The Fierce anthropologists

Napoleon Chagnon has been documenting the brutal internecine feuds of South America’s primitive Yanomamo tribe since 1964. No less vicious is a war of words between Chagnon and his rivals in the world of anthropology, who accuse him of being responsible for the deaths of thousands of the very tribesmen he has been studying
It started with an axe murder. And that was just the beginning of a feud which stretches from the unmapped headwaters of the Orinoco river to the conference halls of San Francisco; from a South American tribe just leaving the Stone Age to anthropology professors who fight using character assassination by e-mail.

Two Yanomamö villages, several days’ walk from each other in the Venezuelan forest, had been moving towards an alliance when disease killed several children in the village of Bisaasi-teri. The Yanomamö believe disease is caused by evil spirits cast from other villages, and the shamans concluded that the disease in their village had been cast from their purportedly friendly neighbours in Konabuma-teri.

So when a respected visitor arrived from Konabuma-teri he was greeted in the normal way: the men of Bisaasi-teri came out with their weapons to yell at him intimidatingly until he had stood calmly for long enough to prove himself fearless. Then he was invited into the village and given a gourd of soup to drink. But as he squatted on his haunches, drinking the soup, he was approached from behind by Mamikininiwä, ‘a mature man of about 40, whose decisions few would challenge’. He carried an axe, whose worn-steel head had been traded over the course of years between villages, which he smashed into the visitor’s skull without any warning. The man died almost instantly.

The story comes in the latest edition of Yanomamö, the anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon’s classic — and controversial — work on the tribe, which goes on to trace a 30-year pattern of migration, alliance and enmity that resulted from this murder in 1950. The Konabuma-teri retaliated by arranging for allies to hold a feast for the people of Bisaasi-teri, and once their guests were comfortably settled in their hammocks, attacked them with clubs and bow-staves, before pursuing the survivors with a flight of arrows. Around a dozen men were killed in this massacre. It’s difficult to be more precise because Chagnon learnt of it only 30 years later and, in any case, the Yanomamo counting system runs one, two, more-than-two.

Anthropologists count better than the tribes of the Amazon rainforest they study, but they are just as keen to settle scores. The war .within the American Anthropological Association probably started in 1994, with a shouting match between Professor Chagnon, of the University of California in Santa Barbara, and Professor Terry Turner, of Cornell University, who called him ‘a sociopath’ at an AAA meeting. The war escalated last summer with the appearance of an e-mail sent to six senior members of the AAA, signed by Turner and Professor Les Sponsel, of the University of Hawaii, in which they accused Chagnon of participating in a nightmare ‘beyond the imagining of even a Josef [sic] Conrad (though not, perhaps, a Josef Mengele)’ and asked that the AAA examine their charges. In particular, he was supposed to have taken part in an experiment which caused a deadly measles epidemic among the Yanomamö in 1968, and then refused to give them medical treatment, leaving thousands dead. Both Turner and Sponsel have held high office in the AAA: ‘mature men, whose decisions few would challenge’. The effect of their e-mail was devastating and, if it had been true, would have put an end to Chagnon’s reputation.

Patrick Tierney. In the background is Susan LindeeWhat is extraordinary about the story is that the central charge set out in the e-mail (which Turner and Sponsel based on a book whose author they had encouraged) was simply not true, as a full investigation made plain in front of an enthralled crowd of four or five thousand anthropologists crammed into a ballroom at the Hilton Hotel in San Francisco last autumn. Yet despite this, a sizeable minority of the profession clearly wish that one of their colleagues was guilty of genocide, and feel Chagnon’s moral guilt is established, whatever the scientific and historical facts may be. Indeed the AAA has now set up a committee to examine the charges further.

Chagnon, aged 63, is one of the most distinguished anthropologists alive. A large, bearded, weatherbeaten man, he lived and worked with the Yanomamo for a total of five years spread between 1964 and 1988. His books and films about his time with them have become a set text in thousands _ of anthropology courses, while at the same time provoking deep theoretical debates at the top of his profession and well outside it. He managed to combine dramatic human stories with a rigorous but deeply controversial theory of the role of warfare and sexism in human nature, which became one of the cornerstones of evolutionary psychology and all the modern Darwinism promoted by people such as Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett andi Steven Pinker. His key argument is that violence or the threat of violence shaped Yanonamö life in all sorts of ways and that the root of this violence was the competition between men over women. Men who were good at violence had more wives and left more descendants than those who were bad at it; this pattern — preserved in pristine form among the Yanomamö —has, he believes, shaped the genes and the psychology of modern e-mail-using man.

