Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: ABC, 16/06/01
Source URL (Archive.org): http://www.abc.net.au/rn/science/ss/stories/s313371.htm

Darkness in El Dorado

Broadcast Saturday 16/06/01


Plunder and colonisation have often followed the arrival of explorers in remote and previously undisturbed areas. Sometimes the arrival of anthropologists can have much the same results. 'Darkness in El Dorado' is an account of the plight of the Yanomami people and the effects on them of contact with the American anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon.


Clio Cresswell: The Yanomami people living in a remote part of the Amazon on the border of Brazil and Venezuela have long been the focus of attentio, especially since the 1960s when these isolated humans experienced the almost obligatory surge in interest from missionaries, scientists and journalists. The 1960s are also synonymous for the Yanomami with a surge in disease, war, violence, prostitution and malnutrition. Patrick Tierney’s latest book “Darkness in El Dorado” presents compelling evidence linking the anthropologists and journalists who visited the area to the sudden downfall of Yanomami culture.

Now, it should be a great read, but what beats me is how someone can make such a juicy and relevant topic sound so boring. Tierney’s book is more of a research report padded out with rare paragraphs describing the lush environment which actually give context to his never ending doom laden statistics. “Darkness in El Dorado” gives the reader no opportunities to develop an affinity with the culture or the people affected, and so robs the argument of the power it needs to really make a different.

Like a punch drunk boxer who no longer feels the blows, I found that by the middle of the book I had become numb to the ongoing plight of the Yanomami. But this book is a must read, not just because it will provide you with dinner party conversation, and believe me it will, but because it raises important questions about the unification of world culture and the ethics of scientists and journalists who lay some claim to safe guarding their subjects' natural individual identity. Scientists are portrayed as benign observers yet they can and do have lethal impact.

So, let me entice you into reading this book. A large proportion of “Darkness in El Dorado” concerns the scientific practices of the American anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon whose fame arose from his studies of the Yanomami. They form the basis of his books, articles and films, all of which have become standard anthropological references where the Yanomami are described as primitive and extremely violent.

Chagnon’s sociological coup though was finding that the more violent men in these polygamous tribes had more wives and more children. This beautifully suppors the selfish gene theory. As Patrick Tierney points out in the book, Chagnon’s discovery demonstrated that men will do almost anything, even the most antisocial things, to pass on the greatest number of genes. This challenged the popular view that violence and war erupted as a consequence of scarce material resources like food and territory not women.

Tierney manages to shoot holes through Chagnon’s socio-biological theory in two ways. Firstly, he vehemently but somewhat tediously argues over details in Chagnon’s data. Secondly, and more interestingly, he presents evidence that surges in the Yanomami violence only occurred upon or just after contact with Chagnon himself. It seems violence erupted not because of lack of food or land or women but because of too much western anthropologist.

Chagnon always arrived in villages with abundant supplies of machetes, axes, knives and steel pots, precious items to the Yanomami who appreciate certain luxuries of a more modern life style. He used these as trade goods for his scientific ransacking. In exchange for blood samples, filming rights and in-depth family history accounts, certain tribes acquired the most valuable treasures. Family histories were the most expensive items as the Yanomamis' shamanic beliefs prohibit them from naming the dead. But even in Yanomami land there seems to be a price for everything.

Chagnon travelled through this area of the Amazon unloading his steel goods unevenly, leaving villages left out of the loop frustrated and feeling antagonistic towards their newly enriched neighbours. It turns out Chagnon might have been documenting his impact on the Yanomami rather than anything strictly observational. “Darkness in El Dorado” captures the complexity of this situation nicely. Among other illustrative examples Tierney discusses a particular war that broke out when one tribe refused to honour their obligation to trade dogs with another.

To the Yanomami dogs are not only valuable hunting tools but they are also considered a top grade trade item. A dog usually trades for a machete which before Chagron’s arrival was scarce, though it had still entered the Yanomami economy mostly through their occasional contact with gold miners. Once machetes became commonplace in certain tribes the bottom fell out of the dog/machete market. Yet another reason for an increase in frustration, antagonism and violence.

More tragically though, Tierney finds something else that seems to follow Chagnon and his team’s footsteps – measles. In 1968 an epidemic devastated the Venezuelan Yanomami by claiming an estimated 15% - 20% of the population. At the time Chagnon claimed he and his co-workers were witnessing a genuine measles outbreak. He deviated from his anthropological work by caring for the locals and helping to protect them with inoculations. Yet one detail seems to have been overlooked until now. The epidemic began in a village 48 hours after Chagnon started inoculating Indians and upon his return from a long absence. Tierney goes deeper.

It turns out Chagnon and his team were using the Edmonston B live virus, a vaccine contraindicated since 1965 because too many people developed standard measles symptoms after having received it. The Yanomami were not spared. In fact, Tierney suggests the vaccine became contagious in this new environment. Had Chagnon and his team started and fuelled the spread of measles? Surely inoculating an isolated group is questionable in anyone’s language. But was it the work of bad scientists or scientists gone bad?

Tierney proposes that the intention of the scientists was to observe the spread of measles in a population previously unexposed to the virus. This would enable geneticists to work out the inherited immunity acquired from having been in its contact for thousands of years. The arguments that Tierney presents in “Darkness in El Dorado” follow a natural progression, adding to their persuasiveness. Well, until the last chapter. At this point, from out of nowhere, Tierney links all his Amazonian research to the Manhattan Project, the US project responsible for the atom bomb.

Part of the research involved injecting a number of people with radioactive plutonium. This was the dawn of nuclear power and the aim was to ascertain the metabolic behaviour of the toxic material. I don’t want to say more because that will really only spoil the surprise. Suffice it to say you are bound to form an opinion on Tierney’s giant logical leaps. It has an X-Files side to it which I find distasteful and unscientific.

“Darkness in El Dorado” does not solely constitute an attack on Chagnon even though at times it really does feel like it. Upon reading this book you will have the opportunity to learn about:

· the gold miner, Charles Brewer, who managed to control a 32,000 square mile Yanomami Reserve,

· the Venezualan President’s mistress, Cecilia Matos, who has now been charged with several accounts of fraud associated with her involvement with the Yanomami people,

· and the French anthropologist Jacques Lizot, who’s sexual antics with the Yanomami earned him eternal life within the Yanomami language, where the word for anal intercourse is now Lizo-mou.

No wonder “Darkness in El Dorado” has sent waves of controversy through the world of anthropology. Since its publication, the American Anthropological Association has appointed a special task force to determine whether Tierney’s allegations require formal investigation. Its ethics committee is also drafting guidelines on how to conduct field work. I find it quite surprising such guide lines aren’t in place already, after all, isn’t there a history of scientist behaving like plunderers?

From the North American Indian to the Australian Aborigine there is not a great track record in respecting and nurturing remote societies. But then how long can any society remain remote. Chagnon argues that we should maximise our opportunities to study remote societies before it is too late. He sees the Yanomami as being our last opportunity to study a population in transition from a hunting and gathering economy to agriculture. With the knowledge “Darkness in El Dorado” brings, that goal loses any scientific majesty and the endeavour turns sour.

Perhaps there’s a lesson here for us and our attitudes towards indigenous Australians.

Guests on this program:

Dr Clio Creswell


School of Mathematics

University of New South Wales

Sydney 2052

Tel: +61 2 9385 6904



'Darkness in El Dorado:

How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon'

Author: Patrick Tierney

Publisher: W.W. Norton , N.Y.