. They are famous in the anthropological literature because of a long-running debate about whether or not they are particularly violent. Napoleon Chagnon, an anthropologist who recently retired from the University of California at Santa Barbara, has studied the Venezuelan Yanomami for most of his professional life, and has argued that they are indeed violent, so much so that he subtitled his book about them "The Fierce People" and maintained the subtitle through three editions of the work. In more recent editions he has dropped the subtitle, but continues to defend the thesis that the Yanomami are fierce, warring with each other to capture women, so that their best warriors can maximize their reproductive success. Napoleon Chagnon’s sometime teacher and longtime mentor was James Neel, a distinguished human geneticist (now dead) at the University of Michigan. Neel became especially interested in studying the genetics of remote tribal populations and for that reason went with Chagnon and others to work among the Yanomami of Venezuela in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Now, in a recently published book whose advance copies and excerpts in The New Yorker have created a furor, Patrick Tierney, an investigative journalist, has accused both Neel and Chagnon of committing serious abuses against the Yanomami. He charges Neel with instigation of, or at the very least doing little or nothing to deal with, the serious measles epidemic among the Yanomami that resulted in thousands of deaths. To explain why Neel would have done such a thing Tierney refers to Neel's years of work with the Atomic Energy Commission. The AEC was investigating the toxic effects of atomic radiation on human beings and therefore acquired the use of a facility at the Strong Memorial Hospital, which was under the same roof as the University of Rochester Medical School. There, in the immediate postwar years, vulnerable patients such as the poor in charity wards, the terminally ill, women, and children were injected with radioactive substances or given them to ingest in other ways without their knowledge or consent. Later on prisoners serving sentences in penitentiaries were also selected for such experimentation. When this program was finally exposed, it often proved impossible to locate the files which would show exactly who had administered these doses. Tierney does not accuse Neel of doing so, but rather of having spent years as a senior member of teams that included people who did. He argues that Neel was a man who believed that such experiments were defensible in the name of science and was therefore the kind of man who might very well treat a devastating epidemic among the Yanomami as a unique opportunity to observe how such an event would affect a remote, tribal people.

His accusations against Chagnon also implicate him in the epidemic, arguing that he administered a counter-indicated vaccine on Neel's instructions; but Tierney's major charges are different and various. He claims that Chagnon interfered massively with the lives of the Yanomami in all sorts of ways. He claims that the films he made about them were particularly intrusive and many of the scenes in them were staged to show off the Yanomami as both fierce and primitive. The warfare which he highlighted as characteristic of Yanomami culture resulted more often than not from their battles over the trade goods that Chagnon distributed. His behavior in the field was insensitive and often deliberately so, as when he bribed or pressured children or other susceptible Yanomami to give him information on taboo topics. In sum, Tierney indicts the harmful effects of Chagnon's activities among the Yanomami, together with his portrayal of them as warlike savages and the competition between Chagnon and other filmmakers and TV crews to bring back footage of just contacted primitives.

These are extremely serious charges and Cultural Survival supports the view of the American Anthropological Association that they should be thoroughly and impartially investigated. In the meantime we wish to make the following comments:

The charges that James Neel induced a measles epidemic among the Yanomami or at least treated them like guinea pigs to be studies while the epidemic ran its course have been disputed by medical experts and others who know about Neel’s research. If these charges are without merit, as now seems probable, then the only accusations remaining against Neel depend on innuendo and guilt by association. In the final chapter of his book Tierney retells the disgraceful story of how American doctors experimented on unwitting subjects in the USA whom they referred to in their files as "human products." He does not adduce any evidence to show that Neel took part in these experiments but simply suggests that he experimented on the Yanomami because he shared in the culture of the AEC under whose aegis the experiments were conducted. It is noteworthy that Tierney makes much of Neel's association with people like Paul Henshaw and Avery Brues of the AEC, yet Henshaw and Brues are both mentioned in Eileen Welsome's book The Plutonium Files (which is Tierney's source for the discussion of AEC experimentation) and Neel is not. In our view, therefore, this accusation cannot be substantiated in the absence of more specific evidence concerning Neel’s activities on the Atomic Energy Commission and their putative relationship to what Tierney accuses him of doing among the Yanomami.

The charges against Napoleon Chagnon are of a different nature. These are, essentially, that he has damaged the Yanomami by his activities in the field but most of all by his insistence on portraying them as primitive savages when the evidence does not clearly support his conclusions. These charges are not new. They have in fact been made repeatedly by numbers of anthropologists over the years and in a letter sent by the Brazilian Anthropological Association to the American Anthropological Association in the early 1980s. Chagnon has responded to them by suggesting that he has the scientific evidence to prove his assertions, and that his critics only attack him on ideological grounds.

Chagnon interprets his evidence to show that the Yanomami are fierce and warlike and that they fight over women. These conclusions are enthusiastically believed by many sociobiologists who know little about the Yanomami or about South American Indians but welcome Chagnon’s analysis as lending support to their theories about the nature of primitive man and of human nature. Chagnon poses as the scientist "telling it like it is," but since the way he tells it is challenged by large numbers of reputable anthropologists, including some who have also studied the Yanomami, Chagnon’s interpretation should not be accepted without question.

This is not the place to examine such questions of evidence and inference, but it is the place to emphasize a different and vitally important issue. The ways in which anthropologists portray the societies they study have consequences, sometimes serious consequences in the real world. Indigenous societies have all too often been maligned in the past, denigrated as savages and marginalized at the edges of the modern world and the modern societies in it. It is not therefore a trivial matter to insist on the fierceness of a people or to maintain that they represent an especially primitive stage in human evolution. Chagnon has not done this inadvertently to the Yanomami. On the contrary, he has done so deliberately, systematically, and over a long period of time, in spite of the remonstrances of his fellow anthropologists. We at Cultural Survival consider this to be not only bad science but also a bad example of harmful writing about an indigenous people.