But he has also made plenty of enemies. Some are professional. Chagnon’s explanation of Yanomamö violence was deeply controversial, both. among people who understand it as a general theory of human nature (which it is meant to be), and among those who see it only as a particular explanation of Yanomamö culture. The Yanomamo are not, in fact, exceptionally violent by the standards of aboriginal people. Although the homicide rate is something like eight times as high as New York’s and, according to Chagnon’s figures, a quarter of all adult males die as a result of violence, this is about in line with the rate for the !Kung bushmen of South Africa,, and far below some figures recorded for other tribes in the Amazon basin, or in New Guinea and among some Australian aborigines. Nevertheless, plenty of anthropologists who accept the facts of Yanomamö violence as recorded by Chagnon reject his interpretation of it: some believe they are fighting over food supplies; others believe the violence is inspired by our own interference — that they fight for access to Westerners and Western artefacts, among them the machetes which Chagnon and other anthropologists trade for information. Chagnon’s enemies believe the Yanomamö sometimes fought because he had paid them to act for his cameras.

Some of his enemies are personal. He is by all accounts a boisterous man (he calls the two professors who have attacked him ‘absolute zeros’). Moving among the Yanomamö, Chagnon had the sort of personality — or discovered it in himself— that could thrive and impose itself on a brutal and treacherous political environment. For the first months of his fieldwork, while he was learning the language, the Yanomamö systematically lied to him. He needed to collect genealogies in order to trace the histories of the people he moved among, yet among the Yanomamö there is a taboo against using people’s names, and especially’ the names of the dead. He got around this difficulty by offering machetes to people who would talk to him: they squared their consciences by accepting the gifts but giving him false names for their fellow villagers. It took him five months to discover that the secret names for the chiefs family that he had so carefully collected actually translated as ‘long dong’, his wife ‘hairy **** and their daughter ‘fart breath’. He later wrote, ‘It became indelibly clear to me shortly after I arrived that I had to become like the Yanomam to be able to get along with them on their terms:somewhat sly, aggressive, intimidating and pushy.’ However effective this kind of behaviour may be among theYanomamö, it wins Chagnon little respect in the post-modern common-room. He also lacks piety, both old-fashioned and modern. He is rude to and about missionaries who operate among the tribes and, when he discusses wife-beating among the Yanomamö, he does not bother to tell us it is a wicked thing. He observes instead that it provides a low-cost way for a man to demonstrate his ferocity to other men. It is a common theme of his opponents that he is much more like the brutes he describes than the real Yanomamö are.

For the first 10 years of his visits to the Orinoco jungles, until around 1975. Chagnon had enjoyed good relations with the Roman Catholic Salesian missionaries who control access to most of the region. Indeed, the relationship was so good, he told me, that he was asked by one priest to arrange the murder of another missionary who had gone off the rails and taken up with a Yanomamö concubine far up the river (he declined). But the relationship started to unravel as the Yanomamö grew more famous. In 1987, Chagnon says, a German television film with which he had co-operated described one Salesian as running a tourist trade to see the unspoilt savages. The missionaries were deeply offended, and managed to have Chagnon barred from the territory they controlled. When he returned —sponsored by the mistress of the Venezuelan president and by a controversial adventurer, dentist and sky-diver named Charles Brewer-Carias — he quarrelled once more with the Salesians.

The missionaries encourage the Yanomamö to move in from the highlands to the territory closer to the river, where they are more accessible to Western medicines and influences. But Chaguon believes this makes them more vulnerable to diseases, too. He says that when he was allowed back into the field, he revisited 25 of the villages he had worked with before. ‘I began to see that this policy was having the effect of increasing the death rate in the resettled villages,’ he told me. ‘In general, the Yanomamö are constantly explaining epidemics in terms of the malevolent actions of anthropologist A, priest B or village X. And you don’t want to take too much notice. But this I saw with my own eyes.’ His other charge, which he still maintains although it is even more fiercely disputed, was that some Salesian missionaries have themselves exacerbated the fighting among the Yanomamö by arming them.

On his return to the US he made those charges public, and in an article for the New York Times added that he no longer dared return to the region because the Salesians had announced that they could not guarantee his safety there. Chagnon took this to mean that his enemies among the Yanomamö would feel free to kill him, knowing the missionaries would do nothing to stop them.

At this point, in 1994, the public meeting at an AAA convention was held to try to reconcile Chaguon and the Salesians. But it simply ended in raucous recriminations. There matters rested for a while. Chagnon could not return to the jungle; the Yanomamö themselves became poorer, more miserable and more fashionable.

