Two years ago, Jared Diamond won a Pulitzer for his book, "Guns,
Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies." It included a
critical assessment of the effects of outside intervention on
tribal peoples. Nowhere is there a better case study of this
phenomenon than that of the Yanomami of the Amazon basin.
In recent weeks, prepublication proofs of "Darkness in El
Dorado," a new book about those rain-forest natives and the
outsiders who studied them, earned the author, Patrick Tierney, a
nomination for a coveted prize of his own: the National Book Award
Tierney's challenging, heavily documented text, widely circulated
in the academic community and summarized in The New Yorker (Oct.
9), also kindled a firestorm of controversy unprecedented in the
annals of anthropology.
Now, after considerable delay, all can read Tierney's lengthy
brief against those who "discovered" the Yanomami and his view of
the story of "how scientists and journalists devastated the
While known about for four centuries, the Yanomami were brought
to the attention of the rest of the world in 1968 by anthropologist
Napoleon Chagnon's book, "Yanomamo: The Fierce People." It quickly
became one of the bestselling monographs in the history of
anthropology. Following its publication, Chagnon and several
collaborators produced a series of documentaries about the
Yanomami, making their domain seem at once as mystical and
compelling as Alexander von Humboldt's El Dorado.
Chagnon argued against romantic portraits of aborigines who lived
in such a place as "noble savages." His Yanomami - that is how he
came to see them - were simply savages, and survivors. Charles
Darwin not Henri Rousseau seemed to be Chagnon's spiritual father.
In his critique, Tierney, a journalist with considerable field
experience in the Amazon Basin, presents the most recent and most
detailed of several strong indictments of Chagnon's research,
publications, films, and subsequent actions.
Tierney challenges Chagnon's motives and his methods - and his
claims as well. For example, he writes that Chagnon's celebrated
portrait of warring Indians was far from accurate, that, in fact,
much of the notorious fierceness and intra-tribal conflict was not
due to primordial antipathies but to what had been induced by
Equally serious is the charge that Chagnon, his funding sources
(which included the Atomic Energy Commission), and his
collaborators, especially Dr. James Neel, were probably responsible
for starting a measles epidemic that killed hundreds, perhaps
thousands of natives as a result of the experimental administration
of a highly suspect vaccine. …