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Internet Source: Public Anthropology: Engaging Ideas, May 27th 2001
Source URL: http://www.publicanthropology.org/Journals/Engaging-Ideas/RT(YANO)/Hames3.htm

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

Some Final Thoughts on What Separates and Unites Us

Raymond Hames
Department of Anthropology
University of Nebraska

When I began this project I had scant hope that there would be much that we could agree upon in relation to the ethical issues highlighted in Tierney’s work and their implications for anthropological practice. Many issues still powerfully divide us. Nevertheless I think we all agree informed consent must be rethought, NGO’s and religious missions can be a powerful force for defending the interests of indigenous peoples., ethnographers should attempt to counter the misuse of their reporting by those who would harm the people we study, and that in our critiques of one another we ought to focus our analysis on concepts, theories, and facts and not the motivations behind them. Most importantly I think it clear that we all believe that the governments of Brazil and Venezuela need to take steps to ensure Yanomamö control of their traditional lands, assist them in keeping undocumented visitors and colonists out, and render basic medical care to combat the epidemics that ravage their numbers. To a large extent the situation in Venezuela is much better than that of Brazil. In Venezuela the government has given the Yanomamö some degree of formal control over their land, colonists are unable to penetrate the area, and medical care is available near missions. However, much needs to be done in all three areas.

To some extent, the issues that divide us revolve around empirical issues that have ethical implications: What are the political consequences of ethnographic reporting? and How do NGO’s use ethnographic images to enhance their ability to assist native peoples in their legitimate struggle for self-determination? There are also some ethical issues that we have not resolved such as: How should we respond to the press’ frequent distorted and sensationalistic accounts of our research? And the problem of informed consent. I will turn to these issues in my final contribution.

An important point I wish to reiterate is that a focus on whether or not ethnographic reportage may affect policy decisions of national governments in relation to indigenous peoples steers us away from the fundamental causes of mistreatment of native peoples. I think it clear to all of us that today and even more so in the past that states have committed human rights violations on its native peoples on a par with the terrible violations inflicted in World War II. What is happening today with the Yanomamö is but a historical microcosm of the record of state dealings with ethnic groups lying within their internationally recognized borders. What truly concerns me is that the powerful role played by Venezuelan and Brazilian political and economic interests as primary causes of the current Yanomamö crisis is not addressed.

I do not believe that Martins fully appreciates my position on NGO’s. Whether or not my observations about the motivations behind how NGO’s portray the tribal people they dedicate themselves to helping is "offensive", according to Martins, is besides the point. The issue is whether what I have said is correct, incorrect, or somewhere in between. So long as we attempt to falsely portray native peoples as if they were perfect, according to our system of cultural values, as a rationale to assist them in their legitimate struggles to achieve protection and control of their land, the more we loose credibility as objective analysts. I believe this to be our greatest strength as ethnographers. We are the expert witnesses, so to speak, for the defense of native peoples in the court of public opinion.

To predicate assistance to native peoples based on whether or not they emulate our cultural standards is chauvinistic. I believe that native peoples have many cultural values and practices that are worthy of emulation and one ought to emphasize them in order to encourage support for their legitimate political goals. Nevertheless, I believe that the best and most defensible argument to make on behalf of native peoples such as the Yanomamö is that they have an a priori and legitimate claim to the land on which they have been living for who knows how long. Their land is not terra nullis open for colonization. This being said, it is clear that the world of politics is quite different from the world of science. Over the short term perhaps one can acquire more support and sympathy for the Yanomamö by saying they are noble savages. But when this image is found to be misleading those advocating for the Yanomamö will lose credibility in the long run.

Albert points out an apparent contradiction in my denial that ethnographic reporting makes much of a difference and Chagnon’s deletion of the subtitle The Fierce People" from his ethnography and his decision to temporarily cease publication on infanticide. I pointed this out to show that Chagnon was sensitive to the misuse of his research on the Yanomamö. However, this change was driven more by a concern about accuracy and to avoid confusion. He thought too often people "might get the impression that being ‘fierce’ is incompatible with having other sentiments or personal characteristics like compassion, fairness, valor, etc." (Chagnon 1992:xii). Even in his opening chapter he notes that the Yanomamö "are simultaneously peacemakers and valiant warriors." However, I still contend that continuing or not to publish on infanticide or refer to the Yanomamö as the fierce people makes little difference in the political arena. In the case of infanticide, Chagnon clearly believes it does occur and he did not delete any information on infanticide in the fourth or subsequent editions. If the Venezuelan legislator had bothered to read Chagnon’s work he would have discovered that Chagnon believes the Yanomamö commit infanticide even though he never saw it happen. Furthermore, it is well documented by others who have written on the Yanomamö (see, for example Eguillor Garcia (1984:50), an ethnographic monograph written by a Salesian nun). As I mentioned at the beginning, fundamental political, social, and economic practices by states are at the root of indigenous problems.