Contact with the West is often fatal for South Americans, partly because they lack resistance to common diseases such as measles, which is a relatively trivial childhood disease in Europe, but once it reaches an unexposed population can be more infectious and more dangerous than the black death. Part of the vulnerability is genetic: it appears that South American Indians have immune systems that are uniquely vulnerable in some ways. But a great deal is political. Dr Magdalena Hurtado, a Venezuelan anthropologist who has worked extensively with the Ache hunter-gatherers of eastern Paraguay, says that government corruption and institutionalised racism all over South America mean that hardly anything is done to provide consistent long-term medical care to newly contacted people, and often nothing is done in the short term, either. Among those tribes whose fate is known, between a third and a half are expected to die within five years of first contact.

The Yanomamö are in a particularly unfortunate situation because their territory is believed to hold large gold reserves, and the impact of landless, desperate Brazilian gold miners has been terrible. In one notorious case in 1992, 16 or 17 Yanomamö women and children were massacred by gold miners. This led to a wave of fashionable outcry; but little practical help emerged.

It was at this stage that a journalist named Patrick Tierney, who had earlier written a book claiming that human sacrifice survived among some Indian Andean tribes, spent a year there. Darkness in El Dorado, the book on Tierney’s adventures among the gold miners which was to have been published by Viking in 1995, never appeared. Instead, last year WW Norton announced it was publishing his book, which had now become a tale of ‘How scientists and journalists devastated the Amazon’, and in September Turner and Sponsel sent their e-mail — which somehow found its way on to the internet — claiming that the book accused Chagnon and his former boss, James Neel, of being responsible for an epidemic of measles which killed ‘hundreds, perhaps thousands’ of tribesmen.

The effect was an immediate storm on the net. The claims were repeated in this country by Survival International, and picked up by the Guardian and the BBC, though both organisations mentioned only Neel by name — he died in February last year and can no longer sue. In mid-November, the annual convention of the AAA in San Francisco became, in Yanomamö terms, five days of feasting when the ritual fighting could take place.

When the Yanomamö fight in villages, they do not often try to kill each other. The men spend their afternoons snorting hallucinogenic powders which make them vomit, then drool green snot, and finally feel more cheerful. Then they’ll engage in trials of strength, which can eventually escalate to pole-fighting, where the contestants seize the whippy five-metre poles which hold up the house roofs, and take turns to smash them down as hard as possible on one another’s heads. The winner is the last man standing.

The anthropologists eschew hallucinogens — though Chagnon, in the jungle, snorted ebene and drooled green snot with the best of them, and has been duly criticised for this by Turner and Sponsel — but they too have their ritual trials of strength. They set up committees and their equivalent of a full-scale pole fight is a panel discussion. Just as with a pole fight, the contestants are judged by their ability to take blows, as well as to deal them out; and by this criterion Patrick Tierney has a stunning tolerance for pain. A gaunt, dark-eyed, dark-bearded man, he carried himself with the serenity of a martyr.

He needed it, for by the end of the evening his central headline-grabbing allegations were in shreds. He shared the panel with Susan Lindee, a historian of science who had studied the field notes of the Neel/Chagnon expedition, Magdalena Hurtado and four other experts in related fields. In some cases Turner and Sponsel’s e-mail, which they thought was private, makes allegations which appear to go beyond even what Tierney suggests, but in summary what both book and e-mail suggest is as follows:

On their 1968 trip. Neel and Chagnon ‘greatly exacerbated’ and probably started the epidemic of measles that killed so many Yanomamö. They caused or at least worsened the epidemic by their use of a virulent vaccine (Edmonston B) that was quite wrong for use on a population like this with no prior exposure to measles. In addition the e-mail —but not the book — suggests that once the measles epidemic took off, Neel insisted that he and his colleagues were there for research so they could only observe, and they could not provide any medical assistance to the sick and dying Yanomamö Tierney’s well-documented account, they say, strongly supports the conclusion that the epidemic was in all probability deliberately caused as an experiment designed to produce scientific support for Neel’s eugenic theory.

But it was convincingly shown that the epidemic was under way three months before the Neel/Chaguon expedition arrived: Thomas Headland, an anthropologist with the Sumner Institute of Linguistics (and no friend of Chagnon’s), read out a letter from an American missionary couple whose daughter, then aged 27 months, had unwittingly transmitted measles to a Yanomam6 feast near the Brazilian border three months before the disease appeared on the upper Orinoco, 150 miles away. The expedition’s field notes, retrieved by Lindee, showed that they spent their first fortnight inoculating all the Indians they could reach, and treating those who came down with the disease, even though this interfered with their research.

The panel was also told that the Edmonston B vaccine was chosen by the World Health Organisation, it had never been observed to transmit measles to anyone, and the mortality rate among the villages where the vaccination had been carried out was far below what it would have been in an unvaccinated population. As for the suggestion in the e-mail that the research team failed to aid the sick Indians, the expedition’s journals and films

show clearly that the team not only vaccinated the uninfected Yanomamo, but also treated those already sick.

