Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: National Public Radio (NPR), All Things Considered (9:00 PM ET), October 11, 2000
Source URL (Archive.org): https://www.npr.org/2000/10/11/1112340/anthropology-and-the-yanomami

Allegations That Two Major Cultural Anthropologists Brought Social And Political Havoc And Even Deaths To A Tribe Of South American Indians In The Process Of Studying Them




From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

An article in the current issue of The New Yorker has rocked the anthropology community. The Fierce Anthropologist, by writer Patrick Tierney, is a blistering critique of two American researchers. They are geneticist James Neel, who died this year, and famed anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon. The two men spent years studying a tribe of Amazonian Indians called the Yanomami. Tierney alleges that in the process, the scientists caused social upheaval and perhaps even deaths. The New Yorker article is excerpted from Tierney's upcoming book "Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon." It has prompted some anthropologists to call for an investigation into their colleagues' actions; and others are demanding an investigation into the author, Patrick Tierney. NPR's David Kestenbaum reports.


It was films like this one that made Napoleon Chagnon famous.

(Soundbite of movie)

KESTENBAUM: "The Ax Fight," shot in 1971, documents a fight in a remote Yanomami village. You see the Yanomami posturing and shaking tree-sized poles. It ends with one man striking another in the back with a blunt of an ax. 'This was typical,' Chagnon wrote. 'The Yanomami resolved conflict through brinkmanship and often violence.'

Chagnon's book "Yanomami: The Fierce People," became standard text. In it, he writes fondly of the Yanomami, who often got the better of him. Chagnon spent months piecing together elaborate family trees only to find that the names the Yanomami had given him were jokes, some translating as 'dirty rectum,' or 'hairy vagina.' No wonder Yanomami laughed when he tried to pronounce them.

Chagnon's ideas challenged the comforting notion that humans are, by and large, peaceful. And critics have long argued that Chagnon misinterpreted what he saw. The Yanomami only became violent, they say, when Chagnon provoked them or gave them things to fight over, like axes or machetes. That's the view Patrick Tierney presents in his New Yorker article. 'Chagnon,' he contends, 'staged parts of his films, flew helicopters dangerously close to the tribes and frightened the Yanomami by firing his gun and then taking large doses of Yopo,' a hallucinogen used by the village Shaman. Napoleon Chagnon offers this brief defense.

Mr. NAPOLEON CHAGNON: I really don't have much to say about that article. It's distorted. It's evil. It's innuendo. And there isn't much more to it.

KESTENBAUM: Tierney also makes a far more serious allegation. In 1968, Chagnon and colleague James Neel administered measles vaccines to dozens of Yanomami. Tierney's article strongly suggests that Neel did this as a bizarre experiment and that the experiment got out of control starting a measles epidemic that killed hundreds of Yanomami.

Tierney's publisher, W.W. Norton, has declined to make Tierney available for interviews until his book comes out next month. But Terrance Turner, an anthropologist at the Cornell University, has read an early version of the text and thinks the claims have substance.

Mr. TERRANCE TURNER (Cornell University): It's very hard to give an idea of the very dense and voluminous documentation in this book. Patrick Tierney, the author, has gone through all the records and texts by Chagnon and others that he could get a hold of--others, the critics of Chagnon--and he's also gone around trying to visit every one of the Yanomami villages that Chagnon visited.

KESTENBAUM: Turner and a colleague sent an e-mail to the American Anthropological Association demanding an investigation. The scandal, they wrote, quote, "in its scale, ramifications and sheer criminality and corruption is unparalleled in the history of anthropology." But others say Tierney's one-sided presentation is criminal. Sam Katz at Duke University helped developed the measles vaccine Chagnon and Neel used, called Edmonston-B. The vaccine had been used widely in the US. It contains a live form of measles, but the virus is weak, Katz says. And as for Tierney's suggestion that the vaccine could cause an outbreak...

Mr. SAM KATZ (Duke University): That's just not true. Nineteen million individuals received Edmonston-B vaccine, not 10 or 20 or 150--19 million and there was never any evidence of transmission. This was studied exquisitely carefully.

KESTENBAUM: The vaccine might have produced a high fever, but not much else, Katz says. But why where James Neel and Napoleon Chagnon vaccinating the Yanomami in the first place? Tierney's article suggests Neel's vaccinations were part of a secret experiment to see if this violent community, where only the truly fit survived, had evolved better genes and a stronger immune system.

Ms. SUSAN LIN (University of Pennsylvania): Every aspect of that account, every bit of that story is just wrong.

KESTENBAUM: Susan Lin is a science historian at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied James Neel's work. When she heard the measles story, she contacted a library where Neel's papers are kept. An archivist there found a folder labeled Yanomami, 1968, insurance. It contained photocopies of Neel's field notes. Apparently, Neel knew what was Tierney was after and left these behind as a defense from beyond the grave. Lin says the scribbled field notes clearly show that Neel and Chagnon were trying to control an epidemic. People were dying, but not from the vaccine, from a measles outbreak already in full swing. If anything, she says, Neel was frustrated at having to care for so many sick.

Ms. LIN: Late in the field notes, he begins to say, 'I'm not sure I can take this anymore.' He was 52 years old. He was exhausted. He had a terrible upper respiratory tract infection for the last four weeks of it. So he was sick. He was frustrated. His research was going to hell in a hand basket. He was mad and he had a temper, and some of what comes across as that, that is not homicidal. That's garden variety human emotions under very stressful conditions.

KESTENBAUM: These arguments have not satisfied Neel and Chagnon's critics. Napoleon Chagnon himself says his detractors will never be convinced. They're suspicious of his work, period. The anthropology community has long been divided into two camps, he says: those who agree with him, that evolution has given humans a darker side, and those who don't.

Mr. CHAGNON: People don't like to have it widely known man is, by nature, a competitive animal, and they would like to prefer to believe that man is, by nature, a very nice critter. So I'm bringing bad news to the anthropological dream that in the Stone Age things were nice.

KESTENBAUM: The Yanomami fight to survive, and so, it seems, do anthropologists. David Kestenbaum, NPR News, Washington.