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Internet Source: Public Anthropology: Engaging Ideas, May 27th 2001
Source URL: http://www.publicanthropology.org/Journals/Engaging-Ideas/RT(YANO)/Martins2.htm

Ethical Issues Raised by Patrick Tierney's
Darkness in El Dorado


Lêda Leitão Martins
Cornell University


The Impact of Chagnon’s Work in Brazil

In the first round of papers Ray Hames and I wrote about the same topic, the political uses of Napoleon Chagnon’s ideas in Brazil. However, we stand on opposite sides on the issue. I tried to expose the political arena surrounding Indian rights in Brazil and especially in the state of Roraima, where the majority of the Brazilian Yanomami live, in order to show that right-wing politicians and the military made use of Chagnon’s work to justify the fragmentation of the Yanomami territory and how the dissemination of his ideas in the media had a concrete impact on the lives of the Yanomami. I argued this point based on my experience working in a large governmental health project for the Yanomami people and in the field of Indigenist politics in Roraima.

Hames’ general argument, on the other hand, is that there is no proof of the negative impact of Chagnon’s ideas in Brazil, that government officials do not read academic publications, and that even if they do it does not matter because the history of government actions reveals destruction and exploitation of native people independent of the ways they were portrayed by academics. Hames concludes by saying that all the concern regarding the negative profile of indigenous people is due to the holes it makes in the pockets of NGOs. So, everything boils down to the interests of the NGOs, which is exactly the same conclusion that Chagnon reaches in his article about the Haximu massacre (Napoelon A. Chagnon 1993).

Hames’s assertions are offensive and misleading in several ways. The first part of his paper deals with the warning letter that Manuela Carneiro da Cunha (1989) wrote on behalf of ABA (Brazilian Anthropological Association) to the American Anthropological Association and to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Science magazine’s publisher, in 1989 (not in 1988 as Hames cites). Hames’ account of the controversy that emerged at that time is confusing and needs to be clarified.

ABA’s letter was prompted by Chagnon’s article published a few months before in Science on Yanomami warfare (Napoleon A. Chagnon 1988). The article in Science was reproduced in American newspapers and then made headlines in the Brazilian media (see Carneiro da Cunha 1989 for the full references). In the letter, the Brazilian anthropologists call the attention of the scientific community in America, anthropologists in particular, to the negative consequences of Chagnon’s work to the welfare of the Yanomami in Brazil. As Hames correctly points out, the main concern of ABA was that Chagnon’s depiction of the Yanomami as fierce was being used by governmental officials and generals to divided the Yanomami territory in small pieces of lands and to open what was left out to mining and logging. Hames cites a quotation from Patrick Tierney’s book (2000, p. 160, footnote 19 instead of p. 176 as cited by Hames) of this letter where it mentions an article in Time magazine published in 1976 ("Beastly or Manly?" May 10, 1976). Hames then says that the letter is "extraordinarily weak evidence" of the connection between Chagnon’s ideas and the decision of Funai (Brazilian Indian Service) to divide and reduce the Yanomami territory. And in response to Tierney’s allegation, he says that "the Time magazine piece does report on Chagnon’s Science article but from the information given above there is no evidence that the unnamed FUNAI official was swayed by Chagnon’s account."

The Time article that Tierney mentions in reference to the letter by Carneiro da Cunha is from 1976 and Chagnon’s article in Science came out in 1988. In Time Chagnon compares the Yanomami to "many primates in breeding patterns, competition for females and recognition of relatives." The article states that "like baboon troops, Yãnomamö villages tend to split into two after they reach a certain size." In Science, Chagnon expounds on his theory of the central place of violence in Yanomami society. Echoing Carneiro da Cunha, Tierney argues that the repeating portrayal of the Yanomami as fierce and animal-like posed a threat to the well-being of the tribe.

I find it puzzling that Hames, who did not conduct research in Brazil and seems to have very limited knowledge of politics in the country as whole and in Roraima in particular, can dismiss the claim on the impact of Chagnon’s work in the lives of Yanomami in Brazil. Hames is not merely rejecting Tierney’s argument; he is negating the analysis of anthropologists with a long and extensive experience in the politics of indigenous rights in Brazil, such as Manuela Carneiro da Cunha, Bruce Albert and Alcida Rita Ramos, and the appeal of the entire association of Brazilian anthropologists. Albert and Ramos, as I mentioned in my previous piece, wrote their own contribution to reinforce the ABA letter (1989). Hames did, in his paper, what the AAA did in 1989, i.e., dismissed the claim from colleagues in Brazil without looking at the issue carefully and with no valid reason to do so.

