Yanomami: The Fierce Controversy and What We Can Learn from It

Yanomami: The Fierce Controversy and What We Can Learn from It

Yanomami: The Fierce Controversy and What We Can Learn from It

Yanomami: The Fierce Controversy and What We Can Learn from It


Yanomami raises questions central to the field of anthropology--questions concerning the practice of fieldwork, the production of knowledge, and anthropology's intellectual and ethical vision of itself. Using the Yanomami controversy--one of anthropology's most famous and explosive imbroglios--as its starting point, this book draws readers into not only reflecting on but refashioning the very heart and soul of the discipline. It is both the most up-to-date and thorough public discussion of the Yanomami controversy available and an innovative and searching assessment of the current state of anthropology.

The Yanomami controversy came to public attention through the publication of Patrick Tierney's best-selling book, Darkness in El Dorado, in which he accuses James Neel, a prominent geneticist who belonged to the National Academy of Sciences, as well as Napoleon Chagnon, whose introductory text on the Yanomami is perhaps the best-selling anthropological monograph of all time, of serious human rights violations. This book identifies the ethical dilemmas of the controversy and raises deeper, structural questions about the discipline. A portion of the book is devoted to a unique roundtable in which important scholars on different sides of the issues debate back and forth with each other. This format draws readers into deciding, for themselves, where they stand on the controversy's--and many of anthropology's--central concerns.

All of the royalties from this book will be donated to helping the Yanomami improve their healthcare.


At first glance, the Yanomami controversy might be perceived as being focused on a narrow subject. It centers on the accusations made by the investigative journalist Patrick Tierney against James Neel, a world-famous geneticist, and Napoleon Chagnon, a prominent anthropologist, regarding their fieldwork among the Yanomami, a group of Amazonian Indians. But it would be a mistake to see the Yanomami controversy as limited to these three individuals and this one tribe.

First, the accusations Tierney made against Neel and Chagnon in his book Darkness in El Dorado (2000) generated a media storm that spread around the world. People knew about the accusations in New York, New Zealand, and New Guinea. Tierney accused Neel and Chagnon of unethical behavior among the Yanomami that at times bordered on the criminal. Many perceived the problem as being larger than the mistakes of two famous scientists. They wondered if anthropology and perhaps science itself had gone astray in allowing such behavior to take place.

Second, and critical for the themes of this book, the way the controversy played out offers an important lens through which to examine the entire discipline of anthropology. We see not only how anthropologists idealize themselves in describing their work to others. We also see the actual practice of anthropology—up close and clear. We are led to explore questions central to the discipline.

Readers should keep this point in mind as they read Yanomami: the Fierce Controversy and What We Can Learn from It. the controversy goes beyond what Neel and Chagnon stand accused of. It extends beyond the media storm generated by Tierney’s accusations and the accusations that others, in turn, made against him. the controversy draws us into examining issues at the heart of modern anthropology. As we will see, there are lessons for the learning here for everyone, whatever their specialty, whatever their status within the discipline. Let me begin by providing certain background information. For clarity’s sake, I order the material as a set of commonly asked questions.

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