Anthropologists under fire

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Charges of abuse of a remote tribal people must be answered.

Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon

W. W. Norton: 2000. 416 pp. $27.95
Distorted lives? Were 'women's activities' ignored in researchers' desire to record violence in the tribe? Credit: ROBERT HARDING

Scandal is nothing new to anthropology —think of the furore surrounding the discovery that Bronislaw Malinowski referred to the Trobriand Islanders as “niggers” in his field notes. But Patrick Tierney's book makes previous such disputes seem pale by comparison. The book has already ignited a firestorm of controversy among anthropologists, and although it will take some time to evaluate all of the evidence, the charges levelled in this book — which include sexual abuse, falsification of data, collaboration with illegal mining and criminal medical neglect — rank as the most serious with which the anthropological profession has been charged.

The Yanomami people of Venezuela and the Brazilian Amazon were a relatively isolated group when they first captured the attention of anthropologists and atomic scientists in the 1950s. In 1958 Marcel Roche of Venezuela's Instituto Venezolano de Investigaciones Científicas was paid to carry out a series of experiments involving the administration of radioactive iodine-131. His task was to investigate why highland populations such as the Maquiritare suffered more from goitre than did lowland Indian populations. The US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) funded these and other experiments, including several involving the injection of radioactive iron, as part of a broader campaign to study the medical effects of nuclear war. Tierney links these efforts to the larger AEC programme of “body-snatching” — sampling bone and other body parts to determine the rates at which radionuclides become fixed in the human body.

The AEC was also one of the major sponsors of studies on the Yanomami by anthropologist James Neel and his graduate student Napoleon Chagnon. One of Chagnon's jobs was “to prepare thousands of Yanomamo at dozens of villages to receive teams of scientists”. Their goal was to measure mutation rates in this supposedly pristine population, unexposed to modern civilization. The AEC funded Neel's Yanomamo work from 1965 to 1972 as part of its larger, multi-million-dollar mission to determine “the mechanisms by which radiation induces changes in the genetic material of cells”. Neel and his colleagues took thousands of blood samples from the Yanomami, in order to identify mutations that might clarify “the health risks associated with exposures of people to energy-related radiation and chemicals”.

The Yanomami came to the attention of a much wider audience in the late 1960s, when Chagnon published his book Yanomamo: The Fierce People (Holt, Rhinehart & Winston). It quickly became the most popular anthropology text ever, with several million copies printed. With funding from the AEC, Chagnon orchestrated and directed films such as The Ax Fight and The Feast, portraying the Yanomami as inherently violent and proof that (as Tierney puts it) “ruthless competition and sexual selection cannot be legislated away by idealistic do-gooders”. Chagnon himself was explicit about his desire to wipe away “all the crap about the Noble Savage”.

A central thesis of Tierney's book is that much of the violence found among the Yanomami was contact-induced. Anthropologically induced, in fact, because of a 'metal rush' that was inadvertently launched for the steel goods — especially fish-hooks and machetes — that Chagnon and his colleagues were doling out in return for various favours.

Meddling missions? It is claimed that the economic and political balance of tribal society was altered. Credit: SOUTH AMERICAN PICTURES/JEVAN BERRANGE

Tierney claims that anthropologists altered the economic and political balance of Yanomami society with their elaborate gifts (“checkbook anthropology”) and the ways they gathered information. Chagnon would often ask for the names of Yanomami ancestral dead, for example, to determine genetic relatedness. This violated one of the strongest Yanomami taboos. Locals were often unwilling to cooperate, but members of rival villages could sometimes be cajoled into supplying the names, which tended to exacerbate inter-village tensions. Tierney says that the word 'anthro' entered the Yanomami vocabulary with a meaning “something like the opposite of its original Greek meaning” (anthropos, human), and that the Yanomami came to think of an 'anthro' as “a powerful nonhuman with deeply disturbed tendencies and wild eccentricities — an Olympian in a funk”.

There are also charges of sexual abuse. Tierney details the sexual frolicking of Jacques Lizot, a French anthropologist, who, in one Yanomamo village, ruled over a harem of young males with whom he routinely traded steel goods for sexual favours — two sex acts for a machete, six for a shotgun, and so forth. Lizot's dalliances entered the Yanomami lexicon, so the Yanomami word for anal intercourse became Lizo-mou: 'to do like Lizot.' Lizot in his writings portrayed the Yanomami as “sexual innovators of stunning sophistication, an Erotic people” — a distortion reminiscent of that which Derek Freeman exposed in the work of anthropologist Margaret Mead, whom he accused of idealizing the sexual freedoms of her Samoan informants.

