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A firestorm in anthropology

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 in Nonfiction.

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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 Amazon."

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 outsiders.

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.

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Many of the principals about whom Tierney writes - Chagnon, presented as a clever, manipulative, power-hungry control freak; Neel, a prominent human geneticist and outspoken eugenicist with his own ideas about carriers of "superior genes"; Charles Brewer Carias, a swashbuckling Venezuelan aesthete and hustler; Jacques Lizot, a French anthropologist with a penchant for young boys - could well be characters in the novels of Joseph Conrad. But, alas, they are real. Tierney's book is as much about them, their deeds and misdeeds, as it is about the Yanomami.

The volume is divided into three parts. In the first, "Guns, Germs, and Anthropologists, 1964-1972," Tierney focuses on the period when the Yanomami were contacted, used (for comparative genetic studies), and first written about. Those years were, in many ways, a halcyon period for sociobiologists who had thrown down the gauntlet, challenging soft-science social scientists who saw nurture as far more important than nature. The second part, "In Their Own Image, 1972-1994," deals with the years when the natives came into their own - and too often played the roles created for them. The last describes the "Ravages of El Dorado, 1996-1999."

According to Tierney's hardly original thesis, what the Yanomami became was the result of "contact." In this context, contact meant diseases and steel axes for Stone Age peoples, first brought by conquistadors and explorers, later by missionaries and traders. Chagnon also arrived on the scene with a boatload of machetes and axes. Within three months of his arrival, "three different wars had broken out, all between groups who had been at peace for some time and all of whom wanted a claim on Chagnon's steel goods."

Tierney argues that the anthropologist not only exacerbated the effects of earlier interventionists but quite intentionally created the very conditions he said were indigenous. His further contention, that Chagnon and his partners were exploiting the vulnerable people they had gone to study mainly to enhance their own careers is, perhaps, the harshest indictment of all.

Not surprisingly, some of Tierney's critics have begun leveling that last charge against him.

Peter I. Rose is a professor of sociology and anthropology at Smith College.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society