Martins in her second round contribution cites a specific example of a highly visible and allegedly unflattering image of the Yanomamö created by Chagnon. In the much discussed Veja interview (entitled "Indians are also people"), she notes that "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." This quote is accurate. However, in the next sentence after that quote she cites Chagnon states "They are normal human beings. And that is sufficient reason for them to merit care and attention." This tactic of partial quotation mirrors a technique used by Tierney. The context of the statement and most of the interview was Chagnon’s observation that some NGO’s and missionaries characterized the Yanomamö as "angelic beings without faults". His goal was to simply state that the Yanomamö and other native peoples are human beings and deserve our support and sympathy. He was concerned that false portrayals could harm native peoples when later they are discovered to be just like us. The major fault I find in the Veja interview is the overall mean spirited view that Chagnon presents of missionaries and NGO’s. While much of what he says is accurate it is not sufficiently balanced by the positive activities of those seeking to help the Yanomamö.

However, I agree with Martins that we should respond to sensationalistic, distorted, or false characterizations of our work. This can be a difficult task especially when one may be completely ignorant of how a foreign press is exploiting one’s work. It think it would be extremely useful if our fellow anthropologists would inform us of this fact and, if necessary, help us in contacting editors, reporters, and others so we could make responses.

What is completely ignored by those who criticize Chagnon’s alleged lack of interest in what the press has to say about the Yanomamö is the way in he has utilized the press to portray the plight of the Yanomamö. Albert faults him for not using his considerable public relations clout to assist the Yanomamö. To cite one example, his knowledge and support were critical to Spencer Reiss’s (1990) article in Newsweek entitled "The Last Days of Eden" (also the subtitle of Chagnon’s recent ethnography (1992a) aimed at a general audience). In that report, the world learns of the illegal entry of gold miners into Yanomamö area and subsequent deaths from malaria and influenza, killings by miners, and the ill-conceived plan by the Brazilian government to partition Yanomamö lands. The article concludes that the Yanomamö need "protection from disease and guaranteed land right" in order to allow them to decide on how they want to integrate themselves into the national life of Brazil and Venezuela. Even more interesting is this quote from Chagnon: "To simply go out and study a people to advance a theory is tantamount to professional irresponsibility (1990:49). This statement is immediately followed by a parenthesis by Reiss which notes that Chagnon’s description of Yanomamö warfare is being used by some as a rationale for pacifying the Yanomamö. How ironic.

Even more to the point is the fact that Chagnon devotes much of the preface and final chapter of his standard ethnography (Chagnon, 1992b) to detailing the serious problems the Yanomamö face from the introduction of epidemics, massacres by gold miners, Brazilian attempts to separate Yanomamö land in a divide and conquer scheme, and the problems that concentration around missions brings. Given the enormous readership of his ethnography my best guess is that this writing have done more to reach the educated public about the serious problems faced by the Yanomamö than any one individual or organization. Again, this is unacknowledged by his critics. Instead, they tend to dwell on some of the details of his analysis (e.g., Salome’s edited volume [1997] on what responsibility Salesian missionaries have in this process). I do not mean to suggest that Chagnon should be immune to this criticism but the critical point is that he is sending a widely disseminated message that the current crisis among the Yanomamö is not of their making and we must take action to alleviate it.

I believe that Martins completely misstates my position in regards to NGO’s when she says that I believe "their primary concern is power and money". To refresh everyone’s memory here is what I said in the first round:

In order to attract contributors to the cause of protecting the rights of indigenous peoples, ethnic groups must be somehow portrayed as deserving of protection by documenting wrongs done to them and/or demonstrating them as noble people….. I would like to make it clear that I believe that NGO’s do vital work that should be supported because they make an important positive difference in the lives of exploited indigenous peoples.

