Darkness in El Dorado - Archived Document
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Internet Source: The Boston Globe, Health Science; Pg. C1, January 23, 2001
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Looking Into The Heart Of Darkness Anthropologists Face A Moment Of Truth After Charges Of Bringing Cultural Ruin To The Amazon

David L. Chandler

They were supposedly some of the most primitive people on Earth, totally unaffected by the outside world. They supposedly lived under idyllic circumstances, unusually well-fed and healthy. And they were thought to be among the most warlike people on Earth, so much so that a popular book about them was subtitled "The Fierce People."

Wrong, wrong, and scandalously wrong, says a new book that may have exposed a dark underside of the way Western intellectuals study so-called "primitive" societies.

"Darkness in El Dorado" alleges, among other things, that the peaceful, malnourished Yanomamo people of the remotest regions of Venezuela and Brazil were decimated, corrupted, infected, manipulated and culturally transformed by wave after wave of conquistadors, missionaries, adventurers, and exploiters, starting well before anthropologists even arrived.

Unfortunately, some researchers made the Yanomamo's problems worse, author Patrick Tierney charges, provoking them to violence and then publishing books and documentaries that ruined their reputation. In addition, Tierney charges that the researchers corrupted Yanomamo culture and recklessly introduced diseases the Yanomamo were unable to fight off.

While some of Tierney's allegations appear to be unsupported or plain wrong, the book has rocked the profession as never before, and is likely to bring about profound changes in the whole field of anthropology. Already, a 50-member group of anthropologists who specialize in the Amazon region voted unanimously this month to recommend a full-scale investigation of Tierney's charges.

The book's most sensational charge is that flamboyant, best-selling author Napoleon Chagnon, and his associate and mentor, medical researcher James Neel, either deliberately or through reckless behavior brought about or worsened a serious measles epidemic that killed hundreds of Yanomamo in 1968. That claim has now been convincingly refuted, since the epidemic was well underway before the team entered the Yanomamo lands, and the team's vaccination efforts most likely helped to limit it.

Serious questions remain, however, about whether they provided appropriate medical attention as the epidemic raged throughout the time of their fieldwork that year.

The book's other charges are less inflammatory but perhaps more central to the whole business of anthropology. They include claims, familiar for years among anthropologists, that Chagnon's actions among the Yanomamo were, in fact, directly responsible for much of the violence that he documented among them, and that his repeated characterization of them as fierce and warlike - disputed by other anthropologists who have spent far longer working among them - has been used by gold miners and others to justify the decimation of Yanomamo lands.

People familiar with the work of a task force set up by the American Anthropological Association to look into Tierney's claims say members have concluded that at least some of the charges warrant serious investigation. The committee's chairman, past anthropological association president James Peacock, however, said no final decision had been made but that the group's conclusions will be announced after the association's board meeting on Feb. 3.

"The book has served as a wakeup call for the profession," said anthropologist Leslie Sponsel of the University of Hawaii, and it will "increase awareness and concern with regard to professional ethics and human rights in general, as well as for the Yanomamo in particular."

While at least 60 books have been written about the Yanomamo, Sponsel said - and many of these have included at least some of the allegations of misconduct contained in Tierney's book - none has ever caught the attention of the profession as this one has. At the same time, few books have ever been so vocally denounced by such noted scholars. A group of academic luminaries, including E.O. Wilson of Harvard and Steven Pinker of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote a letter to the New York Times Book Review denouncing a favorable review of the book and questioning its charges against Chagnon and Neel, who died last year. "The charges have been examined in detail and shown to be false," the letter said.

But most of the responses rebut only a small subset of the charges in Tierney's book. Terence Turner, an anthropologist at Cornell University and longtime critic of Chagnon, said in an interview that the charges centering on a measles epidemic at the time of Chagnon's first visit to the Yanomamo "have been the focus of 90 percent of the discussion. The rest of the [charges], which is 90 percent of the book, has been, if not ignored, then certainly little discussed."

