Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: Email from author, 2010
Source URL: none

30th Hawai`i International Film Festival, Honolulu, HI, October 14-24, 2010, http://HIFF.org

Invited background essay for documentary film “Secrets of the Tribe” shown on October 17, Sunday, 8 p.m., at Regal Dole Cannery.


The Yanomami are one of the world’s most famous indigenous cultures. About 21,000 Yanomami reside in the Amazon border area between Brazil and Venezuela in some 360 scattered communities with an average size of 30-90 individuals. Their world is intensely intimate, socially and ecologically. By now more than three dozen anthropologists have worked with them and more than 60 books have been published about them.

Late in the year 2000 a raging firestorm swept through the anthropological establishment. It was ignited by investigative journalist Patrick Tierney with a book provocatively titled Darkness in El Dorado: How Anthropologists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon. His detailed and shocking account is based on a decade of field and archival research. Much of the controversy over the book involves his allegations concerning a multitude of diverse violations of professional ethics and human rights by Napoleon A. Chagnon and several other researchers among the Yanomami. Most of the specific ethical questions revolve around power, reciprocity, respect, and accountability in conducting research with human subjects. Many of the allegations that Tierney identified and elaborated on had been voiced off and on over a period of four decades by numerous anthropologists including several who have worked with the Yanomami. Several points in Tierney’s book were examined by various researchers, universities, and professional organizations like the American Anthropological Association (AAA); some points were refuted, but others were confirmed.

Tierney’s book and the ensuing controversy was the initial inspiration for the documentary Secrets of the Tribe by the famous Brazilian filmmaker Jose Padilha for the BBC and HBO. In this film he skillfully juxtaposes opposing views on a succession of major points of contention voiced by several of the principal scientists featured in Tierney’s book and others. Among the many issues considered are the image of Yanomami as fierce primitives; competition for animal protein, reproductive fitness, or trade goods as three alternative hypotheses to explain their supposed warfare; anthropology as inferior to sociobiology as science; one anthropologist’s introduction of prostitution into several villages; interethnic and interracial marriage; transparency in Cold War research for the Atomic Energy Commission; genocide; and problematic medical treatment of Yanomami during a lethal measles epidemic.

Thanks to Padilha’s interviews with Yanomami, this film is not a simple re-hashing of points and issues identified by Tierney. The history, controversy, and its varied consequences are given a new airing, as Yanomami individuals voice their own opinions about being research subjects as well as their memories of the measles epidemic and its deadly outcome. Some angrily refer to anthropologists as liars, transmitters of disease, and no longer welcome in their territory. In the absence of any narration, the filmmaker leaves viewers to draw their own conclusions about this sordid history, the meaning and impact of some research in the Amazon, and Tierney’s allegations that such work involved ethical misconduct and human rights violations.

This documentary would have benefited from a thorough and critical examination of the role of the AAA in attempting to investigate and document Tierney’s allegations and resolve the controversy. The failure of the film to consider the decades of heroic applied research and advocacy work by various anthropologists on behalf of the survival, welfare, and rights of the Yanomami may leave many viewers with the misleading impression that all research with Yanomami is socially-bankrupt. However, the greatest omission of all is the lack of attention to the continuing plight of the Yanomami in the face of external threats such as illegal gold miners and devastating Western diseases. The film ends with scenes at the annual convention of the AAA, implying that some of the issues transcend the particulars in the controversy, and perhaps even indicting anthropology as a whole. One anthropologist wonders if we can do no better.

While many may view this film as merely exposing embarrassing and disgusting secrets about some anthropologists and their tribal warfare, scrutiny reveals that far more substantial issues are involved. This provocative film is destined to become a most valuable historical documentation of a primitive phase in the evolution of professional ethics in anthropology.

For viewers who wish to learn more, by far the best source on this unprecedented scandal is the 2005 book Yanomami: The Fierce Controversy and What We Can Learn From It edited by Robert Borofsky of Hawai’i Pacific University.

Leslie E. Sponsel Professor Emeritus
Department of Anthropology
University of Hawai`i