What I mean is that the primary goal of NGO’s such as Cultural Survival and Survival International, or the Brazilian CCPY for that matter, is to protect the interests of exploited native peoples. They must raise money in order to underwrite their publications, lobbying, and direct aid projects. Their work should be supported. The only place where we differ significantly is how I believe native peoples should be portrayed in order to gain funds to help them.

Martins also claims that I provided only one example of an NGO (Cultural Survival) which uses the noble savage image to represent the Yanomamö. I’ll give another example, this time from Survival International. In their criticism of the Chagnon’s portrayal of the Yanomamö they make the following statement "The Yanomami are in fact a generally peaceable people who have suffered enormous violence at the hands of outsiders." (D. Hume, 2001). The first part of the statement is demonstrably false while the second part is absolutely true. Herein lies the problem the problem as I see it: if you are going to effectively argue for the legitimate rights of native peoples you cannot mix truth with lies. If an opponent can show the first part of the statement to be false he can claim that the second part is either false or not relevant because the first part acts as a premise for the second.

Turner deals with a the role of sociobiological theory as key to Chagnon’s interpretation of Yanomamö culture and social organization. Anyone who has basic knowledge of the origins of sociobiology in anthropology will quickly realize that Turner’s attempt to show a connection between Neel’s allegedly eugenic ideas and Chagnon’s analysis of the Yanomamö to be far-fetched. Turner makes the following claim about the importance of the Yanomamö in the context of sociobiology theory:

"Fierceness" and the high level of violent conflict with which it is putatively associated, are for Chagnon and like-minded sociobiologists the primary indexes of the evolutionary priority of the Yanomami as an earlier, and supposedly therefore more violent, phase of the development of human society"

I don’t know of any "sociobiologist" who regard the Yanomamö as any more or less representative of an "earlier, and supposedly therefore more violent, phase on the development of human society" than any other relatively isolated indigenous society. Some sociobiologists are interested in indigenous populations because they live under social and technological conditions that more closely resemble humanity for most of its history as a species than conditions found in urban population centers. Consequently, groups studied by sociobiologists such as Hill’s work on the Ache and Hiwi, Borgerhoff-Mulder’s work on the Kipsigis, or my recent collaboration with Draper on the !Kung San (AKA "the harmless people") have equal status with the Yanomamö as representatives of some of the social conditions of humanity. The claim that the Yanomamö are more representative of "early" humanity than any other relatively uncontacted group is simply false. Each Yanomamö ethnolinguistic group (e.g., Sánema, Ninam, Xiliana, etc.) are simply data points that represent the range of variation found in the context of all indigenous populations studied by anthropologists are none are specially privileged to some how represent the archetype of traditional peoples.

I do agree with Turner that certain evolutionary psychologists tend to use the Yanomamö as standard examples of life in the Paleolithic and this is misleading. They are ignorant of the variation that exists within Yanomamö culture and how it may conflict with their generalizations about life in the Paleolithic. I guess this may be true for two reasons: Chagnon’s work is widely known as a consequence of its quality and accessibility and evolutionary psychologists are not anthropologists and therefore are unfamiliar with cultural diversity.

Nevertheless, I believe that Turner is as guilty as the evolutionary psychologists he criticizes for overemphasizing the importance of the Yanomamö to sociobiological theory when in round two he states "Most of the critics of Chagnon’s fixation on "fierceness" have had little idea of this integral connection of "fierceness", as a Yanomami trait, and the deep structure of sociobiological-selectionist theory. The association is all the more important as the Yanomami continue to serve as virtually the sole data on a human society that seems to support the theory." As to the importance of the Yanomamö to sociobiology theory and the relationship between cultural and reproductive success, here is something that I posted on the evolutionary psychology list (Sun 9/24/00 9:16 AM).

Chagnon’s work on the relationship between combat killing and reproductive success is simply part of the larger research by behavioral ecologists on the relationship between cultural success and fitness. It is merely one of the TWENTY-ODD studies done that show that those who are successful culturally tend to have higher than average reproductive success. It is important to realize that what constitutes cultural success varies from society to society. For example, Kim Hill and associates show for the Ache that good hunters have higher RS than poor hunters and Borgerhoff Mulder shows that Kipsigis who have large herds have higher RS than those who have small herds. I would argue that if Chagnon’s data were shown to be flawed there would be little damage to the research enterprise of Darwinian anthropologist except among those who strangely believe that the Yanomamö research is some how central. It is not: the Yanomamö are simply one case.

