Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

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Statement regarding the current allegations that scientists and journalists devastated the Yanomami

Date: Wed, 17 Jan 2001 03:55:43 -1000
From: Survival International
To: publications@survival-international.org
Subject: Statement from Survival International

Patrick Tierney's book 'Darkness in El Dorado' recounts the history of interaction between the Yanomami Indians of Venezuela and Brazil and geneticists, anthropologists and filmmakers etc. Mainly, he describes how the activities of the geneticist, James Neel, and anthropologist, Napoleon Chagnon - both funded by the US Atomic Energy Commission - have greatly harmed these Indians over the last 30 years.

A good review of the book can be found at www.salon.com/books/feature/2000/09/28/yanomamo/index.html where it is pointed out that Tierney's surmises about Neel's involvement in a measles epidemic do not seem to agree with the facts about vaccine.

This book will usefully provoke renewed interest in Chagnon's description of the Yanomami about which Survival has long been concerned, publishing a statement to this effect in 1990. We believe that his portrayal of the Yanomami as unusually violent is not a scientific or objective assessment but is biased, even fabricated, and is certainly damaging to the Indians. Chagnon falsely claims that the Yanomami 'live in a state of chronic warfare' and characterises the entire people as 'sly, aggressive, and intimidating'.

This extremely sensationalist, and racist, image of what he called 'the fierce people' is very important because it was, and remains, widely used in the teaching of anthropology, and has thus gained credibility. There is no doubt whatsoever that it has been detrimental to Yanomami welfare. It was, for example - as Tierney recounts and Survival can confirm - referred to by the Brazilian government when it planned to fragment Yanomami land in 1989 (a proposal which would have been catastrophic for the Indians and which was prevented by a vigorous and successful campaign).

Survival's own work with the Yanomami has been hindered by this image in ways not recounted by Tierney. For example, the doyen of British anthropology, Sir Edmund Leach, refused to back Yanomami land rights in the 1970s, saying that they would all 'exterminate each other'; and the British government rejected a funding proposal for an education programme with the Yanomami in the 1990s saying that any project with them had to 'reduce violence'.

Furthermore, the image Chagnon has created of the Yanomami has become a major obstacle to Survival's attempts to ensure that the media portray tribal peoples in general in a fair and informed way. Chagnon's work legitimises the presentation of tribal peoples as 'savages', and promulgates a caricature of a people too 'uncivilised' to be peaceful. The widespread media insistence on referring to tribes using terms such as 'primitive', 'stone age', 'neolithic', 'savage', and so forth constitutes one of the key reasons why they are still viewed with such widespread disdain which, in turn, leads to their rights being routinely denied them.

Survival staff and committee members have made many visits to the Yanomami since the 1960s and several of them have lived with them, learnt their language, and conducted their own research in situ for periods of years at a time. Their findings - and those of many others who have worked with the Yanomami - could not be more different to Chagnon's.

The Yanomami are in fact a generally peaceable people who have suffered enormous violence at the hands of outsiders. For years, invading gold miners have been attacking and murdering Yanomami - one group of miners recently lost their appeal against a conviction for genocide after a massacre in a Indian village. Nearly 20% of the Yanomami population in Brazil died from diseases introduced by gold miners in the 1980s.

It is incontrovertible that the image Chagnon invented of the Yanomami has done them a great deal of damage over the last 30 years. There is no doubt that the Yanomami would be in a better position today if Chagnon had chosen to work elsewhere.


Survival is a worldwide organisation supporting tribal peoples. It stands for their right to decide their own future and helps them protect their lives, lands and human rights.