The Yanomami Controversy

Background Information on the Yanomami Controversy
(From Borofsky et al 2005:3-19)
Reproduced from

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

16 thoughts on “The Yanomami Controversy

  1. Yanomami Myths

    I’ve been translating myths and legends from the Yanomami and other indigenous tribes of Venezuela that are not available in English or very hard to get hold of because they’re buried in academic journals that limit access to universities and subscription services such as JStor.

    I just think the Internet should be open and free and a place where ideas can be shared across language boundaries.

    Come and have a look, all comments welcome: Click here to read Yanomami Myth 1: The Origin of Fire

  2. logan

    hello I am logan mitchell and I am doing research project on the Yanomami cortroversy. I was wondering if you could tell me a little more about them you can email me your answer @ my email adress its

  3. Maximilian Forte

    Hello Logan,

    I don’t consider myself a Yanomamo specialist by any means. In fact, much of what I do know comes thanks to a person at the centre of this controversy, Napoleon Chagnon. The best thing to do would be to consult his work, and that of Jacques Lizot, and have a look at some of the resources listed by Google Scholar at:

    I wish I could do more, but given my own limitations this is all I can offer right now.

    Best wishes.

  4. Tom Khazoyan

    Hello All,

    I have been looking at this Yanomamö controversy for a number of years, primarily through my contact with a Yanomamö community in Venezuela. They have their own ideas about the controversy, some in line with Tierney, and they are very familiar with Chagnon, Lizot, and others, having interacted with them personally many times over the years there.

    They initiated a new film project where they try to tell their perspective on some of the issues. It is called, “Yai Wanonabälewä: The Enemy God”. More information can be found at:

    Controversial in its own right, but valuable to add to the conversation, I think.

    All the best.

  5. Anne Fenske

    Grace Acres Press has just released a new book on the Yanomamo people – Growing Up Yanomamö: Missionary Adventures in the Amazon Rainforest. The author, Mike Dawson, has lived with the Yanomamo since 1953. Mike brings authenticity to the discussion.

    1. Lois Morgan

      Hi Anne,

      I would like to purchase 2 copies of Growing up Yanomamo but could not locate Grace Acres Sales site. Also do you have Mike Dawson’s video, The Enemy God for sale?

      Lois (EBC Missionary you may remember)

      1. W. Schmidt

        I may have a contact for you on that. I just purchased the video and Mike’s book yesterday where Gary and Marie Dawson were speaking. I paid $35 for the book and the Enemy God video. Send me an email, and in the meantime, I’ll try to get you in contact with someone who can get you these materials. 50% of the proceed from the movie go to helping the Yanamamo people.

        All the best.


  6. Tracy Hadrich

    This is my first time reading about the Yanomamo and I really enjoyed it! I have almost a book about them we are reading for my Cultural Anthropology class and I am looking forward to read more books about them, I will have to check the book Anne was talking about!

  7. Russell Maddicks

    Tom Khazoyan should really declare his interest in this so-called Yanomami film, “Enemy of God”, which is really just a propaganda piece for US based evangelists, who have succeeded in turning a tribal people against their own culture and beliefs in return for trade goods and scholarships to bible school – way to go Tom.

    Tom is the producer of the film and I urge people to ignore it and not give it the publicity that the makers are hoping it will get.

    Instead, try and get Azpurua’s “Yo Hablo a Caracas”

  8. Russell Maddicks

    For a less literal take on Yanomami life – Torsten Krol’s debut novel “The Dolphin People” takes you back to 1946 as a German family fleeing the destruction of post-war Europe find themselves stranded in the Orinoco region after a plane crash. Taken in by the Yayomi tribe (read Yanomami) they are believed to be river dolphins that have taken human form. For more on “The Dolphin People” go to:

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Thanks for both the link and the film suggestion Russell, I appreciate your taking the time to post here especially as someone who has far more expertise in this area than I do.

  9. Adam

    I have been studying the Yanomamo people in a module during my first year reading Anthropology at university, and was intrigued to find this article concerning them. I must admit that they were not covered in great depth in this section of my course, and so I was unaware of this particular issue.

    After some time perusing the internet, I found a very interesting article written in defence of Chagnon’s methods, with the primary goal of clarifying the perceived injustices in Tierney’s work and information relating to Chagnon taken out of context and thus distorted in its presentation.

    Click to access edtfpr_names.pdf

    I think this piece is definitely useful and relevant to that discussed in the excellent piece above, and is very much worth reading, as very short and not overly complex or verbose.

  10. Pingback: The Yanomamö Controversy: Anthropology and the Gospel | Missions Mandate

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