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Life Among the Anthros

Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon

by Patrick Tierney
Norton, 417 pp., $27.95
This is the Brewer Explorer Survival knife,” said Charlie,… “6 1/4-inch stainless steel blade, Rockwell Hardness 56–58; 2 3/4-inch saw extending from the handle towards the point; on the left here a 180-degree clinometer for calculating the height of mountains; on the right instructions for five ground-to-air signals…. [It] converts…into wire cutters…. It can also be made into a harpoon [and holds] six fish hooks,… nylon fishing line, two lead sinkers, one float, an exacto blade, two sewing needles, three matches, a flint stick and a suture needle with suture material attached. It’s made by Marto of Toledo and imported into the US by Gutman at $150. But you and Simon can have one. It’s good for skinning alligators. And when the Yanomami have had a go at you you can sew each other up round the arrow holes.”
“The Yanomami?”
“Yeah. The most violent people on earth. Some anthropologists think they were the first people to reach South America from the North. They have very fair skins, occasionally green eyes. They are the largest untouched group of Indians left in the rainforest. The other Indians are terrified of them. My friend Napoleon Chagnon called his book on them The Fierce People—I’ll give you a copy, and Jacques Lizot’s too, Tales of the Yanomami. It’s all perfectly understandable—they grow a few plantains, but basically they’re hunter-gatherers and there’s not much food in these forests. So when times are bad they kill the new-born girls; so there are never enough women to go round; so they fight over them. Within the tribe, in formalised duels, they hit each other over the head with ten-foot-long clubs. Outside the tribe they raid each other’s settlements for women and kill the enemy men with six-foot-long arrows tipped with curare. And on top of all that they’ve no concept of natural death, so if anyone dies from a fever it’s the result of malign magic worked by an enemy shaman. Each death must be avenged.”
I stood there stupidly, holding the enormous Brewer Explorer knife.
“And this still goes on?” I said, shaken.
“They are killing each other,” said Charlie, “right now.”

—Redmond O’Hanlon1

Anthropologists have left an indelible imprint upon the Yanomami. In fact, the word anthro entered the Indians’ vocabulary, and it is not a term of endearment. For the Indians, anthro has come to signify something like the opposite of its original Greek meaning, “man.” The Yanomami consider an anthro to be a powerful nonhuman with deeply disturbed tendencies and wild eccentricities—an Olympian in a funk.

—Patrick Tierney2

Our land, our forest will only die off if the white man destroys it. Then the streams will vanish, the earth will become parched, the trees will dry up, and the rocks of the mountains will split with the heat. The xapiripë spirits who live on the mountains and play in the forest will run away. Their fathers, the shamans, will no longer be able to call them to protect us. The land-forest will become dry and empty. The shamans will no longer be able to deter the smoke-epidemics and the evil beings who make us fall sick. Thus, all will die.

—Davi Kopenawa Yanomami3

The Yanomami tribe in the [Amazonian] rainforest has always worried about losing its turf. But never has that battle involved a cyberspace incursion. The tribe is fighting a Florida woman who has claimed the name Yanomami.com and is offering to sell rights to it for $25,000. “The Yanomami name is not up for sale,” wrote tribal leader Davi Kopenawa Yanomami in response. In an increasingly common practice known as “cybersquatting,” the woman registered the World Wide Web address after hearing of an upcoming Hollywood movie on the tribe.



We are entering, we are told, a weightless, frictionless, speed-of-light age in which we will all be but address nodes in an endless flow of information packets, scurrying message handlers continuously assaulted from all directions. So far as scholarly life is concerned, that is still more specter than reality; promises (or threats) of e-books and downloadable doctoral theses and flooded-over inboxes aside, communication still proceeds at a more or less human pace, in a more or less politic manner. However, to judge from the on-line blizzard of charge and countercharge that has attended the mere rumor of Patrick Tierney’s blistering indictment of anthropological practice in the Venezuelan Amazon, Darkness in El Dorado, it may not do so very much longer. Such established academic customs as looking into books before reviewing them, editing drafts before publishing them, and couching even polemic in consecutive argument may well be on the way out—runes and relics of a less hurried time. In cyberspace, it is velocity that matters. Velocity and volume.

