Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: Science, 8 July 2005, Vol. 309. no. 5732, p. 227
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News of the Week - Anthropology: A New Skirmish in the Yanomamö Wars

Charles C. Mann

Sensational accusations that anthropologists mistreated Venezuela's Yanomamö Indians while studying them continue to roil the American Anthropological Association (AAA). Last week, AAA members voted 846-338 to rescind the association's report on the charges, which were leveled almost 5 years ago in journalist Patrick Tierney's book Darkness in El Dorado. Although opposition to the referendum was "very vocal," says Thomas Headland, an anthropological consultant to SIL International in Dallas, Texas, who supported it, "I guess there's a silent majority among the 11 or 12 thousand members of the AAA."

Tierney's book set off a firestorm with its charges that researchers had "devastated" the Yanomamö, who live near the headwaters of the Orinoco River. The most explosive allegation--that prominent anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the late geneticist James V. Neel exacerbated and possibly caused a lethal 1968 measles epidemic--was quickly shown to be implausible (Science, 29 September 2000, p. 2251; 19 January 2001, p. 416). But researchers continued to battle over a host of other claims, including that Chagnon's widely known depictions of the Yanomamö as "fierce" and violent had provided intellectual cover to people trying to take over their land.

In February 2001, AAA appointed a task force to "conduct an inquiry" into the growing storm. If the measure was intended to quell the dispute, it failed. Released in July 2002, the task force's 325-page final report exonerated Chagnon of the most serious charges (Science, 19 July 2002, p. 333) but argued that his association with a group of wealthy, allegedly corrupt Venezuelans was "unacceptable on both ethical and professional grounds" because visitors made many illicit trips to Yanomamö villages "without any quarantine procedures or other protections for the indigenous peoples." More importantly, the task force concluded that Chagnon's "representations [of the Yanomamö as 'fierce'] have been damaging" to them.

Figure 1 Misrepresented? Napoleon Chagnon's depiction of the Yanomanö as "fierce" and violent continues to divide anthropologists. Credit: Antonio Mali

Almost immediately, anthropologists Thomas Gregor of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and Daniel Gross of the World Bank in Washington, D.C., attacked the task force. In two critiques in the Chronicle of Higher Education and American Anthropology (the flagship AAA journal), Gregor and Gross scoffed that the investigation was "a model of ineptitude." The five-member committee, Gregor says, based its conclusions "on biased interviews of selected, unrepresentative Indians." Not consulted, Chagnon's defenders note, were indigenous leaders such as Jaime Turon, elected head of the Upper Orinoco district, who wrote in a 2003 open letter that Chagnon and his associates, far from hurting the Yanomamö, "were the only ones that helped us ... in the 1960s and 1970s."

Gross and Gregor obtained the 50 signatures AAA bylaws require to hold a referendum on the report. "We were not attempting to mount a defense of Mr. Chagnon," Gross wrote in an e-mail to Science--indeed, they have attacked each other's ideas in print since the 1970s. "However, Chagnon [and Neel] were subjected to a process that was highly loaded ideologically and in which they had no way of defending themselves."

Despite the strong rejection of the task force report, few expect a cease-fire in the Yanomamö wars. Robert Borofsky of Hawaii Pacific University in Honolulu has said AAA should keep "evaluating the charges"; Brazilian director José Padilha is filming a BBC documentary on the affair for broadcast in early 2006. Raymond Hames of the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, says Chagnon is a "lightning rod" for the conflicts now rending anthropology. The field is bitterly split, he says, between "people who try to do science and people who believe that science is impossible or--with a postmodern ring--is actually an unethical thing to do, a hegemonic tool of Western imperialism." Chagnon's high-profile support of a data-driven view of anthropology, Hames--a Chagnon collaborator--and other anthropologists say, has made him a special object of opprobrium to the field's postmodern flank.

Chagnon further "infuriated people," Gross says, when he argued (Science, 26 February 1988, p. 985) that Yanomamö men "who had killed had higher reproductive success"--an evolutionary explanation for the high levels of violence Chagnon said he observed. The claim, Gross says, simultaneously drew the ire of researchers suspicious of what they saw as "crude biological determinism" and activists who believed that the depiction of the Yanomamö as warlike, which they believed inaccurate, "directly harmed" them.

Inflamed by Chagnon's sometimes hot-tempered personal style, these conflicts have led to divisions that are unlikely to be resolved quickly. Indeed, Leslie Sponsel of the University of Hawaii, Manoa, one of Chagnon's most outspoken detractors, calls the vote "simply another smoke screen to distract attention from the multitude of diverse allegations made by Tierney, some of which were confirmed by various investigations."

Although Chagnon calls himself "pleased" by the vote, he believes that "activist anthropologists" will continue to use ethical charges "as a social and political weapon." Meanwhile, he believes the AAA task force may actually have "worsened the plight of the Yanomamö because the [Venezuelan government] has, as a consequence of AAA actions, been shut off to researchers who might be more genuine and effective in their efforts to help them."