Into the Heart of Darkness

The violence begins on the day after the anthropologist arrives with his film crew. He orders them to "bring your camera over here. It's going to start." And it does: deep in the Amazon rain forest, some 50 Yanomami--members of one of the most primitive tribes left on earth--scramble, scream, shout and threaten each other with poles, axes and machetes. The climactic scene of "The Ax Fight" ends with a sickening thud, as anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon narrates that a youngster has been "knocked unconscious" and "almost killed."

Seeing the prize-winning film, shot in 1971, it's easy to conclude that the Yanomami are savages with hair-trigger tempers whose anger escalates to murder faster than you can pronounce their tribal name. But look carefully at the 1997 interactive CD version of "Ax Fight," and something more ambiguous emerges. Near the end, a group of seven young Yanomami surround the two filmmakers. One Yanomami brandishes a machete and rushes the two, only to pull back at the last second. The sound man is terror-stricken. "Some guy came up with a machete and..." he says. "Yeah, but he was joking!... They were all--they were all joking!" responds the cameraman. Digging further into the CD, you learn that the thud that seemed to mark the fatal ax blow was, in fact, added in postproduction at a sound lab. The filmmaker created it by smacking a watermelon.

"Ax Fight" is one of the most stunning documentaries ever made, and the notion that it is not quite the unbiased ethnographic documentary it seems to be is only one of the incendiary charges in a book that has touched off a firestorm of controversy and vitriol. In "Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon," writer Patrick Tierney describes more than three decades of encounters between researchers, filmmakers and reporters, on the one hand, and the 24,000 Yanomami hanging on in the rain forest of Brazil and Venezuela. The result, he charges, has been nothing less than slow genocide. The visitors brought deadly pathogens, as well as steel fishhooks, machetes and other treasures that incited violent jealousy between the Yanomami who received the treasures and neighbors who didn't. The visitors also brought an agenda: several of the Yanomami, says Tierney, told him that anthropologists instructed them to behave violently for the cameras. And the scientists brought, in Tierney's most controversial charge, a measles vaccine that, in 1968, triggered an unusual epidemic. The allegations led two anthropologists to warn the American Anthropological Association that the book describes research that "in its scale, ramifications, and sheer criminality and corruption... is unparalleled in the history of Anthropology... This nightmarish story [is] a real anthropological heart of darkness beyond the imagining of even a Josef Conrad (though not, perhaps, a Josef Mengele)."

In the weeks since the letter, controversy surrounding the book has been filling Web sites, e-mail and, last week, the anthropologists' annual meeting in San Francisco. One critic leading the anti-"Darkness" campaign, evolutionary psychologist John Tooby of the University of California, Santa Barbara, calls the book "the most successful hoax on the publishing world since Clifford Irving's 'autobiography' of Howard Hughes." Anthropologist Kim Hill of the University of New Mexico calls Tierney guilty of "a massive campaign of embellishment and deceit." In a highly unusual move, the National Academy of Sciences weighed in, denouncing Tierney for "major errors of fact." Chagnon has retained legal counsel, he tells NEWSWEEK, and, in an e-mail, wrote, "I am encouraged to believe that The New Yorker [which ran an excerpt of the book last month] and [publisher] W.W. Norton are sticking their peckers into a very powerful pickle slicer."

Navigating the thicket of claims and counterclaims about "Darkness" is as challenging as bushwhacking through the Amazon Basin. The charge that a measles-vaccination program loosed a deadly epidemic on the Yanomami, which accounts for 30 out of 333 pages of the text, has incited the greatest fury. The facts that most people agree on begin with a 1968 expedition, financed by the old Atomic Energy Commission and led by geneticist James Neel, into Yanomami territory. Its purpose was to determine humans' "background" mutation rate, says science historian Susan Lindee of the University of Pennsylvania; Neel figured that a population not exposed to chemicals and radiation would reveal how often human genes change naturally. Among Neel's papers, says Lindee, are letters from local missionaries in late 1967 reporting a measles outbreak in Brazil, which was heading down the Orinoco River toward Yanomami territory. For "humane" reasons, say his defenders, Neel brought along at least 1,000 doses of an attenuated live measles vaccine called Edmonston B. Collaborating with Venezuelan scientists, Neel's expedition--which included anthropologist Chagnon as well as a film crew financed by the AEC--vaccinated more than 100 Yanomami at the Ocamo mission in early 1968, says Lindee, a leading critic of "Darkness."

"Darkness" leaves the impression that the vaccinations might have triggered a measles outbreak among the Yanomami, causing hundreds of deaths. The book describes how the scientists seemed terrified that they had unwittingly triggered the very epidemic they hoped to prevent. According to the sound roll taken for the AEC film, says Tierney, Neel (who died last February) "desperately tried to keep his radio tech from telling authorities in Caracas that they had a measles crisis caused by the effects of the vaccine." Yet virtually every medical authority asserts that Edmonston B could not cause measles. Says Dr. Samuel Katz, codeveloper of the vaccine: "In no way could the Edmonston B vaccine initiate or exacerbate an epidemic." And although Tierney suspects that the vaccinations were part of Neel's genetics study, Lindee says that "there is no question Neel's intent was to stop an incipient epidemic." What, if not the vaccine, brought measles to the Yanomami? The disease had reached the Orinoco Basin in the autumn of 1967. From these sites, Lindee points out, "it's easy to come down the river [to Ocamo]. There were also reports of several measles deaths at a refueling village up the canal from Ocamo just a week before the deaths."

