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

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

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by Patrick Tierney

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Thought to be the last "virgin" people, the Yanomami were considered the most savage and warlike tribe on earth, as well as one of the most remote, secreted in the jungles and highlands of the Venezuelan and Brazilian rainforest. Preeminent anthropologists like Napoleon Chagnon and Jacques Lizot founded their careers in the 1960s by "discovering" the Yanomami's

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Thought to be the last "virgin" people, the Yanomami were considered the most savage and warlike tribe on earth, as well as one of the most remote, secreted in the jungles and highlands of the Venezuelan and Brazilian rainforest. Preeminent anthropologists like Napoleon Chagnon and Jacques Lizot founded their careers in the 1960s by "discovering" the Yanomami's ferocious warfare and sexual competition. Their research is now examined in painstaking detail by Patrick Tierney, whose book has prompted the American Anthropological Association to launch a major investigation into the charges, and has ignited the academic world like no other book in recent years. The most important book on anthropology in decades, Darkness in El Dorado will be a work to be reckoned with by a new generation of students the world over. A National Book Award finalist; a New York Times Notable Book, a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year, and a Boston Globe Best Book of the Year. 16 pages of b/w photographs. "In many respects, the most important book ever written about the Yanomami...."—Leslie Sponsel, University of Hawaii "An astonishing tale of scientific vainglory and blinding pride....Subtly argued and powerfully written."—The National Book Award Foundation Judges' Citation "[A] tale of self-interested agendas carried to such extremes as to seem an anthropological Heart of Darkness."—Los Angeles Times "Best Books of 2000" "[W]ill become a classic in anthropological literature, sparking countless debates."—The New York Times Book Review, John Horgan "Its most immediate effect may be to provoke a needed dialogue on the crucial importance of informed consent in anthropology."—The Chronicle of Higher Education, Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban "An enthralling and well-researched look at the unscrupulous practices of anthropology and journalism."—Booklist, Vanessa Bush "Copiously annotated and well documented... the culmination of a decade-long study of what Tierney claims is false science."—Publishers Weekly starred review "Nowhere is there a better case study of the effects of intervention on tribal peoples..."—Christian Science Monitor "[A] brilliant and shocking book....This book should shake anthropology to its very foundations."—Terrence Collins, Carnegie Mellon University "An extremely important contribution."—John Frechione, University of Pittsburgh "[C]arefully researched and documented...reveals an interlocking series of scandals that constitute the most flagrant violations of scientific ethics..."—Terrence Turner, Carnegie Mellon University "[A] devastatingly truthful story of massive genocide in contemporary times."—Chief Wilma Mankiller, Board Member, The Ford Foundation "The case of Napoleon Chagnon, as harrowingly documented by Patrick Tierney, appears to be an archetypal and unbelievably appalling one."—Alex Shoumatoff, author of The Rivers Amazon, and The World is Burning

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Editorial Reviews

Who was responsible for the devastation of the Yanomami Indian tribe? Was it the scientists who wished to use Yanomami blood for their atomic energy-related genetics research? The anthropologists who had only their own interests at heart? Or was it the journalists, who had their own agenda? This controversial book takes a look at the various forces that conspired to threaten one the Amazon basin's oldest tribes. It's guaranteed to shake up the world of American anthropology.

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Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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1 ED
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6.45(w) x 9.61(h) x 1.42(d)

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Chapter One

Savage Encounters

Every time we are making a contact, we are spoiling them.
Charles Brewer Carías

The thunderous descent of the military helicopter at the village of Dorita-teri drove Yanomami Indian women and children screaming into the surrounding plantain gardens. Out in the jungle, panic also reigned, as macaws and parrots, deer and tapirs scrambled to escape the machine. When the dust cleared, twenty Yanomami warriors were standing in a semicircle, yelling at seven white men and one white woman who had descended from the helicopter with television cameras and sound equipment. Most of the warriors held enormous bows and arrows. The headman wived all ax.

    The tumultuous landing in Dorita-teri, on May 17, 1991, created an impressive spectacle for the Venezuelan television crew, which was doing a special on "the purest human groups in existence." The community was located in the little-explored Siapa Highlands on the Brazil-Venezuela border, the Amazon's last frontier. These remote mountains also concealed the last intact cluster of aboriginal villages in the world—whose inhabitants were considered living relics of prehistoric culture. The seminomadic Yanomami spent their time hunting and trekking in much the same way humanity had done for countless generations. The anthropologist directing the expedition called them "our contemporary ancestors."

    Although it was a novelty for the television journalists to be welcomed into an Indian village with axes and arrows in 1991, theexpedition leaders Napoleon Chagnon and Charles Brewer Carías had been taking risks like this for decades. Chagnon, an anthropologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and Brewer, a naturalist then associated with the New York Botanical Garden, claimed first contact with 3,500 Yanomami Indians in the Siapa region alone. In August 1990, their "discovery of 10 Yanomami villages they say had never been visited before by anyone except other tribal members" set off a frenzy of media competition and scientific congratulation. "Stone Age Villages Found" ran a typical headline.

