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

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

by Patrick Tierney


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The explosive and highly controversial National Book Award finalist that has forever changed the discipline of anthropology.

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

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780393322750
Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 01/17/2002
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 448
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Patrick Tierney spent eleven years researching and writing Darkness in El Dorado.

Read an Excerpt

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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