Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: National Geographic Adventure Magazine, April 2002
Source URL (Archive.org): http://www.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/0204/story.html#story_2

Napoleon in Exile, Excerpt

By Scott Wallace

Napoleon Chagnon’s best-selling accounts of living among the Yanomami Indians made him—and them—famous. Then came explosive accusations of professional misconduct, exploitation, and worse. Now, prevented from returning to the scene of his life’s work, the legendary anthropologist is fighting for his reputation. Writer Scott Wallace follows the trail of controversy from Chagnon’s North Woods sanctuary to the deepest Venezuelan rain forest—and listens to the one group whose voices haven’t yet been heard: the Yanomami themselves.

The mist was just starting to lift off the treetops as we made our way into the village. Pungent campfire smoke—the unmistakable smell of life, and death, in the Amazon—drifted along with hysterical wails through the porous stick walls of a nearby hut.

* * * *

We were in a native village, or shabono, along the Upper Orinoco River, in the heart of the Venezuelan rain forest. It is one of the world’s least accessible regions, and home to the Yanomami, some 15,000 Indians living along the ill-defined border between Venezuela and Brazil.

Though the area has been closed to journalists since the previous autumn, photographer Les Stone and I were allowed to accompany this fact-finding trip organized by the Venezuelan government in the summer of 2001.

The expedition would be the government’s first on-the-ground investigation into the charges leveled against Napoleon Chagnon, the American anthropologist whose 1968 book, Yanomamö: The Fierce People, brought worldwide fame—and, some say, deep misfortune—to what was then one of the world’s largest virtually uncontacted indigenous populations.

* * * *

Yanomami culture has undergone rapid change in the ensuing years, as evidenced by the Western clothing and firearms on display here. Yet we could see that certain traditions were still intact.

We had arrived in the middle of a funeral ceremony, a complex ritual that, despite all the assaults of the modern world, remained almost identical to those described by Chagnon a quarter century earlier.

… In one corner, mourning women swung in hammocks arranged in a tight triangle around a smoldering fire. Close beside them, a cluster of men—some in T-shirts, others with painted chests and headbands made from monkey tails—crouched by the fire.

Freshly smoked wild boar and armadillo dangled from a wire above the hearth. The men intoned a repetitive chant that rose and fell in perfect counterpoint to a woman’s baleful lament.

Now [a] warrior placed [a] vase on the dirt floor and set his full weight into grinding the [human] ashes and charred bone with his staff. When he finished, he snapped the staff over his knee and fed it to the flames. With the reverence of a priest celebrating the Eucharist, his companion sprinkled the ashes into a battered tin pot and stirred them into a steaming yellowish soup of boiled plantains.

Soon the pot was making its way around the room, mourners slurping it down by the cupful. The host shoved the pot under my nose, filled the communal ladle, and beckoned me to drink.

In other far-flung corners of the planet, I’d mustered the courage to sample such delicacies as the fermented brew of masticated cassava and steaming bowls of moose-snout soup. On occasion I have ingested the symbolic flesh and blood of the Savior.

But I had never been called upon to partake of real human remains, no matter how well incinerated. Reluctantly, I hoisted the chalice to my lips.

* * * *

Now gray and balding, Chagnon at 63 bears faint resemblance to the svelte, shirtless Indiana Jones who once wandered the jungle with a shotgun on his shoulder—and whose image was captured so indelibly in Yanomamö: The Fierce People.

Chagnon’s groundbreaking fieldwork spanned more than three decades, and his best-selling books captivated more than a million readers with vivid tales of his exploits among the natives.

He produced scores of ethnographic films: There was Chagnon on celluloid—bare-chested, painted, and bedecked with feathers, striking an erect, unflappable pose in the midst of howling Yanomami warriors. Throughout the seventies and eighties, he was a marquee name on college syllabi, the closest thing academia had to a rock star.

But by the early nineties, it all began to come undone. Responding to a chorus of criticisms from both inside and outside the country, the Venezuelan government restricted his access to the region.

Today Chagnon lives under a cloud of allegations that he perpetrated misdeeds against the population he studied. He hasn’t been to the rain forest since 1995.

* * * *

In return for access to Yanomamiland, I agreed to shoot a documentary to be screened at a Yanomami conference in the Upper Orinoco that [Venezuelan anthropologist, Jesús Cardozo] was helping to organize.)

In all, we spent a week in Caracas—reassuring the officials that we wouldn’t somehow perpetrate further crimes against the Indians—before taking a government flight to Esmeralda, where we boarded the boats.

Our destination was the Catholic Salesian mission at Mavaca, on the banks of the Orinoco. There we set up our base of operations in a round, open-air hut that was wrapped with steel caging to deter potential thieves.

Yanomami kids clung from the mesh and kept us under constant observation whenever we happened to be in, leading Stone and me to dub our base the Mavaca Zoo.

For the following two weeks, we motored up and down the Orinoco, Mavaca, and Manaviche Rivers with Cardozo and a rotating crew of Yanomami boatmen and translators, visiting ever more distant villages.

I would come to realize that Chagnon, despite nearly a decade of absence, has left an indelible mark on the Yanomami psyche.

People told us tales of the fierce outsider, or napë, whom they called Shaki—Pesky Little Bee—and how he painted himself in red and black, dressed in parrot feathers, and performed witchcraft that terrified some villagers while amusing others. Shaki learned their language and uncovered their secrets.

He brought precious gifts, which he used to pry from them forbidden knowledge. He told them he would pay them for their sadness.

At times, he would arrive with other napë, who collected their blood and feces, prepared the specimens in vials “like food,” as one headman put it, and dispatched them on planes for reasons the Yanomami still don’t understand. “We thought he was curing us,” the headman said.

Indeed, Chagnon has become a mythic figure among the people he studied. There is perhaps not a single Yanomami—not even in the remotest corners of the rain forest where napë have yet to tread—who has not heard stories in the night, when men squat by fires to sing elaborate narratives, of the legendary Shaki.