Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, EVERYDAY MAGAZINE, Pg. D4,, December 26, 2000
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Author Revs up Controversy over Amazon Tribe's Quest for Women

Joseph Losos

Anthropology, involved as it is with the study of societies and cultures and their roots in human nature, is inherently a controversial area. But the furor that occasioned this book has been ferocious even by the stormiest standards in that field, as the subtitle of Patrick Tierney's book indicates.

This is an investigation of the field work conducted by Napoleon Chagnon (an anthropologist who grew up in Michigan) among the Yanomami Indians in the remote region around the Brazilian-Venezualan border.

That location is roughly the site of what Europeans thought for many years was the golden zone, El Dorado. Sir Walter Raleigh sought unsuccessfully to find it 400 years ago, losing his way in South America and his head on returning to England.

Chagnon has spent about 30 years in researching the area, beginning in 1968, work that has produced this firestorm of dispute.

Tierney describes Chagnon's thesis as an effort to use the ideas of sociobiology in a rather eccentric form to explain what makes the Yanomamis exceptionally violent. He argues that their prime motive in dealing with their neighbors is to acquire women, the supply of which is dangerously scanty among the tribe.

Chagnon, so Tierney asserts, derives from this a theory of social aggres siveness that portrays his subject group as an exceptionally warlike specimen of humanity, and this theory has attracted a tremendous amount of interest and brought Chagnon fame and power. But, the author says, the theory is wrong and the theorist has brought misery to the Amazon.

There are three elements to Tierney's indictment.

* 1. He argues that the intrusion of strident scholars, followed by journalists and photographers and all that crew, is terrible. These big people who drop in (often literally) from the sky bring guns and metal objects that are immensely desirable, and thus radically unhinge the indigenous societies.

They intrude into closely-knit communities, violating traditional mores and inevitably creating severe dissatisfaction. Most important they bring - as European intruders have done for 500 years - fatal diseases to people without immunities.

That, Tierney remarks, is a sad commonplace that he, a field anthropologist, has come to bitterly recognize.

* 2. There are better and worse scholars, and Chagnon is among the very worst. To demonstrate the violent nature of "his" group, he actively stimulated violence. Moreover, he and his mentor, Prof. James Neel, created a severe measles epidemic, by accident or perhaps intentionally, as a result of administering a potentially defective vaccine.

As the author pursues this charge, he portrays Chagnon and Neel as wicked men who were willing, indeed eager, to sacrifice a whole society to their desire to gain scholarly note, or, even if one takes the least unfavorable view, to confirm right-wing sociobiological theses.

* 3. Anthropologists, like all of humanity, are essentially divided in their view of human nature. Margaret Mead found wonderfully good people, living in a marvelous milieu, in Polynesia; years later, less liberal critics powerfully refuted her claims.

Tierney argues that Chagnon has set out in the opposite direction, striving to demonstrate how non-pacific, how harsh, a community can be.

Tierney argues at length that his research, and that of other investigators, does not support the conclusion that the Yanomami do not thirst for women and that indeed they and their neighbors are not very warlike.

This is the least persuasive of Tierney's points, as he admits that he was robbed twice in El Dorado, once reasonably fearing for his life. Moreover, he acknowledges that Stone Age people can be very ruthless, and he says that "several of Chagnon's most outspoken critics have admitted that it would have been much harder to refute his theories if he had draped them on other Amazonian tribes."

But, to be sure, Tierney concludes that if you look at many of the anthropologists from the First World and the uncivilized peoples of the Third World, it is by no means clear that it is the latter who are the savages.

This is a very excited book about a very excitable subject. "The controversies . . . in 1988 had been touted as the most vicious in anthropological history, the aftermath (of later events) set a new standard for cruelty," Tierney writes.

He is doing his share to keep the temperature up.