In his piece, Hames says that other Yanomami specialists and earlier explorers of the Amazon have described the aggressive aspect of the Yanomami and that is impossible to know who has influenced Brazilians to say the Yanomami are violent and do not deserve special rights. Nobody has claimed that there is no violence among the Yanomami. This would be absurd. What many specialists dispute, though, is the emphasis that Chagnon gives to warfare and conflict within that society. Even more serious is that other anthropologists such as Bruce Albert and Jacques Lizot have refuted with substantial evidence and analysis the data on Chagnon’s ideas of Yanomami warfare, and Brian Ferguson has shown that Chagnon provoked some of the conflicts that he later describes as evidence of his findings (see Albert 1989, 1990, Ferguson 1995, Lizot 1989). So, it seems that Chagnon not only has overemphasized violence but he does not have reliable data to backup his ideas. But this is besides the point here because our goal is to discuss ethics, and it might be a poor scientific exercise to misconceive data but it is not unethical per se, unless one can prove that this was done intentionally.

Let us go back to the issue of concern here. It is true that other scholars and explorers have described acts of aggression among the Yanomami, as Hames points out. However, the fact is that none of those other references to violence has made headlines in Brazilian newspapers. As I mentioned in my first contribution to this roundtable, soon after the media in Brazil had reproduced parts of Chagnon’s article in Science, the Military Chief of Staff, General Bayna Denis, declared that the Yanomami were too violent and should be separated, the infamous reduction of their territory (see Albert and Ramos 1989). In 1994 Chagnon’s ideas appeared in two articles (Cristaldo 1994a, b) published in one of the top four Brazilian newspaper. Those articles had concrete effects on the life of the Yanomami, as I described. Why is Chagnon’s reference to aggression and warfare more appealing to the media than any other references cited by Hames? It might be because of the sensationalistic way he has dealt with the matter.

Referring to claims made in the past about Chagnon’s work, Hames states the "[b]elief that government officials are swayed by ethnographic reports rests on a number of assumption that I believe are faulty. It first assumes that generals and others not only read scientific reports on indigenous peoples but such reports affect their decision making processes." Indeed, I doubt that military officials and bureaucrats read scientific texts, especially if published in foreign countries and languages. But they do read the Brazilians newspapers that have reported on Chagnon’s arguments. It was precisely the serious repercussion of media news that prompted ABA, Albert and Ramos to write to American journals warning of the consequences of Chagnon’s work in Brazil.

I could go into the argument that the media influences the minds and actions of the public in general and of politicians and governmental officials in particular (I am a former journalist after all), but this is obvious and not the focus of this debate. However, it is important to address Hames’ rationale on his doubts about the influence of anthropological material on governmental policies and politics. He reasons that colonial governments in the past and their successors in the present have broadly carried out the practice of seizing any aspect of native societies—highlighting and using the differences between those societies and the dominant one—to rationalize oppression and exploitation. His idea is that anthropologists are bound to aid this colonialist practice since the result of their research is the production of "a large list of potential cultural differentiators that contrast indigenous peoples with their potential conquerors." So, Hames suggests that to the ones "who truly believe that knowledge of native peoples will be used against them" there are two possible solutions: either they lie about or hide the true "nasty" aspects of the societies they study in order to protect them. I do not believe the only solutions to this dilemma are the two presented by Hames. I would rather argue that anthropologists should hold themselves accountable for what they chose to write.

The problem is not that Chagnon wrote the "truth" instead of lying or deceiving nor that governmental officials in Brazil would or would not have disregarded indigenous rights in the same way with or without Chagnon. The problem is that Chagnon insisted in emphasizing violence as the driving feature of Yanomami society even after being warned of the negative shadow his work cast on the already difficult situation of the Yanomami; that his ideas were openly and broadly used against the Yanomami rights and he did not oppose that; and finally that he joined the attacks, usually made by mining supporters, on Yanomami leaders and their supporters further compromising the survival of Yanomami people. These are the ethical breaches of Chagnon.

