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Internet Source: The Anniston Star, January 21, 2001
Source URL: http://www.annistonstar.com/books/books_20010121_6342.html


Disturbing the natives

Tierney's Darkness indicts the very tenets of anthropology

Reviewed By Richard Raeke

DARKNESS IN EL DORADO: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon; By Patrick Tierney: W.W. Norton & Company: New York, 2000, 417 pp., $27.95

There are a few staples of introductory college anthropology courses. The first is the theory of cultural relativism -- that everything must be looked at in its cultural context. The second is the idea that an anthro-pologist can only observe and not interfere. The third is Napoleon Chagnon's book Yanomami: The Fierce People and his numerous films.

Chagnon's works brought the Yanomami Indians to the world as naked, violent natives of the Amazon, prone to wars and wife-stealing. In Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon, author Patrick Tierney charges that Chagnon is a morally corrupt academic who broke the first two tenets of anthropology when conducting his field work. His transgressions resulted in war and death for the Yanomami and a tainted image of these Amazonian natives for the rest of the world.

Since its publication, Darkness in El Dorado has created more debate over the already contro-versial Chagnon, a flamboyant anthropology with a strong belief that biology is at the root of male aggres-sion.

Tierney alleges Chagnon brought the Yanomami Indians to the world through this tinted lens and the an-thropologist's own actions may have sparked the violence and wars depicted in his works. In order to re-ceive blood samples and information, Chagnon would bribe the Yanomami with highly sought-after ma-chetes. These machetes and other steel goods may have sparked jealousy and caused neighboring villages to wage war.

Furthermore, Tierney claims Chagnon and geneticist James Neel may have started a measles epidemic that killed 20 percent of the population by trying to inoculate the Yanomami with an outdated measles vac-cine. Tierney alleges the pair then let the disease run in order to study its effects in a virgin population.

The charges are deeply disturbing and backed by 11 years of research. Tierney not only causes us to question Chagnon's credibility but the credibility of anthropology as a whole.

Anthropologists often wring their hands over the purity of their field work as much as journalists question whether they can ever write a truly objective article.

Tierney paints Chagnon and Neel as sinister men, bent on the pursuit of academic fame above all else. He does raise some disturbing issues.

That does not make Darkness in El Dorado a good read. The startling information is buried be-neath layers of dry and convoluted academic prose. At times, it parallels slogging through the Amazon.

For the average reader, it's no bedtime book but for the student of anthropology Darkness in El Do-rado will become a staple.

Richard Raeke, a Star staff writer, majored in anthropology while in college.