Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Comments on Napoleon Chagnon’s Methods of Identification and Name Collecting among the Yanomami

Bruce Albert
Research Director
Research Institute for Development (IRD)
Paris, São Paulo

Since I was quoted several times in the AAA El Dorado Task Force Working Paper 2.3, “ Yanomamö Names,” by Ray Hames and Jane Hill (2002), I would like to make a few comments here concerning the ethics of name collecting during fieldwork.

Hames and Hill write, “Albert…describes how he used to (sic ) two techniques for name collection that parallel those used by Chagnon,” then quote the following paragraph of mine:

If the person does not have a Portuguese nickname, one should find out his or her Yanomami name from another person who is not a relative, preferably coming from another village. The question should be made discretely, out of earshot of the person named and close relatives. Children or leaders can be of great help in identifying Yanomami names: the former, because it is a fun game, the latter because no one is going to complain about being named by them (since publicly naming people is a demonstration of courage). (Albert and Gomez 1997:182-183)

I am sorry to say that Hames and Hill omitted the context from which this quote was extracted, allowing them to create an illusory basis for comparison between Chagnon’s research and what is described in the quoted paragraph. If they had properly provided that context, it would have been clear that the field situations and research objectives addressed by my recommendations have no parallel whatsoever to Chagnon’s methods for collecting names, which he devised while working for a research project funded by the Atomic Energy Comission (AEC) in the 1960s and ‘70s.

The quoted paragraph was extracted from a field manual I co-authored with Gale Gomez, which contained a set of recommendations for paramedics working among the Yanomami in Brazil (Albert and Gomez 1997). When I used this quotation in my contribution to the second set of papers in the R oundtable Forum, “Ethical Issues Raised by Patrick Tierney’s Darkness in El Dorado ” (see www.publicanthropology.org ), my prefatory comments (left out by Hames and Hill) made it clear what the context for these recommendations was : “I described a simple methodology for getting these names during medical missions in a linguistic field manual on Yanomami health published a few years ago” (Albert 2001). I was explicit that this manual suggested the restricted use of certain identification methods during medical emergency fieldwork involving Yanomami patients who have no Portuguese nicknames (which is becoming rare today). These methods have been used, for example, during malaria diagnosis and treatment campaigns. From my comments, it was patent that these practices , requiring occasional help from children and village leaders, should be confined to such pressing health care contexts. I also made it clear that these methods were completely different from Chagnon’s systematically intrusive techniques for collecting names: “As the following passage demonstrates [referring to the paragraph quoted by Hames and Hill], it does not involve ‘bribing,’ tricking, or offending anybody.”

As to my remarks on the “atypical ‘hit-and-run’ fieldwork methods” used by Chagnon (which Hames and Hill also lifted out of context), I had already made my point in a more precise manner earlier in the same article in reference to the social and political perturbations produced by the introduction of massive amounts of trade goods among the Yanomami by members of the AEC project:

Most of us use trade goods to reciprocate our informants and others for many services (food, transport, guiding, etc.) or simply to give presents to our hosts. In a society like the Yanomami, trading is embedded in every social relation, and, as Mauss put it, “ le bien remplace le lien ” (1991 [1925]). What is at stake with Chagnon’s fieldwork is a very different problem. His research was not the usual type of anthropological fieldwork. He was the "jungle advance man" (Sahlins 2000) of Neel’s huge project for the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) from 1966 to 1972, endowed with a budget of more than 2.5 million dollars. He had to follow an intensive research agenda for collecting blood and genealogies, filming, and performing many other services for Neel’s project. For years, he spent his time passing back and forth through some forty to fifty Yanomami villages at a frantic pace, distributing huge amounts of trade goods to the Indians as payment and to gain their good will and collaboration with the AEC project. For any ethnographer of the Yanomami or other Amazonian groups, it would not be a surprise that such unusually hectic fieldwork and forms of compensation could have generated so many conflicts between Chagnon and the Yanomami, and between the Yanomami themselves, as each village competed to get the biggest part possible of this incredible mana from U.S. Atomic Energy Commission funding. (Albert 2001)

Only after these initial considerations did I insert the paragraph on name identification methods from our field manual for paramedics (Albert and Gomez 1997). It was followed by the statement below, also quoted by Hames and Hill, about Chagnon’s aggressive name collecting methods:

Here, once again, the atypical "hit-and-run" fieldwork methods used by Chagnon in his frenetic schedule of collecting genealogies and blood for the AEC must have induced him to invent ad hoc measures for getting around Yanomami name secrecy in ways that were more aggressive and less ethical. Had he used the more typical slow pace and low-profile attitude that most anthropologists use during fieldwork , he would never have found himself in situations of having to resort to bribery, trickery, or offensive behaviors to collect names. The chaotic and peripatetic nature of his AEC agenda probably did force him into such situations. (Albert 2001)

As to the unethical and systematically intrusive nature of Chagnon’s fieldwork practices, it is unnecessary to look to Tierney’s book for inspiration (as Hames and Hill accuse me of doing), since the author of Yanomamö: The Fierce People himself provided revealing (and disquieting) examples of his objectification of the people he studied, not only in his name collecting methods, but in other socially and culturally aggressive field techniques as well. Anybody can evaluate this for him- or herself simply by reading Chagnon’s second book, Studying the Yanomamö (1974), which I regret Hames and Hill seem not to have studied more carefully. Let me quote some examples here:

(1) Passages describing Chagnon’s systematic writing of identification numbers on people’s arms (besides treating the Yanomami like specimens, consider the harrowing memories of Jewish prisoners that this should arouse in any sensitive person’s mind):

