Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: United Press International, General News, March 22, 2001
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Ghosts of fieldwork past


Some of the criticism leveled against a famous anthropologist is laughably familiar to this former fieldworker, who also studied American Indians in the deep bush.

Scientific American's Kate Wong has profiled Amazonian scholar Napoleon Chagnon in the magazine's March issue. Chagnon, 62, emeritus professor of anthropology from the University of Californian at Santa Barbara, has been the center of a firestorm since September, when word came that a forthcoming book would call his life's work into question.

In mid-November, W.W. Norton published Patrick Tierney's "Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon." The book excoriated Chagnon and the late James V. Neel, the founder of modern human genetics, on a number of issues. Most have been refuted by the National Academy of Science and a joint report of the University of Michigan's Medical School and Anthropology Department.

Nevertheless, the American Anthropological Association has established a task force to investigate Tierney's charges against Chagnon and Neel. The committee is to report to the association's Executive Board in advance of the AAA's annual meeting in November 2001.

Some of Tierney's charges have been shown to be false on their face. A prime example is the assertion that Chagnon is responsible for the aggressiveness of the Yanomomo Indians of Venezuela and Brazil. Yanomomo aggressiveness was documented long before Chagnon first entered the Amazon Basin in 1964.

Other charges probably cannot be proved or disproved. In a world where husbands and wives can't agree on what was said a few moments before, who can evaluate conversations that might or might not have occurred in some jungle village in 1966?

But if you have the experience to read between the lines, the flaw in some of Tierney's accusations is apparent. Wong asked Chagnon about Tierney's charge that he had asked for a Yanomomo wife. Chagnon replied that he merely had referred to the girl as a cross-cousin.

This makes perfect sense. I lived among the Northern Ojibwa Indians of Ontario and Manitoba from 1974 to 1979. For people of the opposite sex, the kinship term for cross-cousin is identical with the word for "sweetheart." Cross-cousins, a term too amorphous to define here -- may marry each other and no one else.

A phone call to Chagnon at his home in Traverse City, Mich., confirmed that the Yanomomo, along with the Ojibwa, have the same kinship system -- with a twist. In Yanomomo, the word for cross-cousin and the word for wife are identical.

Tierney holds Chagnon responsible for disrupting Yanomomo culture, but the anthropologist believes that change caused by outside forces probably was inevitable. "It may turn out that future anthropologists will have to rely entirely on archived materials -- the sort I collected -- to figure out some of the questions they want answers to about the primitive world," Chagnon told Wong. "People like the Yanomomo aren't going to be around very long."

Chagnon's work will bear more immediate fruit as young Yanomomo leave the forest for life in the outside world. To prepare for fieldwork in the 1970s, I immersed myself in ethnography from the 1930s. When interviewing senior Ojibwa men, I sometimes used their sons as interpreters. Often they would turn in wonder, saying in English: "Gee, I didn't know that."

Chagnon said he got the same reaction from young Yanomomo when he played audiotapes he recorded in the 1960s. This much of Chagnon's legacy, at the very least, remains secure.