My claim that Chagnon did not oppose the use of his ideas in Brazil is based on the same grounds on which Hames defends Chagnon: foreign academic publications are not usually read by Brazilian military and bureaucrats. All the references that Hames gives of Chagnon’s comments on the issue are from his book Yanomamö, famous in America but not read in Brazil. At very least, Chagnon could have written to the Brazilian newspapers that reported on his ideas to protest or extricate his work from its political uses. But he chose not to. In a prominent interview in 1995 in Veja, the equivalent of Time magazine in Brazil, Chagnon said nothing about this matter (see Alcântara 1995). This interview appeared after Janer Cristaldo had referred to Chagnon’s work to discredit a massacre of the Yanomami village of Haximu. Chagnon took the opportunity in Veja to launch accusations against pro-Indian rights organizations, suggesting that their primary interest is profit and not defense of human rights. Once more, he disregarded completely the consequences of his words and the fact that environmental and human rights organizations are considered by the military and right-wing politicians as Brazil’s number one enemy and as a threat to the country’s sovereignty since, according to them, those entities are the face of an international plot to take the Amazon from Brazil. Behind this nationalist discourse are, indeed, powerful economic interests to exploit protected land, such as the indigenous territories, and the notion that NGOs are barriers in the path of such economic projects.

In Veja, Chagnon states that is because of power and profit that anthropologists and advocates oppose his work, i.e., because Chagnon exposes the "real Indians" while "survival groups" make a living out of an "imaginary Indian, an idealization" (Alcântara 1995). Chagnon also makes this accusation in his account of the Haximu massacre in the Times Literary Supplement (1993), but gives no evidence to support it in either piece . Hames follows the same argument in his paper. This is an offensive accusation. First, because it is not true. The opposition to Chagnon in Brazil is due to the direct implication it has to the welfare of the Yanomami and I hoped to have shown that in my first comment. Second, I do not belong to an NGO and have no personal gain in exposing the impact of Chagnon’s work in Brazil. Nor does Terence Turner, who has challenged Chagnon’s opinions in press (1994) and in person (during the 1994 AAA meetings). But I know personally several anthropologists and advocates who do belong to NGOs and find it an insult to their dedication to the defense of Indian rights to say their primary concern is power and money. Moreover, neither Chagnon nor Hames gives any evidence to support this hidden motive. Third, what Chagnon claims as the "true" notion of Indians is an essentializing concept, a mere Rousseaunian notion with inverted content. When asked in Veja to define the "real Indians", Chagnon said "the real Indians get dirty, smell bad, use drugs, belch after they eat, covet and sometimes steal each other’s women, fornicate and make war." Is this the great science that some academics are rushing to defend?

I must say that I think Hames is right in stating that it is a mistake—that it fosters more trouble to the Indians themselves—to present an idealized image of indigenous people. But I am not sure which organization makes use of the noble savage image since Hames gives only one example, Cultural Survival, which does not clearly corroborate his argument. However, I do concede that organizations worry about their ability to do their job and I take it as a legitimate concern since much of their work has been essential to the survival and improvement of the lives of indigenous people in Brazil.

I think it is illustrative for the debate on NGOs and indigenous people to recall the case given by Survival International of the educational project for the Yanomami that was rejected for funding by the British government due to the notorious Yanomami fierceness (see Survival International 2001). The organization kept going but the Yanomami were denied a fundamental tool to their survival in the context of increasing interaction with the Brazilian nation-state. Nowadays the Yanomami do have a successful education program due to the perseverance of CCPY (Pro-Yanomami Commission).

Science vs. Anti-Science

Having used much space to address Ray Hames’ round one statement, I now turn briefly to the issues that I found most provocative in the other participants’ statements.

Bruce Albert called attention to an essential aspect of the aftermath of Darkness in El Dorado, and this is that the debate so far has been framed "in terms that are extremely remote from local realities," to make use of his words from the first round of debate. Albert meant principally to say that the Yanomami have appeared merely "in the background of the news items as exoticized puppet-victims," and that their current situation and needs are virtually absent.