All I did was look at the number I had written on their arm, look at the number up in my field book and tell the person precisely what he requested me to bring him. (p. 30)

Much of my collaborative work with medical-genetics colleagues takes place in circumstances as this. In these cases I write identification numbers on everybody and use kinship terms to discover the probable biological relationships among those who are alive…While this procedures reduces the temptation to lie, it does not remove it entirely. (p. 93)

I photograph every individual with both a Polaroid and a standard 35 mm camera. If I do not know the people well, I write identification numbers both on their arms and on the photograph. (p. 111)

(2) Passages illustrating compulsive and aggressive photographing against the Yanomami’s will, which became another one of Chagnon’s regular practices in the field:

I did not begin using the Polaroid camera until 1969, knowing that the Yanomamö are not fond of being photographed. I have been chased around the village on a number of occasions by irate people wielding clubs and firebrands, people who were very upset because I was attempting to photograph specific events—particularly cremations. (p. 111)

…the women attempt to hide their children from me. I could only achieve a 100 percent photographic sample of the village…by “hiring” young children to accompany me around the village to make sure that particular women have not concealed their babies from me. (p. 228)

Yanomami women hated it when Chagnon forced them, against their will, to let him photograph their babies, because they feared babies might be vulnerable to the camera and/or because, if they die, photographs of them owned by distant people might prevent all of their traces (ono ) from being destroyed, as required by a proper funeral.

(3) Passages about his use of young children as a special task force (whom he “hired,” “bribed,” or “enlisted”) in name identification campaigns :

I had to resort to earlier tactics, such as “bribing” children when their elders were not around, or capitalizing on animosities between individuals. (p. 91)

At this point I enlisted several enthusiastic children to make the rounds of the village with me and point out everyone who had not had their photo taken. These children, like most Yanomamö, had excellent memories, and my youthful assistants quickly pointed out all those who were not included in my collection of Polaroid photos, and they did so much more quickly than I could have by checking my list. They assumed the obligation of assuring that nobody escaped. (p. 113)

After my youthful assistants assured me that I had taken everyone’s photo, I systematically went through the photos with the children and had them identify the people by name, writing the name under the photograph and checking the name off my alphabetized list. (p. 113)

This is the only problematic aspect of his fieldwork that Hames and Hill criticize, although they try to portray it as an early field technique that Chagnon soon abandoned. However, he states he devised this strategy after he gained experience and “applied techniques I developed in my early work” (p. 91). Furthermore, he repeatedly extols the effectiveness of this tactic for genealogical research and still considered it an acceptable norm when the book was published in 1974. Besides the passage from p. 228 quoted above in (2), we have also the emblematic case of the 12-year-old Karina used as an “informant-guide” to the Mishimishimaböwei-teri village:

There I was, with a twelve-year-old guide, so feverish [after he was vaccinated for measles by Chagnon!] that he could barely walk, about to set off again for the almost legendary village of Mishimishimaböwei-teri. (p. 20)

I worked with Karina for about a week on genealogies and census data before we made our first attempts to contact Sibarariwä’s village. (p. 19)

As Hames and Hill point out, Chagnon considered Karina to be one of the ideal “informants who might be considered ‘aberrant’ or ‘abnormal’ outcasts in their own society,” thus more likely to help the ethnographer “to work around the name taboo” (p. 91).

(4) Chagnon also gave excuses for using another dubious field technique, deliberately committing the ritual offence of uttering names of dead relatives aloud in public to check genealogies, against the will of informants and hosts , as illustrated in this passage:

The mere mention of such a person [someone who was killed or died recently] is enough to put the entire village in a very ugly mood. Occasionally I have no choice, and I have to read the names from the list. These situations often result when my informant, after reaching the village, refuses to help me identify the individuals as he agreed to do before we left on the trip. (p. 110)

This brief exercise in leafing through the pages of Studying the Yanomamö for Chagnon’s own testimony leads to a very different picture than that concocted by Hames and Hill in their strained efforts to redeem Chagnon’s indifference to fieldwork ethics. I hope to have made very clear by now that the identification methods, which Gomez and I described in our 1997 field manual on medical assistance, for keeping track of sick people during vaccination campaigns or the diagnosis and treatment of malaria, tuberculosis, pneumonia, etc. (see www.urihi.org.br ) cannot be compared in any conceivably objective way with Chagnon’s indiscriminate use of objectifying, disrespectful, and unethical research techniques, which he himself proudly described in his “pedagogical” (!) book of 1974.


Albert, Bruce and Gale Goodwin Gomez. 1997. Saúde Yanomami. Um manual etno-lingüístico . Collection “Eduardo Galvão.” Belém: Museu Emílio Goeldi.

Albert, Bruce. 2001. “ Biomedical Research, Ethnic Labels, and Anthropological Responsibility: Further Comments. ” In “ Roundtable Forum: Ethical Issues Raised by Patrick Tierney's Darkness in El Dorado , ” ed. Rob Borofsky. http://www.publicanthropology.org/Journals/Engaging-Ideas/RT(YANO)/Albert2.htm

Chagnon, Napoleon. 1968. Yanomamö: The Fierce People . New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Chagnon, Napoleon. 1974. Studying the Yanomamö . New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Haymes, Raymond and Jane Hill. 2002. “ Yanomamö Names.” Working Paper #2.3. In “Working Papers of the American Anthropological Association El Dorado Task Force,” ed. Jane Hill. http://www.aaanet.org/edtf/edtfpr_names.pdf