The vaccines did, however, leave many of the Yanomami with much worse than a sore arm. At Ocamo, Neel's papers describe "the vaccinated [Yanomami] getting very sick, with rashes and fever," says Lindee. (In 1965 the World Health Organization urged doctors to switch to more attenuated measles vaccines because of "too frequent" "severe reactions"; Edmonston B is no longer used.) "There were extremely grave reactions to the vaccinations, like high fever," says anthropologist Terence Turner of Cornell University. "People criticizing Tierney haven't talked about how this set off a social panic in which terrified Yanomami ran into the forest and died. Some who fled might have carried measles to other villages." Even if this scenario is right, of course, it falls far short of convicting Neel and his team of deliberately or directly triggering a measles epidemic.

The bitter controversy over the measles vaccinations has almost obscured the larger issue: the suffering that anthropologists and journalists reportedly brought to the Yanomami. The primitive tribe became famous in 1968, when Napoleon Chagnon published his best-selling book "Yanomamo: The Fierce People." He portrayed the diminutive Yanomami (the inconsistent spelling reflects transliteration ambiguities) as among the most violent people ever discovered, inveterate raiders who killed men in neighboring villages and abducted their women. With his book, Chagnon became America's most famous anthropologist since Margaret Mead. Long the target of scholarly criticism, Chagnon gave as good as he got, telling the Los Angeles Times earlier this year that "airy-fairy types in universities" and "the Catholic Church are keeping me out" of Yanomami land (he has been banned for years). "Politically correct people... want to stop me because my findings bother them."

"Bother" is putting it politely. Chagnon, who retired from UCSB last year, is one of the most vilified anthropologists ever. For years scientists have ripped into him for the way he pursued his research. To learn how killing affected a Yanomami man's chance of leaving offspring, for instance, Chagnon needed to learn who sired whom. That required genealogies. There was only one problem. Asking for genealogies required his Yanomami informants to name the dead--which violates a tribal taboo. To get around the prohibition, anthropologists charge, Chagnon would get an informant to name the dead ancestors of a rival. That taboo-breaking fomented tension and even violence. "He deliberately pitted group against group to get genealogies, extorting names by polarizing the community," says Turner. Chagnon calls that "bulls--t," and says he was able to collect genealogies "without offending anyone because of the special relationships I had." He also distributed prized steel goods, especially machetes; those who were not on the receiving end of this largesse became jealous of those who were, and "got back at the other by revealing the names of their dead, which led to village fissions and internecine warfare," says Turner. By Chagnon's own 1972 account, the wars for which the Yanomami became famous began on the November day in 1964 when he arrived among them.

His partisans note, however, that violence among the Yanomami dates back centuries. And UCSB's Tooby says that Chagnon's distribution of goods was dwarfed by other sources, "such as the military... and especially the vast mission system." Kim Hill agrees that "some Yanomamo have legitimate grievances against him," such as his "lack of sensitivity concerning some cultural issues and the use of film portrayals. However, I think most of Chagnon's shortcomings amount to little more than bad judgment."

It is Chagnon's conclusions, even more than his methods, that have made him so controversial. He argued that the Yanomami waged near-constant warfare in order to kill men from neighboring villages and capture their women: 44 percent of all Yanomami males had killed, and 30 percent had been killed, he reported. The real blockbuster, though, came in a 1988 paper: men who killed, said Chagnon, had twice as many wives and three times as many children as nonkillers. He who leaves the most offspring passes along more genes to the next generation and so triumphs in the game of survival of the fittest. The Yanomami thus became exhibit A for the claim that evolution rewards violence.

Critics immediately found flaws in Chagnon's data. It turned out that "many of the men known as violent war leaders were killed or driven into exile," notes Tierney. "Chagnon doesn't count them" when he calculates the reproductive advantage men derived from killing. Including the dead killers cuts the reproductive advantage from 208 percent to 40 to 67 percent, Tierney calculates. Chagnon says he doesn't have the data to determine that. Still, "even 50 percent would be phenomenally high," notes Tooby: it's more than enough to keep "killer genes" in the gene pool and oust "pacifist genes." Does even this smaller reproductive advantage arise from killing itself? Or does it reflect the fact that Yanomami who kill often have better access to government agents, missionaries or anthropologists who supply shotguns, machetes and tools, enabling them to provide for more wives and kids? Hill believes that men who are physically fit are simply more adept at killing; their fitness, not the blood on their hands, makes them attractive to women.

Last week the anthropology association established a task force to examine the charges in "Darkness in El Dorado." For the Yanomami, though, the damage is done. "What's happened in the Amazon for centuries is a kind of Holocaust," says anthropologist Leslie Sponsel of the University of Hawaii. "There's no denying that there's violence among the Yanomami, but contact has triggered epidemics and transformed the nature of violence." The effect of scientists on their subjects wasn't much noticed in the 1960s; studies of the Yanomami suggest that it is anthropology's heart of darkness.

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