    In the economics of exoticism, the more remote and more isolated a tribal group is, the greater its market value. As the last intact aboriginal group, the Yanomami were in a class by themselves, poster people whose naked, photogenic appeal was matched by their unique genetic inheritance. Their blood was as coveted by scientists as their image was by photographers. Technically, the Yanomami were defined as a virgin soil population, and there was a trace of feudal privilege in the way the visitations were doled out: ABC's Prime Time got one village, Newsweek another, and so it went. The New York Times got two villages, but had to share one of them with the Associated Press.

    Sometimes the media's own arrival was the real scoop. Just before visiting Dorita-teri, the same Venevisión crew had gotten exciting footage at a neighboring village, Shanishani-teri, where the helicopter landed in the middle of the circular communal house, or shabono. The round house's roofing was whisked up and away, like Dorothy's house in a Kansas tornado, while the Yanomami's possessions—bark hammocks, gourds, woven baskets, and bamboo arrows—splintered and shattered like Tinkertoys. The on-camera journalist, Marta Rodríguez Miranda, said, "They kindly accepted our landing in the middle of the shabono even though their whole roof would collapse with the downblast."

    Similar scenes were repeated elsewhere with different media teams. At one village, the helicopter was driven off with a hail of rocks and sticks; at another, five Yanomami were injured by falling roof poles. During all these adventures, only ABC's John Quiñones asked the most obvious question, one that might have occurred to any grade-school student educated about the tragic history of Indian tribes since the European discovery of America in the fifteenth century. "Aren't we doing some harm, spoiling this culture, even by coming here today?" Quiñones asked Charles Brewer, who at fifty-two, looked fit, handsome, and baby-faced behind his sprawling mustache.

    "Definitely," Brewer answered. "Every time we are making a contact, we are spoiling them."

    In spite of the "first contact" craze, almost all of these extraordinarily remote communities had been visited before and were being reharvested after a suitable interval. In fact, Chagnon and Brewer had visited the Yanomami of Dorita-teri at another location in 1968, where they made two award-winning documentaries, which went on to become staples of anthropology classes around the world. One film, Yanomama: A Multidisciplinary Study, dramatically illustrated the scientists' altruism in rescuing the Dorita-teri's parent village from a deadly measles epidemic. The second documentary—The Feast—showcased Yanomami ferocity and won first prize at every film festival in which it was entered. Everyone praised these films except the Dorita-teri, who apparently had a different interpretation of the scientists' camera work.

    Despite their previous acquaintance, the Dorita-teri were not enthusiastic about seeing Chagnon and Brewer again. The village headman, Harokoiwa, greeted them with an ax. Swaying from side to side, Harokoiwa upbraided the scientists for driving away game with their helicopter. He also accused them of bringing xawara—evil vapors that, in the Yanomami conception of disease, cause epidemics. Harokoiwa angrily claimed that Chagnon had killed countless Yanomami with his cameras. In reality; many of the Yanomami who starred in The Feast died of mysterious illnesses immediately afterward—new sicknesses the Indians had attributed to the scientists' malefic filmmaking. The Yanomami abandoned the village where The Feast was made and never returned. Later they shot arrows into a palm effigy of the film's anthropologist—Napoleon Chagnon.

    Now, on Chagnon's return, the headman began swinging his ax tantalizingly close to the anthropologist's head. Harokoiwa yelled that he did not want outsiders to poison any more rivers, a reference to Brewer's huge open-pit gold mines on Indian lands.

    Suddenly, one of the chief's sons, wielding another ax, rushed Chagnon. As the weapon arced through the air, it appeared to be on its way to splitting Chagnon's skull when Brewer deftly intercepted the ax with one hand and, with the other, knocked the man to the ground. Adding to the confusion were screams by some of the Dorita-teri women, who begged their men not to kill Chagnon and Brewer, "because they had always brought so many presents."

    Under the circumstances, the scientists and television crew thought it best to leave. On returning to Caracas, Venevisión's producers shelved the footage of this confrontation, though not without some pain. It was a great little scene. But it raised nagging questions that could not be answered, at least not on a show about Stone Age ancestors.

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What People are saying about this

Terrence Turner
Terrence Turner, Carnegie Mellon University
Carefully researched and documented...reveals an interlocking series of scandals that constitute the most flagrant violations of scientific ethics...
Alex Shoumatoff
The case of Napoleon Chagnon, as harrowingly documented by Patrick Tierney, appears to be an archetypal and unbelievably appalling one.
— (Alex Shoumatoff, author of The Rivers Amazon, and The World is Burning
Wilma Mankiller
Chief Wilma Mankiller, Board Member, The Ford Foundation
A devastatingly truthful story of massive genocide in contemporary times.
John Frechione
John Frechione, University of Pittsburgh
An extremely important contribution.
Terrence Collins
Terrence Collins, Carnegie Mellon University
A brilliant and shocking book....This book should shake anthropology to its very foundations.