When Tierney finally came to the microphone to answer his critics, he spoke with huge, aching silences between his phrases, but he did not address the substantive criticisms. "I feel that there have been many points raised tonight that I don’t agree with,’ he said. One of his critics had called him a bleeding heart but he said, ‘If you had seen the things that I have seen, I hope your hearts would be moved, and maybe they would be — if you have a heart.’

The most Tierney would concede at a press conference is that ‘the question of transmissibility [whether the vaccine could have caused the epidemic] is still up in the air’, at which point Dr Yvonne Maldonado, the expert on infectious diseases and childhood immunisation on the panel, finally lost her cool: ‘You’re not a physician, not an epidemiologist and not even a scientist as far as I can tell... There is absolutely no evidence for transmissibility.’ By now she was almost shouting at the man two feet away from her. ‘There is no evidence! The vaccine did not cause an epidemic. It did not cause deaths.’

Throughout Tierney’s presentation, and in his book, Chagnon was portrayed as a kind of ogre-father, and the Yanomamö as helpless children at his mercy. This is partly a matter of physical size; the Indians hardly come up to the shoulders of the average Westerner. Again and again, Chagnon’s critics maintain that the Yanomamö are not fierce at all: in fact they’re intrinsically harmless and he appears among them as a bully.

Les Sponsel held it against Chagnon that he went into the jungle armed with a huge knife and a stun-gun. It wasn’t, he said, ethical to work among people if you needed protection of that sort from them. At the open-mike session, speaker after speaker returned to this theme, often prefacing their remarks with the confident assertion that they knew nothing about the Yanomamö but a great deal about professional ethics; and that it was surely the first principle of ethical anthropology to do no harm to the people you are studying. Since Chagnon’s activities have undoubtedly been part of the surge of Western interest and activity that has done much to damage the Yanomamö, the moral case against him existed, in some sense, quite independent of the facts. But it seemed an extraordinary position for an anthropologist to take. Carried to extremes, it would lead to a complete ban on contact with any uncontacted people, since no amount of doing them good could outweigh a breach of the commandment to do them no harm.

No one doubts that the situation of the Yanomamo and of the other indigenous peoples of South America is truly dreadful. It is sometimes true that contact increases the horrendous infant mortality rates. What was odd was the belief to which Tierney seemed to appeal, that anthropologists could do something for the Yanomamö — could struggle on their side — by ritually blaming themselves: better yet, by blaming other, unethical anthropologists. It made about as much sense as the Yanomamö blaming measles on the wicked spirits sent from a neighbouring village, which is to say it probably did make people feel better about a situation they could do nothing to change.

Bill Irons, the professor of anthropology at Northwestern University who was Chagnon’s representative on the panel, was rather blunter. ‘People cultivate guilt for their own purposes. Pointing out how guilty everyone is has become part of the standard PC culture: somehow, slinging mud at everybody has become some kind of redeeming act. It is hardly fair to hold Napoleon Chagnon responsible for a Brazilian gold rush, or Venezuelan government corruption.’

When I pressed Professor Sponsel on the question of whether he should have checked these damaging allegations that a colleague had been responsible for hundreds of deaths before passing them on. he grew quite heated. ‘I’m not a medical doctor. My role, ethically, was to alert the AAA because of my concern with human rights. After that, the only role I had was to respond to questions when people asked me in a civil, polite manner. Terry Turner and I wrote that memo to the two top

people in the organisation and sent copies to four other people in the committee on ethics. Whoever leaked it is the one who should be sanctioned or censured.

‘We were not making any allegations. We were just summarising the allegations in Tierney. I am completely at peace with my conscience.’ Chagnon, he said, ‘simply cannot face up to criticism constructively. He says that he is being attacked from professional jealousy, or by fools. ‘Terry Turner and I have established our reputations. We’re not fools. There’s no reason for us to be professionally jealous and when he says that, he’s just not facing up to criticism constructively.’

And there, for the moment, matters rest. Tierney continues to go on American talk shows to plug his book. In parts of South America it is already believed that American scientists are using vaccination programmes to conduct huge experiments (one of the anthropologists to speak in Tierney’s defence, a Ugandan, announced that the Ebola virus, too, had been introduced by scientists from the US and Europe). Chagnon broods over legal action.

The war between Bisaasi-teri and Konabuma-teri continued for 30 years after the first axe murder; and when the old enemies made peace at a great feast, it was partly to form an alliance against a third village. It doesn’t look as if the war within the AAA will be any easier to end.


This story goes on and on. The best resource for further study is here, where almost all the material to have appeared on the Internet is archived.
I have finally got around to putting up the story as I wrote it, which is about 50% longer than what was printed. You have been warned.

Andrew Brown

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