Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: Businessweek Online: December 18, 2000
Source URL (Archive.org): http://www.businessweek.com/2000/00_51/b3712033.htm

Atrocities in the Amazon?


How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon

By Patrick Tierney

Norton -- 417pp -- $27.95

I'll never forget the drama of flying over the dense Amazon jungle in a Brazilian army helicopter and landing in a remote clearing. We followed several Yanomami Indians down a steep embankment, across a stream, and through tangled vegetation until we reached a large, oval shabono, the thatched-roof communal dwelling at Mainsipi-u-there. Inside the dark, smoky hut, the two Indian affairs agency doctors I was accompanying examined two children lying listlessly in their hammocks, feverish with malaria. One doctor stayed overnight to diagnose other cases and airlift the worst out the next day. The other doctor and I raced back to the waiting helicopter and on to another settlement at Paapiu.

It was 1991, and I was there to write about the environmental destruction and disease introduced to the area by tens of thousands of gold miners. These interlopers were working illegally in the once-virgin forest of Brazil and Venezuela where some 24,000 members of the Western hemisphere's most primitive and isolated tribe lived. At the time, the miners appeared to represent the biggest danger to the Yanomami way of life. But in a new book that has sent shockwaves through academia, investigative journalist Patrick Tierney makes a persuasive argument that anthropologists for several decades engaged in unethical practices that put Yanomami culture at even greater risk. Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon is a highly readable, damning dossier that has prompted the American Anthropological Association (AAA) to announce a probe of the allegations.

Tierney shows how anthropologists and documentary filmmakers thoroughly corrupted the Yanomami by showering them with coveted steel goods--machetes, knives, guns, and cooking utensils--that apparently helped spark conflicts with rival communities. Zealous documentary filmmakers paid Indians to stage mock battles, complete with faked sound effects and stage-set ''villages,'' then presented the onscreen fighting as authentic. A Nova/BBC crew flew in an extra camera from London to film the weeks-long agony of a dying mother and her newborn baby--but callously failed to transport them to a nearby clinic. The highlight of the film, Warriors of the Amazon, was the mother's cremation ceremony.

Tierney became interested in Latin American culture in 1968, when anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon published Yanomamo: The Fierce People. Giving graphic details of the Indians' hallucinogenic drug use, warfare, and women-stealing raids on other villages, Chagnon argued that violent Yanomami men had more female partners and more offspring, and thus became dominant in their communities. His book became a classic in anthropological literature, selling over 1 million copies, more than Margaret Mead's legendary Coming of Age in Samoa. Chagnon became a larger-than-life figure to a generation of anthropologists.

But after spending 11 years researching his story on the Yanomami in the field, Tierney, initially an admirer, came to loathe Chagnon's practices. Tierney's not the first critic: Over the years, a number of anthropologists have cast doubt on Chagnon's thesis that the Yanomami are particularly fierce. (Indeed, Chagnon removed his subtitle The Fierce People from later editions.) But Tierney offers painstaking research--including hundreds of interviews with missionaries, anthropologists, and the Yanomami themselves--presenting difficult-to-refute evidence that Chagnon and others misrepresented the nature of the indigenous group to suit their own agenda. Tierney's calculations indicate Chagnon may have vastly overstated the ''violence quotient'' of some villages by failing to count all of the men.

Chagnon, now retired from the University of California Santa Barbara, says Tierney's accusations are ''preposterous.'' His supporters have posted point-by-point rebuttals of Tierney's conclusions on the Internet (www.anth.ucsb.edu/chagnon.html), noting that he is not a trained anthropologist and thus is ill-equipped to challenge Chagnon's established thesis on Yanomami violence. But few have stepped forward to defend Chagnon's research methods. Even more serious than Chagnon's ''checkbook anthropology,'' which rewarded cooperative Yanomami with everything from fishhooks to outboard motors, was his method for tracing the group's lineage: Tierney says he paid people to tell him the names of their dead ancestors, a revelation that is taboo in Yanomami culture. If that failed, he approached rival communities to get the information, aggravating tension. Far from being a quiet observer, Chagnon was a dominant presence: Villagers say he would descend into communities, God-like and armed with a shotgun, via helicopters that sometimes blew the roofs off buildings.

By the early 1990s, anthropologists in Brazil and Venezuela had come to resent Chagnon for perpetuating the myth of Yanomami violence, because it provided both governments a pretext for withdrawing protection for the tribe against encroaching gold miners. For the past decade, they have blocked Chagnon from visiting the Amazon.

But Chagnon wasn't the only outsider in Yanomamiland. Tierney describes at length the debauchery of a French anthropologist, Jacques Lizot, who allegedly had sexual relations with young Yanomami boys during his 25 years of field research.

Tierney's assertions have drawn support from a number of academics. Terence Turner, an Amazon expert now at Cornell University, told Tierney that he warned the AAA back in 1994 that ''we have no right to castigate the gold miners, the military, the missionaries, or the governments of South America if we're afraid to look at the role of our own anthropologists in the Yanomami tragedy. Unfortunately, Napoleon Chagnon has caused a great deal of harm to the Yanomami and their chances of survival.''

But Tierney falls short when he launches his most damning charge: that Chagnon and the late University of Michigan human geneticist James Neel deliberately tested a dangerous measles vaccine on the immune-weak Yanomami in 1968, causing hundreds of deaths. Tierney believes--but cannot prove--that Neel wanted to see if an isolated group had adequate immune protection to survive such an outbreak. Although the measles vaccine Neel used, the Edmonston B live virus, was later discontinued, scientists say there is no evidence that it could cause an epidemic. The National Academy of Sciences has issued a rebuttal of Tierney's measles-epidemic charges and says his book is riddled with factual errors and innuendo.

However, the Academy did not rebut another of Tierney's claims: that Neel and Chagnon acted unethically by collecting thousands of blood, urine, and stool samples from the Yanomami from 1965 to 1972, presumably without their full consent. Neel was working for the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission, and these samples allowed him to compare the gene mutation rates of an isolated population group with those of atom bomb survivors in Japan.

Tierney underwent a four-hour grilling at the November AAA convention in San Francisco, during a special symposium called to discuss his book's charges. While acknowledging that he may have ruined some reputations, Tierney made no apologies for his own agenda: blasting the scientific community for its carelessness in studying--and exploiting--the Yanomami, and censuring journalists who readily went along with Chagnon's myth of the ignoble savage.

Although some of Darkness in El Dorado's claims may well be disproved, the volume is a valuable contribution to the debate over anthropological ethics. Certainly, those who read it will never again watch a film on obscure indigenous groups without wondering how much of the action has been staged.


Mexico City bureau chief Smith lived in Brazil for seven years.