Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: Financial Times (London), OFF CENTRE; Pg. 8, January 13, 2001
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Off Centre: The Warring Tribes That Fight Battles In Print: A new book has sparked an academic row by claiming that one of the most intriguing primitive societies - and one of the best studied - suffered as a result of contact with western scientists. Mark Wallace reports

Mark Wallace

Visits to the handful of tribal societies left on the planet are the privilege of a lucky few. But although the missionaries, anthropologists, gold miners, doctors, journalists or adventurers who venture into such worlds generally have the best of motives (except, perhaps, the gold miners), they often leave harmful traces of their passage.

As the physicist Erwin Schrodinger postulated, the mere presence of an observer has an effect on the experiment under observation and, in the case of the world's tribal enclaves, the presence of western observers has far more impact than realised.

Illustrating the situation only too well is a new book by Patrick Tierney, in which he claims that one of the most intriguing of primitive societies - and one of the best studied - suffered as a direct result of its contact with western scientists; its culture was devastated to an extent not realised since the story was first told about 35 years ago.

Tierney's book, Darkness in El Dorado, seeks to illustrate the harm done to the Yanomamo tribe of South America, and goes some way towards dismantling an anthropological career in the process.

The work of American anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon catapulted the Yanomamo to fame in the late 1960s, and made them a favourite subject in lecture halls around the world.

When Chagnon encountered the Yanomamo for the first time in 1964, they were a largely unknown quantity. Missionary outposts on Venezuela's Orinoco River ministered to the few Yanomamo villages in the area - and attempted to inculcate Christianity in the culture - but most of the tribesmen had never seen a white man.

Chagnon spent several years studying the tribe. His 1968 field study, Yanomamo: The Fierce People (updated in slightly altered form every few years since, and still in print in a popular version called Yanomamo: The Last Days of Eden), painted a picture of a primitive, bellicose culture in which threats and intimidation were the favoured form of communication, hallucinogenic snuff the favoured form of recreation, and where reproductive resources (that is, women) were so scarce that wars were routinely fought over them.

University students, of course, had a boundless appetite for such tales, and soon turned The Fierce People into the best-selling anthropological title of all time.

However, according to Tierney, what those anthropology students have been hungrily eating up in the decades since raises a number of questions.

He focuses, for instance, on a measles epidemic that swept Yanomamo country just as Chagnon and University of Michigan geneticist James Neel returned to the territory in 1968.

Using an obsolete measles vaccine, the two scientists set out to study the reactions of an isolated gene pool, ostensibly to gather comparative data for studies of mutation in atomic bomb victims. But, although Chagnon and Neel claimed to be vaccinating a "ring" round the measles outbreak, the outbreak in fact followed them, according to Tierney's evidence and the testimony of tribesmen and missionaries.

On the other hand, Tierney's charges that Neel withheld medication from some villages are given little credit by those who knew the geneticist. Measles was a widespread danger to South America's Amerindian population in the 1960s and 1970s, and any vaccines available would have been welcome.

Tierney also goes into detail about the "constant" warring state of the Yanomamo, and found evidence that the greater part of their battles occurred during Chagnon's visits to the territory, with long stretches of peace on either side.

Though Chagnon continued to agitate for the protection of primitive societies against the encroachment of "civilisation", it was the civilisation that Chagnon took to the Yanomamo, Tierney argues, which inspired much of their violence.

And, in contrast with Chagnon's work, Tierney's studies aim to show that the Yanomamo were more peaceable than many tribal societies, and not "fierce people" at all.

With Timothy Asch, Chagnon made a series of ground-breaking anthropological films in Yanomamo country. Far from being records of life among a primitive tribe, however, Tierney claims the films appear to be feasts, battles and interactions that were either staged and directed by Chagnon and Asch or inspired by the promise of valuables they flew into the territory, including pots and pans, machetes and guns.

Hungry for such goods, the Yanomamo not only put on a show for Chagnon, but, Tierney suggests, also struck up alliances that might never have been made in the absence of such observers, throwing off the social balance their society had achieved naturally.

Even in villages Chagnon never visited, his movements had an effect. The machetes and shotguns Chagnon delivered as payment for the tribe's co-operation with his studies not only altered Yanomamo settlement and trading patterns, but brought tribal warfare into the 20th century.

But University of Michigan anthropologist C. Loring Brace, who has known him since Chagnon's postgraduate days in the 1960s, points out that the missionaries in the area had at least as deleterious an effect as the anthropologists. "It was they as much as anything else that was disrupting the Yanomamo way of life and introducing diseases and other things against which they had no immunity," says Brace.

Indeed, Tierney points out that in addition to Chagnon and the missionaries then operating in Yanomamo country, there were also reporters, gold miners and Jacques Lizot, the French anthropologist. They all come in for indictment in the book, which is subtitled "How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon".

But because it was Chagnon's characterisation of the Yanomamo as "the fierce people" that has defined them in the minds of audiences round the world, and perhaps because it was the Yanomamo that made Chagnon's career, it is he who comes in for the fiercest attacks.

From what Tierney claims is his uncertain grasp of the Yanomamo language to his blind eye to cultural taboos, Tierney picks Chagnon's work apart.

Chagnon's unsuccessful scheme in the early 1990s to establish what Tierney calls "the world's largest private biosphere" in Yanomamo territory - with himself at the controls - seems particularly damning, especially after reading of Chagnon's delight at having a village named after him. Tierney attributes this honour to the huge amount of steel goods Chagnon took with him to the rainforest.

By that time, academic and political resistance had made it impossible for him to obtain a research permit from the Venezuelan government for a decade or more.

The controversy that surrounded him and his embrace of unpopular ideas in sociobiology had also prevented him from publishing his work for some time. Tierney's picture is of a megalomaniacal scientist set on salvaging his reputation through what would have amounted to a coup.

"Chagnon can rub people up the wrong way," Brace says. "He is a swashbuckling, macho kind of person, that's just him."

When I tried to ask Chagnon about the allegations in telephone and e-mail messages, he failed to respond. But Brace says: "He's standing his ground, of course. And he's upset."

Brace himself is dismissive of Tierney's charges. "There's documentation cited, but it's quite clear that Tierney hasn't read it, because what's actually written in those sources does not support what he claims (and) in some cases directly contradicts it," Brace claims.

Tierney's book is certainly not without its flaws. Even though it goes into more detail, more exhaustively, than seen before, and even though it was nominated for and awarded a National Book Award, many of the charges have already been aired. Tierney makes a good narrative of it, but Darkness in El Dorado often feels as though it can't decide whether it is a scholarly work or a popular narrative, and occasionally weakens its argument by reaching too far.

Tierney also comes dangerously close to the faults he sees in Chagnon at times, by painting Chagnon with the same backward, bellicose brush with which Chagnon painted the Yanomamo.

And as the age of anthropological exploration has more or less drawn to a close - the world's primitive societies have now been so thoroughly studied that ground-breaking work is hardly possible any more - there would appear to be little point in pursuing what seems to be academic rivalry.

Chagnon, Neel and others are portrayed as forces of darkness but rarely are they put in the context of a world that had not yet learned to treat its less common elements with the respect they deserve.

Unfortunately, it often takes episodes like those described in Darkness in El Dorado to teach us those lessons.

* Darkness in El Dorado by Patrick Tierney is published in the US by W.W. Norton and Co, Dollars 27.95.