The Yanomami Controversy

Posted on October 12, 2007 by


Background Information on the Yanomami Controversy
(From Borofsky et al 2005:3-19)
Reproduced from http://www.publicanthropology.org/forum/

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. More

Who Are the Yanomami and Why Are They Important in Anthropology?
Through the work of Chagnon and others, the Yanomami have become one of the best-known, if not the best-known, Amazonian Indian group in the world. People in diverse locales on diverse continents know of them. They have become a symbol in the West of what life is like beyond the pale of “civilization.” They are portrayed in books and films, not necessarily correctly, as one of the world’s last remaining prototypically primitive groups. More

Who Are the Controversy’s Main Characters?
The three individuals who have played the most important roles in the controversy and whose names are repeatedly referred to in discussions of it are James Neel, Napoleon Chagnon, and Patrick Tierney.

The late James Neel has been called by many the father of modern human genetics. He served on the University of Michigan’s faculty for more than forty years, becoming one of its most distinguished members. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences as well as to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and was awarded the National Medal of Science and the Smithsonian Institution Medal. More

Napoleon Chagnon, a retired professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is one of the best-known members of the discipline. His writings, particularly his introductory ethnography Yanomamö: The Fierce People and the films associated with it have made his name familiar to millions upon millions of college students since the 1960s. It is not too far-fetched to suggest that Chagnon helped make the Yanomami famous as a tribe around the world and the Yanomami, in turn, have been the basis for Chagnon’s own fame. More

Patrick Tierney is a freelance investigative journalist based in Pittsburgh. He obtained an undergraduate degree in Latin American studies from the University of California at Los Angeles. Those who interact with him on a personal level describe him as gentle and soft-spoken. More

What Exactly Is the Yanomami Controversy?
Answering this question draws us into examining not only the accusations Tierney made against Neel and Chagnon in Darkness in El Dorado but a number of other issues as well. Let me start with Tierney’s accusations and then move on to the additional issues.

The Accusations
Tierney made a number of accusations against a number of people in his book Darkness in El Dorado. But the central ones—and the ones latched onto by the media—involved Neel and Chagnon.

Tierney makes two basic accusations against Neel: (1) that Neel helped make the measles epidemic worse, rather than better, through the actions he took to fight the epidemic and (2) that Neel could have done more than he did to help the Yanomami at this time. Because the first of these accusations in effect charged a distinguished scientist with facilitating the deaths of Yanomami, it received the most media attention. This accusation has been dismissed by most people; the second is very much with us.

Tierney makes seven basic accusations against Chagnon: (1) He indicates that Chagnon misrepresented key dynamics of Yanomami society, particularly their level of violence. The Yanomami were not “the fierce people” depicted by Chagnon. They were significantly less bellicose, in fact, than many Amazonian groups. (2) What warfare Chagnon noticed during his research, Tierney asserts, Chagnon himself helped cause through his enormous distribution of goods, which stimulated warfare among the Yanomami as perhaps never before. (3) Tierney accuses Chagnon of staging the films he helped produce, films that won many cinematic awards and helped make Yanomamö: The Fierce People a best seller. The films were not what they appeared to be—live behavior skillfully caught by the camera—but rather staged productions in which Yanomami followed preestablished scripts. More

American Anthropology’s Response
One might think these issues quite sufficient to create debate in anthropology departments around the world. But there is more. There are also important questions regarding the way American anthropology has responded to the controversy. More

The Larger Questions
At a still higher level, beyond the accusations and counteraccusations and beyond American anthropology’s responses to them, there is yet another set of issues anthropologists and anthropologists-in-the-making need to confront regarding the controversy. These are the generally unspoken questions that lie at the heart of the discipline and that help to explain why American anthropology has been hesitant to confront the controversy head-on. These are the big questions we need to ask but often are afraid to because they put into doubt what we have come to accept as foundational and firm in anthropology.

The first is the inequality of power between anthropologists and those whom they study. More

What Is Positive about Controversies Such as This?
On the negative side, anthropological controversies such as the Yanomami controversy may generate negative publicity for the discipline, making the broader public less willing to support it. They may also foster disciplinary divides as anthropologists passionately argue past one another without resolution.

But there is a deeply positive side to these controversies. They are important, indeed essential, for the discipline’s cumulative development. More