The first intelligence that Patrick Tierney’s j’accuse broadside was on the way came in the form of a breathless, six-page, single-spaced e-mail sent to “the President, and the President-elect” of the American Anthropological Association, a couple of weeks before the book was scheduled to appear (and a couple of months before it actually managed to do so), by two well-known Amazonian specialists and human rights activists, Terence Turner, professor of anthropology at Cornell, and Leslie Sponsel, professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii, Manoa.5

We write,” they said, “to inform you of an impending scandal that will affect the American Anthropological profession as a whole in the eyes of the public, and arouse intense indignation and calls for action among members of the Association.” They had obtained galley copies of a book by “an investigative journalist” describing “the actions of anthropologists and associated scientific researchers…among the Yanomami of Venezuela over the past thirty-five years”—actions “which in [their] scale, ramifications, and sheer criminality and corruption [are] unparalleled in the history of Anthropology.” As the AAA, due to assemble in sixty days for its annual meeting, “will be called on by the general media and its own membership to take collective stands on the issues [the book] raises, as well as appropriate redressive actions…. The sooner you [as presidents of the Association] know about the story that is about to break, the better prepared you can be to deal with it.”

The focus of the scandal” the book exposes, they continued, is the long-term project for the study of the Yanomami, sponsored by the Atomic Energy Commission as part of its post-Hiroshima effort to determine the effects of radiation on human subjects, and organized in the mid-Sixties “by James Neel, the human geneticist, in which Napoleon Chagnon, Timothy Asch, and numerous other anthropologists took part.” Tierney “presents convincing evidence” that Neel (who directed the radiation studies in Japan after the war) and Chagnon (probably the most prominent, and certainly the most controversial, student of the Yanomami) “greatly exacerbated, and probably started the epidemic of measles that killed ‘hundreds, perhaps thousands’…of Yanomami” in 1968 by inoculating them with an outmoded and “counter-indicated” live-virus vaccine, after which they “refused to provide any medical assistance to the sick and dying Yanomami, on explicit orders from Neel,” who, anxious to test his “extreme eugenic theories” in a “natural,” and “untouched,” human society, “insisted to his colleagues that they were only there to observe and record the epidemic,…not [to] provide medical help.”

Further, Chagnon, together with Asch, an ethnographic filmmaker, who worked with him for about ten years before they fell out in bitterness and recrimination, is said to have staged artificial “wars” between villages for documentary purposes, mock fights which often turned into real battles, shedding real blood. Together with Neel, he colluded with “sinister Venezuelan politicians attempting to gain control of Yanomami lands for illegal gold mining concessions.” And all by himself he allegedly cooked and recooked his data, much of it in fact as invented as his films, to support his “neo-Hobbesean,” sociobiological view of Yanomami life as brutal, violent, and congenitally murderous:

This nightmarish story—a real anthropological heart of darkness beyond the imagining of even a Josef [sic] Conrad (though not, perhaps, a Josef Mengele)…. This book should shake anthropology to its very foundations…. [It] will be seen (rightly in our view) by the public, as well as most anthropologists, as putting the whole discipline on trial, [and] it should cause the field to understand how the corrupt and depraved protagonists could have spread their poison for so long while they were accorded great respect throughout the Western World and generations of undergraduates received their lies as the introductory substance of anthropology.

And if all that didn’t concentrate the presidents’ minds sufficiently: “As both an indication and a vector of its public impact, we have learned that The New Yorker magazine is planning to publish an extensive excerpt, timed to coincide with the publication of the book on or about October 1st.”