His words are useful for a more careful discussion of the framework of this dispute as it appears in Kim Hill’s round one statement. The controversy around Tierney’s book has focused attention on the details of episodes that happened in the distant Amazon region of Brazil and Venezuela, and led to speculation on the participation of the main actors, Indians and non-Indians, involved, many of whom live and work there. The American scientific community has debated why and how vaccinations took place, anthropologists had research permission denied, movies were made, presents were distributed, sexual favors gained, and so forth. The dispute has spun out from America to other parts of the word and it has been presented as a war among anthropologists, or better, between sociobiologists (and evolutionary psychologists) versus socio-cultural anthropologists, science versus anti-science. But does this framework reflect what happened in the jungles of South America?

I cannot answer this question in relation to the Venezuelan context, but I can assure that the layout of the debate on Tierney’s book does not reflect the events in Brazil. Take, for example, Chagnon’s attempt to do research in Brazil in 1995. Chagnon encountered great opposition from Indian leaders, Brazilian anthropologists, Catholic missionaries and local Funai employees mainly because of the association of his work with the discourse against Indian rights, and also in part because of the tales of Chagnon’s research in Venezuela that people in Roraima heard from across the border. Despite all this opposition, the headquarters of Funai secured his permission to accompany a photographer and work as a consultant for him. However, he arrived in the airport in Boa Vista, the capital of Roraima, to take the plane to Yanomami territory with material to take samples of blood, stool and urine. Chagnon was watched closely in Boa Vista and in Yanomami land, and he was not allowed to collect the samples he wanted since he did not have the permission to do so. (This information was reported to me by the Funai officer who accompanied Chagnon inside Yanomami territory.)

The opposition to Chagnon was not an opposition to science or to sociobiological research in favor of a socio-cultural agenda. The people who took part directly in the event are not aware of such fine divisions within academia and therefore do not take sides. In Roraima Chagnon is known as an anthropologist, and anthropologists and other scientists are usually welcomed by Indians and their supporters. But Chagnon is not, for all the reasons I have extensively discussed here and in my early comments. I believe the people who opposed Chagnon’s research trip in 1995 would be very surprised to see their action perceived as a plot against scientific endeavors. Kim Hill finishes his article in the first round of this discussion by saying that there is "an ideological holy war." I participated in several events described in Tierney’ book and heard about others from first-hand witnesses, but I did not take part in or hear of a war against Science. If there is a war, it was created here in America, in academic settings, publications and through Internet exchange.

In fact, who brought capital-s Science to the debate was not Tierney but the partisans of James Neel and Napoleon Chagnon, who have shaped the defense of those scientists in the form of a shield around Science against the allegedly anti-Science crusade of Patrick Tierney and his so-called allies. As Terence Turner said in his first paper, the implication of reducing the debate to exclusively scientific grounds is that if Tierney is mistaken on one scientific point, then we should discredit his entire work. One example of this strategy is the article by Magdalena Hurtado et al. in the Anthropology News (Hurtado et al. 2001). The authors set themselves to the task of showing "how Tierney’s book promotes anti-science views" but never deliver on the promise. The article is in fact a list of past medical misconduct practiced among Amazonian indigenous people. The authors present the debate on the book as if all allegations by Tierney had been refuted by scientists of prominent institutions, and they do not address a single ethical problem raised by Darkness in El Dorado, even problems that have been known and discussed years before Tierney set foot in the Amazon, as Albert reminds us in his article.

I think this is an important aspect to take into account because this approach has served to blur our view on important ethical issues raised by Tierney’s book. The approach is in itself unethical and compromises the ability of anthropologists in general to deal with ethical issues like the violation of human rights and relations of inequality. Anthropologists need to be able to deal and respond adequately to the ethical issues raised by Tierney’s book, and deviating from or denying those issues is not the solution.


Besides the problem with the framework of the debate, Kim Hill raises another relevant point related to access and use of knowledge. In the same paragraph that inspired me to write on the local context of the resistance to Chagnon, Hill tells of his own experience in Venezuela with what he calls "a massive campaign of propaganda by anti-Chagnon/anti-sociobiology forces." He says that during a visit to the upper Orinoco, he heard some Yanomami complaining that Chagnon created an animal-like image of them in his books and movies, but that the Yanomami themselves had not read nor seen the movies. According to Hill, the Yanomami mention the word "sociobiology" and the way they understood it, which is the "portrayal of them as nothing more than animals." Hill’s conclusion is that the Yanomami have been "coached" by Chagnon’s enemies. Again, I know very little of the situation in the other side of border from Brazil and do not dispute Hill’s statement that he witnessed two anthropologists and a missionary discussing a plan to prevent Chagnon of coming back to the region.

