Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: The Baltimore Sun, Arts & Society 13E, September 24, 2000
Source URL: none

'Darkness in El Dorado': Shame in the Amazon

By Candus Thomson, Sun Staff

"Darkness in El Dorado," by Patrick Tierney. W.W. Norton and Co. 416 pages. $27.95.

This should be a terrific book. The author has picked a compelling topic: How civilization crushed a "primitive" culture.

He has sympathetic protagonists: The Yanomami Indians, one of the Amazon basin's oldest tribes.

He has antagonists you love to hate: egotistical anthropologists and nasty journalists who make their names at the expense of the Yanomami.

And his setting is perfect: the Amazon jungle, a place many of us would like to visit, if only in an IMAX kind of way (minus slithery, slimy flying things that get into our bloodstream and digestive systems and reduce us to a puddle).

But Patrick Tierney has somehow managed to take all of these wonderful elements and, after more than a decade of research and writing, produce ... a term paper.

What a disappointment for laymen readers! At the heart of Tierney's story is Napoleon Chagnon, an anthropologist who came to prominence with his 1968 book, "Yanomamo: The Fierce People." Chagnon painted a picture of an aggressive Stone Age people who loved to fight and dominate other tribes and each other.

Unfortunately, Tierney says, the portrait was inaccurate: "The Yanomami have a low level of homicide by world standards of tribal culture and a very low level by Amazonian standards ... The attempt to portray the Yanomami as archetypes of ferocity would be pathetic were it not for its political consequences."

Indeed, the book became anthropology's bestseller, which brought the modern world to the tribe's doorstep. Other anthropologists wanted a piece of the action; filmmakers wanted to document their lifestyle; the Atomic Energy Commission wanted their unique, untainted blood for radiation studies.

The Yanomami wanted to be left alone, but no one listened.

In the three decades chronicled in the book, the invading hordes gave them measles and weapons to kill each other, destroyed their homes and damaged their culture beyond repair.

Shame on (the collective) us, Tierney scolds. But shame on him for failing to tell this amazing story better.

Despite all his years in the jungle, he fails to open a window for the reader into the Yanomami world. We don't know much about them as people or the society in which they live. Tierney's emotional neutrality is fine for a strictly academic endeavor, and there can be little doubt that this book will be discussed in the anthropology field, if not for his findings, for the ethical questions he raises.

But his dense, clinical approach will exclude a great number of regular folks from the debate, and that's too bad.

Candus Thomson, an outdoors writer at The Sun, has hiked the Swiss Alps, the Presidential Range in New Hampshire and across the Grand Canyon. She has worked as a features editor, bureau chief and state reporter in her 12 years at The Sun. Before that, she was a reporter in Massachusetts and New Hampshire for 16 years. She lives in Silver Spring.