Finally, I would like to clear up a common misconception in regards to Chagnon’s beliefs about the causes of Yanomamö warfare. In his second round contribution Turner states

The importance of "fierceness" in Chagnon’s account of the Yanomami was directly connected with his thesis that Yanomami warfare was primarily motivated by male conflicts over women, which in turn was tied to the thesis that competition among males for possession of female breeding partners, and thus ultimately for greater reproductive success, was the central principle of Yanomami social organization.

In numerous places Chagnon argues that disputes frequently start with conflicts over women (e.g., failed to give a woman promised in marriage) but that raids are overwhelmingly motivated by revenge and that the primary goal of a raid is to kill an enemy and not to abduct a woman. R. Brian Ferguson, Chagnon’s most notable scientific critic, documents this misconception in some detail (Ferguson, 2001).

I fully agree with Turner that "Disagreement with the claims of sociobiology (including skepticism about Neel’s and Chagnon’s genetic reductionism) is however not the same thing as hostility to science…." Chagnon himself tends to refer to his critics as left-wingers and Marxists (Wong, 2001). I believe this to be both counterproductive and irrelevant. At the same time, I think it is true that Tierney is anti-science and many of Chagnon’s critics believe that politics and science are inseparable (Scheper-Hughes, 1998). We need to separate what we believe are the motives of critics from their analysis. To conflate the two is to commit the genetic fallacy. The issue, as I have noted, is whether or not the critics are correct. To refer to someone as "anti-science" or "Marxist" is a diversionary tactic designed to dismiss their claims. Finally, I am greatly concerned with criticism through demonization, a tactic used by Tierney and some of his supporters. One simply claims that the theoretical ideas or empirical findings in another’s work are inherently evil or that the findings can be used by evil people for immoral ends.

Finally, I think it clear that we all agree that the issue of informed consent must be rethought. The protocols we are expected to follow, at least in North America, are based on a set of cultural assumptions that are not completely applicable to indigenous populations. We assume that adults are free agents able to agree or not to agree to participate as subjects in research on a take it or leave it basis. The situation in corporate indigenous communities encapsulated in a state system is different and much more complex. We need to negotiate our research according to foreign state requirements and then begin a new set of negotiations with corporate indigenous councils and local leaders at the community level. Whether it is social or biomedical research we need to explain the risks and benefits of our investigations and faithfully live up to our promises. Given the kind of research I do, I find there is more interest in how the research might benefit me and the people I study. This negotiation not infrequently leads to requirements that we study something they feel is valuable through some form of collaboration. Now, more than ever, native peoples they have their own research priorities. And sometimes our research hinges on the expectation that we engage in some sort of bureaucratic or political action on behalf of those we study. The only value I perceive in Darkness in El Dorado is that it forces us to become more aware of the consequences of our conduct as ethnographers. My main regret, however, is that this fundamentally flawed work was the impetus.


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

Chagnon, N. (1992a). Yanomamö: Last Days of Eden. New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers.

Chagnon, N (1992b) Yanomamö. New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers.

Eguillor Garcia, M. I. (1984). Yopo, Shamanes Y Hekura. Caracas, Venezuela, Libreria Editorial Salesiana.

Ferguson, R (2001) Materialist, cultural and biological theories on why Yanomami make war. Anthropological Theory. 1(1): 99-116.

Hume, D., http://www.anth.uconn.edu/gradstudents/dhume/ darkness_in_el_dorado/index.htm. Email sent to D. Hume’s website from publications@survival-international.org

Leo, John (1975) Beastly or Manly?. Time Magazine, May 10.

Reiss, S. (1990). The Last Days of Eden. Newsweek: 48-50.

Salome, F., Ed. (1997). The Yanomami and Their Interpreters: Fierce People or Fierce Interpreters. Lanham, Maryland, University Press of America.

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy (1995) "The Primacy of the Ethical". Current Anthropology 36:399-440.

Wong, K. 2001 Fighting the Darkness in El Dorado. Scientific American, March 2001 (pp. 26-28) Available also on the web at http://www.sciam.com/2001/0301issue/0301profile.html