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Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon 2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Even educated Americans seem to be uncritical in their acceptance of scandalous accusations. A careful reading of this book will show that its allegations are made through cleverly worded inuendo and not supported by data. While it is very important that all of us who work with people pay scrupulous attention to ethical issues, it is unconscionable to create havoc with half truths and statements quoted out of context as Tierney has done. Careful investigation of Tierney's allegations shows serious credibility issues, just as it did with Derek Freedman's criticisms of Margaret Mead's work. All scientific research should be open to scrutiny, but yellow journalism is not the way to do it.
Sadcustomer More than 1 year ago
I cannot write a review of the book just because eventhough I paid for it, the book never arrived. I sent a mail to B&N trying to find out what happened and the answer was that I should ask the local post office. Whithout any data regarding the shipment I could not ask a thing about it. Subsequent mails were not answered. So I lost my money and don't have the book. To ask me for a review sounds to me like a (bad taste) joke. Maybe you would like me to review B&N service.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book makes very serious charges of unethical and unscientific conduct by a number of scientists and government entities. Based on reading the evidence cited in the book, however, it was hard for me to tell how solid these charges are. If you like a good mystery, this book will probably appeal to you as an opportunity to figure out what went on with the Yanomami people in South America from 1964 on. Contact with primitive people has many special responsibilities associated with it. In some cases, those who are being studied can be exposed to dangerous illnesses. In other cases, the social structure can be influenced in ways that are harmful to individuals. On the other hand, what aspects of modern science and technology, if any, should be withheld? This book raises all of those questions in very fundamental ways. Apparently, those who were involved disagree about both what was done, and its appropriateness. The charge of unscientific research is that what has been reported about the violence of the Yanomami is inaccurate. Mr. Tierney argues that the data behind the findings are either missing, wrong, or mischaracterized. Filmed evidence is claimed to have been 'staged' in exchange for gifts, or incited by inflammatory behavior by the scientists (like firing off weapons to intimidate, dressing as a shaman, and staging feasts). Charges of U.S. government misconduct relate to obtaining specimens from Yanomami for a control group as part of Atomic Energy Commission studies of the effect of radiation on human beings. Apparently, this sampling was going on in large numbers while the initial anthropological studies were being undertaken. That research, if it took place as described here, seems like a very strange thing for anthropologists to be doing. Clearly, the Yanomami suffered from severe outbreaks of disease (measles and other complications) at about the same time that the anthropological contacts occurred. Arguments are made that measles vaccine was misapplied by the anthropologists, which made disease and death worse. Apparently, this charge is very controversial. I do not know enough about the subject to have an opinion, but I would certainly be interested in what a disinterested third party would have to say on the subject. One anthropologist is accused of having abused children in the process of his research. Where should these accusations go from here? They clearly need to be resolved somehow. If they are true, serious misconduct seems to have taken place. If they are not true, serious harm to the individuals charged has occurred. In either case, I hope that this book will not be the end of the examination and discussion. Regardless of what turns out to be the case in each aspect of the charges, I do hope that standards will be set and observed that all people will agree to and follow for working with privitive peoples. It is hard for me to imagine that some of these factual issues can ever be resolved. A lot of time has passed, and the evidence is often buried (as in the case of the many dead Yanomami). What people say today may or may not be correct. On the other hand, it seems like t
Guest More than 1 year ago
While many anthropologists are dismissing this book as a 'journalistic' piece and others are calling it 'revelatory', the allegations made in this book are by no means 'new.' Indeed, Mark Ritchie made even more daring accusations about the exploitation of the Yanomami in his book 'The Spirit of the Rainforest.' The key is that this book has been published by a mainstream publisher, and hence is causing much consternation in academic circles. Perhaps the most stunning indictment of Chagnon's work (which this book focuses on criticizing) comes from some of his own statements about the Yanomamo, which show a lack of sensitivity to his 'subjects.' For example in one of his writings, Chagnon refers to them as follows: 'The best they can achieve by entering mainstream society is to become bums beggars and prostitutes on the fringes of society.' (From his book 'Yanomamo: The Fierce People', where he also refers to the Natives as 'hideous men.'). This is not just a matter of political incorrectness, but rather of professional respect. While Tierney's book tends to sensationalize the issues at hand by assuming certain unsubstantiated linkages, some of the evidence which he presents is compelling. Nevertheless, the author should have spent some time investigating the more positive outcomes of Chagnon's work, such as the establishment of a fund to benefit the Yanomamo. Overall, this book should neither be revered nor reviled but rather read with some trepidation and introspection -- particularly by anthropologists.