Controversy is nothing new for the blunt-spoken Chagnon. While he is undoubtedly the best-known researcher on the Yanomamo, and his books and films about them are staples of university anthropology courses, he has been accused by many other anthropologists over the years of mistreating his research subjects, intentionally or not. He has also been accused of drawing false conclusions about the Yanomamo in his published work, and then disregarding their fate when his words were used to justify a decimation of their people and their lands.

In fact, he has been repeatedly barred by the Brazilian and Venezuelan governments from even entering the Yanomamo lands, and has been vociferously denounced by Yanomamo leaders.

Now, both governments have actually banned, for the time being, any further research by anyone in the remote Yanomamo lands. New ethical guidelines are being drafted by both governments and by anthropologists, which may change the way such studies on isolated people are conducted.

Tierney said he was as surprised as anyone by the furor that erupted months before his book even came out last November. "I thought it would be a kind of modest nonevent, the way most books are," Tierney said in an interview.

Not by a long shot.

As soon as pre-publication galley proofs of the book were sent out for review, anthropologists Sponsel and Turner - both of whom have been critical of Chagnon's research in the past - sent a long memo to leaders of the American Anthropological Association alerting them to the explosive claims that were about to come out. Their letter - intended as a private communication - was quickly circulated widely among anthropologists, and soon on the Internet, where angry online debates quickly erupted.

Three key points about the research by Chagnon and others among the Yanomami remain central to the debate:

That tradegoods distributed by Chagnon to get Yanomami to cooperate in his research, including machetes and knives, became both the motive and the means for savage attacks between Yanomamo villages upset at the uneven distribution of the goods.

That Chagnon's methods caused great friction between individuals and between villages, and may, in turn, have brought about serious violence. In order to construct genealogies of the Yanomomami, Chagnon was battling a strong taboo against speaking the names of dead relatives. So he got the names of the dead from the deceased's enemies - thus increasing the tensions that existed between the groups.

That on numerous occasions he traveled to remote Yanomamo villages on large military helicopters, landing in the middle of villages so that the helicopter backwash blew the roof right off the tribe's communal house.

Chagnon denies that he broke taboos to get the names of the dead, but his explanation in response to Tierney's book seems to differ from earlier accounts.

"They knew that I knew the names of every one of the people" in books of Polaroid pictures of the Yanomamo that Chagnon had compiled, Chagnon recently explained, "and were not disturbed, let alone angered, by this."

Yet, in his own book describing the expedition, Chagnon wrote that he stumbled upon the idea of seeking information about the dead from Yanomamo rivals and children. As he watched two Yanomamo fight with clubs, one began speaking the name of the other's dead father as a way of insulting him. Chagnon immediately went to the one who had been shouting the name and asked about the other man's ancestors: "He gave me the information I requested of his adversary's deceased ancestors, almost with devilish glee."

Chagnon's defense against the charge that he damaged villages with his helicopter landings is also revealing. He writes that he first landed a mile away from a village and down a steep hill: "They had to carry my equipment up that steep hill and knew that when I left they would have to carry it back down." As a result, he assumes that he is doing the Yanomamo a favor by landing closer - even if it destroys the collective house in which all the villagers live.

Yet, perhaps the most serious charge concern Chagnon's portraying the Yanomamo as warlike to the outside world, a claim that played into the hands of mining interests that wanted access to their land in Brazil. Cultural Survival, a Cambridge-based organization fighting for the rights of indigenous peoples around the world, has strongly denounced Chagnon's work:

"It is not 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 done so deliberately, systematically and over a long period of time. . . We at Cultural Survival consider this to be not only bad science but also a bad example of harmful writing about an indigenous people."

Cultural Survival director Ian McIntosh hopes the outcry over Tierney's book helps counter Chagnon's writing, noting that just one percent of the world's population still lives as traditional hunter-gatherers. And almost all of them, like the Yanomamo, are under threat of losing their land.