Though Turner and Sponsel later claimed, quite implausibly, that their letter had been a confidential memorandum not meant for general circulation, posting it electronically rendered it immediately available to just about anyone within the range of just about anyone else’s “forward” command, and the howl of protest, outrage, glee, and Schadenfreude was vast and virtually instantaneous. It rocketed through the media behind screaming headlines: MACHO ANTHROPOLOGY (Salon), ANTHROPOLOGY ENTERS THE AGE OF CANNIBALISM (The New York Times), MAD DOG ANTHROPOLOGISTS (The Nation), THE WAGES OF ANTHROPOLOGICAL INCORRECTNESS (The National Review), IS ANTHROPOLOGY EVIL? (Slate), YANOMAMI: WHAT HAVE WE DONE TO THEM? (Time), “SCIENTIST” KILLED AMAZON INDIANS TO TEST RACE THEORY (The Guardian). The Chronicle of Higher Education, Science, US News, USA Today, UPI, AP, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, and Reuters had bylined, and on-lined, features on the matter, as did Forbes, “the capitalist tool,” which extended its attentions beyond anthropology—“a mind-set aching for activist causes”—to sociology and psychology as well: “People become sociologists because they hate society, and they become psychologists because they hate themselves.”

Beyond the media, a variety of interested institutions, commentators, and marching societies fired off barrages in one direction or another. The University of Michigan, where Neel had taught for nearly fifty years (he died in February 2000, aged eighty-four, full of just about every honor save, unaccountably, the Nobel Prize), went on line with a twenty-page “investigation,” accusing Tierney of pursuing “an anti-science agenda.” A team of “evolutionary psychologists” (that is, sociobiologists) from the University of California, Santa Barbara, from which Chagnon had recently retired, posted a seventy-page “preliminary” report, “The Big Lie,” calling Tierney’s allegations ignorant, malicious, laughable, and “deliberately fraudulent.” Bruce Alberts, the president of the National Academy of Sciences, and a longtime friend of Neel’s, weighed in with a statement attacking Tierney for doing “a grave disservice to a great scientist and to science itself.”

Dr. Samuel Katz, codeveloper of the measles vaccine Neel had used, posted an open e-mail to be displayed “in any place or fashion where…it may be helpful in aborting the posthumous assassination of Jim Neel,” saying that the vaccine was not “virulent,” could not cause measles, and never had done so in millions of applications. (Terence Turner, who said he had now found the time to consult an expert of his own, as well as, perhaps, to catch his breath, withdrew the “greatly exacerbated and probably started the epidemic” part of the accusation, and apologized to Katz—“now that I have had a chance to research the matter myself, I am in complete agreement with you.”) Asch’s filmmaker colleagues rushed to deny that he had ever staged anything, in the Amazon or anywhere else. (He, too, had died—in 1994, of cancer—suggesting, toward the end, that his Yanomami films were misleading and should be withdrawn from circulation.)

  1. 1

    In Trouble Again: A Journey Between the Orinoco and the Amazon (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1988), pp. 17–18. Italics in original. 

  2. 2

    Darkness in El Dorado, p. 14. 

  3. 3

    In Claudia Andujar, Yanomami (Curitiba, Brazil, 2000), p. 100. This is a fine book of art photographs of the Yanomami, with a brief ethnographic description of them by the French anthropologst Bruce Albert and personal reflections by Andujar, the photographer, and Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, a leading spokesman for the Yanomami people. 

  4. 4

    October 15, 2000. 

  5. 5

    Turner headed an earlier American Anthropological Association Special Commission to Investigate the Situation of the Brazilian Yanomami, in 1990–1991; Sponsel was chair of the Association’s Committee for Human Rights from 1992 to 1996. There are, as yet, no accepted conventions for the citation of Internet communications, which often have long and roundabout, not always recoverable, transmission routes, hyperlink upon hyperlink, before they arrive on one’s screen. (Precise source-referencing may be another elderly tradition on the way out.) I have not attempted to provide the relevant addresses for my on-line quotations: they tend to be long and cryptic, as well as, often enough, fugitive, disappearing like electronic wraiths when you look back for them. I have kept a list of them, which I can post on the Net (!) if there turns out to be a demand. An extensive, but given the volume of traffic necessarily incomplete, index of “over 300 links” (the true number is probably closer to a thousand or two by now) relevant to the debate can be found at www.anth. uconn.edu/gradstudents/dhume/index4.htm. 

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