Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: The Boston Herald, ARTS & LIFE; Pg. 066, December 14, 2000
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Author trashes classic study of Yanomami as scandalous lie

Christopher Cox

"Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon" by Patrick Tierney (Norton, $ 27.95)

You may have seen the Yanomamo people on a public-TV documentary or read about them in a college anthropology course. My bookshelf still holds a copy of Napoleon A. Chagnon's classic study, "Yanomamo: The Fierce People," which portrayed the Amazon tribe as one of the most violent societies on earth.

The characterization was a lie, according to Patrick Tierney, who states his case in a withering new book, "Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon." In exhaustive detail (the notes run nearly 80 pages), Tierney lays bare the scandalous behavior by world-renowned scientists, government institutions and bigfoot journalists.

Tierney's chief target is Chagnon, whose 1968 book about the Yanomami remains the best-selling anthropology text of all time. In his work, Chagnon described a society deep in the jungles straddling the border between Brazil and Venezuela, a tribe where men waged constant, lethal warfare over women, where the most murderous also fathered the most children. This was social Darwinism in the extreme.

Tierney, who researched this project for 11 years and made six trips into the field, has assembled a mountain of evidence at odds with the popular image of the Yanomami - and of Chagnon.

By tribal standards, the actual murder rate was "modest"; the bellicose group Chagnon studied had launched only two raids in 60 years. Hardly a dispassionate observer, Chagnon coordinated and transported several attacks, Tierney writes.

Perhaps the most explosive charge is that Chagnon and world-renowned geneticist James Neel helped spread a horrific epidemic in 1968 by inoculating hundreds of tribesmen with an obsolete measles vaccine.

Tierney also faults the media, which lapped up the "first contact" scoops doled out by Chagnon. In need of compelling footage, documentary filmmakers often hired villages to stage elaborate shows that rival the "Survivor" tribal councils: they underwrote the construction of communal houses, paid for feasts, arranged military alliances, then recorded the subsequent raids.

Too often, the sequel to these documentaries was an outbreak of disease, passed by crews and staff who ignored even the most basic quarantine procedures.

A finalist for the National Book Award, "Darkness in El Dorado" has sparked an academic catfight and prompted a formal investigation by the Venezuelan government.

It's an ugly, depressing, important story without winners, especially the Yanomami. But the tribe is a bit wiser for the debacle. A new perjorative term has entered its lexicon: "anthro."

Christopher Cox is a Boston Herald reporter and author of "Chasing the Dragon: Into the Heart of the Golden Triangle."