A further charge is that some of the fights filmed for the famous Ax Fight film and various other ethnographic films were staged by Neel, Chagnon and film director Timothy Asch to buttress their views about violence in Stone Age society. Asch himself admitted in 1992 that certain aspects of the fights were embellished — in the dramatic sequence involving a head wound in The Ax Fight, for example, the grisly 'thud' accompanying the injury was provided by striking a watermelon.

Tierney describes a formula for Yanomami film-making: “the way to make a successful Yanomami movie was to build a new shabono [village round-house], sponsor a feast, create a new military alliance, and record a raid by the newly created power.” He adds that a frequent (and never filmed) sequel was an epidemic — caused by the spread of contact diseases such as measles, to which these isolated people had very little resistance — that might kill a quarter or more of the Yanomami actors.

Tierney follows Brian Ferguson, author of Yanomami Warfare: A Political History (School of American Research Press, 1995), in arguing that important aspects of Yanomamo health and well-being were often neglected or worsened by the film-makers. None of the 20-odd documentaries made about the Yanomamo community of Mishimishimabowei-teri, for example, mention the fact that the village was decimated by measles and malaria shortly after the filming in the early 1970s.

Women's activities were, by and large, ignored: Chagnon reportedly would not let Asch train his camera on anything but aggressive behaviour. So, when Asch urged him to record some everyday women's activities, Chagnon “whipped around” and asked: “What makes you think there are any women's activities?”

Many of the people filmed were in desperate need of medical attention, but Tierney suggests that the 'no-treatment' policy begun at the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission in Hiroshima — which Neel headed — was carried over into the Amazon, with deadly consequences.

During the filming of Warriors of the Amazon by the television company Nova, for example, a camera broke and a substitute was flown in from London. But a dying Yanomami woman featured in the film couldn't be ferried an hour downriver to save her life. The woman's slow death over a period of a week was diligently filmed, a process Tierney describes as involving “a deep, unconscious conflict of interest between the film's need for a climax [the woman's death, along with that of her child] and the woman's need for emergency evacuation”. Tierney argues that although neither Chagnon nor Neel was involved in the making of this particular film, the emphasis on violence followed a narrative model established by the earlier films.

One of the most controversial and shaky charges in the book is that the deadly measles outbreak of 1968 may have been started by Neel as part of a grotesque experiment to test the resistance of primitive populations to contact with infections. The circumstances surrounding the outbreak are unclear, and Tierney's claim that the vaccine chosen for the inoculations — the Edmonston B live vaccine — was “contraindicated” seems to rest on rather flimsy evidence. It is true that the Venezuelan government was already using the allegedly safer Schwarz vaccine in its national campaign against the disease, but Tierney presents no convincing reason to believe that Neel thought it might set off an epidemic — if that is, in fact, what happened. (Neel and his entourage may have inadvertently helped spread the disease, although the author's account of a possible mechanism seems rather muddled.)

In the flurry of e-mail exchanges responding to Tierney's book before its publication, Susan Lindee, a science historian at the University of Pennsylvania, showed that Neel consulted the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta before deciding to use the Edmonston B vaccine. And judging from Neel's field notebooks, which are preserved at the American Philosophical Society, he seems to have been genuinely disturbed when the measles outbreak occurred.

It will take some time to sift through all of Tierney's claims. He may well have exaggerated some of the harm inflicted on the Yanomami by atomic anthropologists. But even if only a fraction of his charges can be verified, the book could be of significance in reopening debates about the impact of atomic-energy priorities on scientific practice. President Bill Clinton's Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments focused almost exclusively on experimental abuses on American soil; little was done to explore misdeeds overseas. Reading Tierney's account, one is prompted to ask what other abuses might exist that we don't yet know about — in the former Soviet Union, for example, or in some of Africa's anthropological stamping-grounds.

Equally important may be the implications for ongoing disputes over the nature and limits of 'informed consent'. Do scientists have a right to use blood samples collected at a time when donors were not informed of their eventual use? How should we deal with biological material gathered under suspect circumstances? Does it matter whether or not the Yanomami of today and of 30 years ago would approve of their blood being used to test whether 'headmen' leave more offspring?

However we answer such questions, it is important that they be raised. Tierney has opened up a rather large can of worms and, judging from the attention the book is getting, there is a lot of explaining to do. Anthropologists in the 1960s and 1970s turned Yanomamo territory into a vast proving ground for ideas about sociobiology, radiation injuries and the naturalness of human aggression, and the fallout from that experience has yet to settle.

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