However, Hill’s story stirs important questions regarding knowledge and indigenous people. First, I am not sure that "coaching" is the appropriate term to be used since it implies that the natives do not have capacity to think for themselves and that they do exactly what people tell them. Chagnon said at the 1994 AAA meeting that Davi Kopenawa does not write his own speeches; it is the same principle. Hill seems to imply that the Yanomami had too much wrong information. But what is wrong for Hill (an interpretation of Chagnon’s work) is right for many, and the Yanomami have the right to know about different opinions, particularly on issues that matter for them.

The problem as I see it is not that the Yanomami have too much information about Chagnon and sociobiology, but rather that they have too little. Had the Yanomami read and watched Chagnon’s books and movies, and had they had the means to debate with Chagnon and other scientists in the same level and arena, this entire controversy would be quite different. But while they have not attained those means and the power to defend themselves from a negative image and politically problematic information vis-à-vis the interests of the nation-states that surround them, anthropologists and other scientists have to be extra careful with what they write, say and film. This is what can be expected and required of researches working with indigenous people, not lying or deceiving as suggested by Ray Hames.

Secondly, anthropologists, missionaries, physicians, nurses in sum all who spend a certain amount of time with Indian people become a major source of information for them. I use my own experience as an example. The Macuxi, with whom I work, have asked me about other researchers who have lived among them, and at least one leader asked if I knew what two anthropologists have said about their villages and their lives. I dutifully responded and gave my own opinion about the publication by those anthropologists, which was positive but could have been negative. I expected the Macuxi people to share their individual knowledge with me, and I noticed they had a similar expectation of me. Men, women and children asked all sort of questions about my life, my family, about cities, America, politics, newspapers, fashion, etc. I would consider it unethical on my part not to respond honestly to their inquiry since I expected them to do the same for me. I suppose and hope that Hill gave his view of Chagnon’s research and of sociobiology to the Yanomami with whom he talked. It is important not to confuse ethics with paternalism.

John Peters also touches on the matter of knowledge and power. Peters points out correctly that "the anthropologist arrives with ‘knowledge’ he/she deems superior to that of the group being researched." He adds that there is a gap between the two cultures, that of the researchers and their hosts. In my own opinion, what this controversy on research conducted in the Amazon reflects is that scientists help to enlarge this gap by producing forms of knowledge that are completely alienated from the people they study. The subjects do not participate in the planing or the aftermath of the research. Peters’ and my observations are not new in this regard. Hill himself gave an exemplary account of the decision made together with the Ache about the publication of his ethnography. However, despite not being new, these critiques are rejuvenated in this debate and give the chance for a thoughtful discussion on how researchers can give voice to their subjects not only in their writings, but about their writings.

The ethical questions involved in the responsibilities and duties of researches to their subjects become even more important in light of Albert’s arguments about increasing problems involving biomedical research (use of blood samples of deceased people, the need for informed consent, the use of bio-samples for purposes other than the original research, etc.). Besides the specific case of the Yanomami, for which Albert proposes proper procedures, we should think about what can be done in terms of the concept and practice of researchers among indigenous people to promote their well-being.



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—. 1990. "On Yanomami Warfare: Rejoinder." Current Anthropology 31:558-563.

Albert, Bruce, and Alcida Rita Ramos. 1989. "Yanomami Indians and Anthropological Ethics." Science 244:632.

Alcântara, Eurípedes. 1995. "Índio Também é Gente." Veja. December 6, pp. 7-9.

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Cristaldo, Janer. 1994a. "Massacre ou "panelocídio"?" Folha de São Paulo. May 8, pp. 6-3.

—. 1994b. "Os bastidores do ianoblefe." Folha de São Paulo. April 24, pp. 6-3.

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Turner, Terence. 1994. "The Yanomami, Truth and Consequences." Anthropology Newsletter 35:48, 46.