Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: The Gazette (Montreal), BOOKS AND THE VISUAL ARTS, Pg. J1, January 13, 2001
Source URL: none

Darkness at the heart of science: Anthropologists despoiled cultures they studied, author says


Darkness in El Dorado How Scientists and Journalists, Devastated the Amazon By Patrick Tierney, W.W. Norton & Co., 417 pp, $39.99

If I made a mistake in reading this book, it was to take it to bed with me one night and proceed through several chapters in succession. After I fell asleep, I had nightmares. Would other readers find it equally disturbing? Yes, I believe they would.

A mix of first-person narration, excerpts from interviews with more than 90 people, and citations from published and unpublished anthropological and medical sources, Darkness in El Dorado describes the horrifying ways in which North American and European outsiders have apparently exploited South American indigenous people for research purposes, career advancement and sexual gratification over the last four decades.

Among other things, author Patrick Tierney alleges that scientists working alone, in teams, or in collaboration with print or TV journalists have repeatedly made contact with remote aboriginal villagers without taking quarantine precautions, thus exposing them to foreign diseases and causing widespread illness and death.

One of Tierney's principal targets is American anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, who found his professional El Dorado in the Yanomami living in far-flung villages in the Amazonian rain forest on both sides of the border between Brazil and Venezuela. When he began his research in 1964, some of these Amerindians had had contact with outsiders, but most continued to lead a virtual Stone Age existence, hunting and gathering.

An adherent of Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection, Chagnon published Yanomamo: The Fierce People in 1968. This ethnography suggested that the Yanomami are especially violent, fighting to capture women, and that the more murders a Yanomamo tribesman commits, the more wives and children he gains.

"The Fierce People made the Yanomami the most famous tribe in the world - a model for primitive man and a synonym for aggression," Tierney writes. "It made Napoleon Chagnon the best-known American anthropologist since Margaret Mead."

Chagnon added to his publication and documentary film credits over the years. By the 1990s, he'd also forged an alliance with a powerful Venezuelan entrepreneur, Charles Brewer, and the then-president's mistress, Cecilia Matos. He thus became "one of the biggest players in the politics of the northern Amazon."

Tierney, a National Book Award finalist in non-fiction for Darkness in El Dorado, once admired Chagnon's work and even emulated it in his earlier book, The Highest Altar, about ritual murder in the Andes.

During the 11 years he spent investigating the Yanomami, however, he had a radical change of heart and became an advocate for Yanomami rights.

He claims Chagnon distributed cloth, pots, machetes and other goods in exchange for research co-operation, triggering warfare between villages over these precious acquisitions; manipulated Yanomami into naming their dead kin, despite their cultural prohibition against the public use of such names; intentionally misinterpreted data to construct the fierce image of the tribesmen and advance his sociobiological hypotheses; took hallucinogens and posed as a shaman; staged events in documentary films; and recklessly flew into a Yanomami village in a helicopter, destroying the roof of the shabono, or communal round house, and causing injury to several inhabitants.

"Eventually," Tierney concludes, "Chagnon sought power over the people he studied." With Charles Brewer, he tried to establish an indigenous biosphere to assure himself "a scientific monopoly" and open up "large areas of the Upper Orinoco to development - including the tin ore deposits that Brewer had been coveting for years." The Brewer-Chagnon plan never received official sanction.

Perhaps the most serious charge Tierney makes is that Chagnon and his mentor, human geneticist James Neel, may have contributed to a measles epidemic that caused "hundreds, perhaps thousands," of deaths among the Yanomami. He explains that in 1968, while collecting thousands of blood samples for radiation research subsidized by the Atomic Energy Commission, Neel supervised a measles vaccination program. He used a live-virus vaccine, Edmonston B, which was falling into disfavour because it provoked "quite severe reactions akin to natural measles."

Tierney suggests this was a choice motivated by scientific inquiry rather than humanitarian concerns. "Obviously, the Edmonston B, precisely because it was primitive, provided a model much closer to real measles than other, safer vaccines in the attempt to resolve the great genetic question of selective adaptation."

Tierney admits "it is unclear whether the Edmonston B became transmissible or not." But he says Neel's research expedition attracted whole villages to blood-collecting centres and facilitated the spread of disease. "The scientists kept moving on and the epidemic moved on with them."

Tierney accuses a University of Paris anthropologist of misdemeanors of a very different nature. He contends that Jacques Lizot supplied young Yanomami boys with clothes, shotguns, and other amenities in return for sexual favours, earning himself the nickname of Bosinawarewa, or Anus Eater. Despite efforts by missionaries and other anthropologists to expel him, Lizot spent upwards of 25 years among the Yanomami before returning to France in 1994.

After reading Darkness in El Dorado, I discovered that it had created a stir in academe even before it was published. Two anthropologists who'd received the galley proofs warned the American Anthropological Association of "an impending scandal ... unparalleled in the history of anthropology."

Their letter, a subsequent book excerpt in the New Yorker magazine, and then the book itself have precipitated a flurry of documents which have been posted on the Internet. They include detailed denunciations of Tierney's claims by Chagnon and by colleagues at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where Chagnon is an emeritus professor.

Tierney's critics maintain that he's made factual errors, taken quotes out of context and omitted crucial information; that a live-virus measles vaccine can't initiate or exacerbate a measles epidemic; and that greedy gold miners, corrupt government and military officials, and well-meaning but misguided missionaries are largely responsible for threatening the survival of the Yanomami.

No one appears to have rushed to Jacques Lizot's defence, however, and even Chagnon's supporters acknowledge that the anthropologist has long been embroiled in controversy and has been denied research permits at various times in the wake of protests against his presence.

The Brazilian Anthropological Association has stated that it is "closely following" the debate over Tierney's book and is planning to develop new guidelines for ethical conduct. The Office of Indigenous Affairs of Venezuela is also investigating the author's allegations and has "declared a moratorium on new permits for research in all Venezuelan indigenous territories and communities by local as well as foreign personnel."

Until all the evidence is in, I can only judge Darkness in El Dorado on its own terms. Occasionally, Tierney creates confusion by recounting the same incident more than once with varying degrees of detail, gets bogged down in analyzing data, contradicts himself, and resorts to a sensationalist tone. But for anyone interested in the fate of indigenous peoples, his book makes compelling reading. It raises vital issues about fieldwork ethics and medical policy in contacts with isolated minorities. It also raises awareness about the suffering and imperilled state of those who are voiceless in the academic debate - the Yanomami themselves.

- Louise Abbott wrote and directed a documentary film for the Kativik School Board on the history of the Inuit of northern Quebec, examining the impact of contact with outsiders and the erosion of the traditional Inuit way of life.