Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: Chicago Sun-Times, NEWS; REQUIRED READING; Pg. 24, November 29, 2000
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Author says celebrated anthropologist harmed Amazon tribe


Journalist Patrick Tierney once held up anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon as a personal hero, praising him in the book The Highest Altar.

But in Tierney's new book, Darkness in El Dorado, a National Book Award nominee, he charges that Chagnon, other scientists and journalists wreaked devastation on a primitive Amazon tribe.

Tierney asserts that Chagnon badly misrepresented the Yanomami Indians, who live in the rain forest between Brazil and Venezuela, in his 1968 best seller Yanomamo: The Fierce People and in follow-up studies.

Chagnon not only exaggerated their ferocity, but exacerbated it by stirring up trouble between Yanomami villages, concludes Tierney, who spent 11 years researching the book. He also argues:

Chagnon's thesis that Yanomami men stage raiding parties to capture women isn't proved by his research and is disproved by other scientists.

Scientific data were sometimes gathered inhumanely -- a woman dying in childbirth was filmed but not rescued; Chagnon continued to gather blood samples during a malaria epidemic without aiding the sick.

A primitive measles vaccine, apparently not approved by Venezuelan authorities, was tested on the Yanomami under the aegis of the Atomic Energy Commission. It may have contributed to many deaths.

Chagnon associated with unsavory characters. He presented a man charged with stealing Yanomami relief funds to U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright as an Amazonian leader.

Some of the book's claims have been challenged by some anthropologists, including apologists for Chagnon. Tierney outlines a brief interview granted him by Chagnon at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Chagnon would say little for the record during their meeting, which occurred during the hour on Oct. 3, 1995, when the O.J. Simpson verdict was announced. The anthropologist said, "I'm tired of being a scapegoat" as the author left.

"I went out into the California sunlight, blinking and bemused," Tierney writes. "So bemused, in fact, that when a blond student on a bicycle blurted out, 'I can't believe he went free,' I thought, for a moment, he was talking about Chagnon."