Darkness in El Dorado - Archived Document
Anthropological Niche of Douglas W. Hume
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Internet Source: Crux Journal, November 20, 2000
Source URL: http://www.cruxjournal.org/article/ethicsdebate.html


Ethics Debate in the Field of Anthropology

Fatema Adenwalla

Recently the world of anthropology has been reconsidering the ethical treatment of indigenous people, specifically the largest native group of Amazon Indians still living in relative isolation- the Yanomami. The catalyst for this examination into the social impact on the natives by outsiders has been the controversial book entitled Darkness in El Dorado by freelance writer Patrick Tierney. In his 417-page novel he accuses an anthropologist from the University of California at Santa Barbara- Napoleon Chagnon and a geneticist and physicist- James V. Neel, of violating the sanctity of the Yanomami people by giving them weapons to incite warfare and giving them a hazardous vaccine which has helped spread disease.

The Yanomami live in the highlands between Brazil and Venezuela. They use the resources of the forest to sustain themselves as their ancestors had done in the past by hunting, farming and fishing. But over the years scientists, missionaries and gold miners have encroached on their territory and Yanomami have succumbed to diseases such as malaria which is decimating their population at a rate of 13% a year. If prompt action is not taken by the Brazilian government and the international community the Yanomami will be extinct in the next decade.

However, who precisely do we blame for the dwindling population of the Yanomami? Should it be the Brazilian government who broke their promise of guaranteeing the Yanomami their land rights and allowed gold miners to invade the region bringing with them disease, global capitalists who want to exploit the Amazon and its people for monetary gain, Chagnon for handing out machetes to the natives or Neel for using a risky measles vaccine on the natives without the consensus of the Venezuelan health authorities?

Tierney may accuse Chagnon and Neel of ethical misconduct but surely they alone cannot be blamed for the eradication of the Yanomami. The blame must lie at the feet of the Brazilian and Venezuelan governments, the scientists, missionaries and capitalists who put themselves above the Yanomami. The gradual demise of Yanomami must say something about the the penchant of the human race to destroy. Sure one can say humans are curious and want to examine the history of many cultures but at what expense? May be it is time for people to realize that cultures cannot be preserved by some good samaritan half way round the world trying to help these 'primitive' people become part of the Westernized, 'civilized' world when in fact the best thing we can do is to leave the indigenous people and cultures alone. If we cannot accept their ways and let them be as they are then it we- those who went to universities, live in metropolitan cities and claim to be technologically advanced- that are indeed the 'primitive' tribe.