Genocidal anthropologists

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Oct 4 17:37:46 MDT 2000

[The New Yorker Magazine that is on sale right now--dated Oct. 9, 2000--has
the story on the anthropologists and the Yanomami that was the subject of
an open letter that went across the Internet recently. It is tied to the
imminent publication of a book by the article's author Patrick Tierney.
These are the concluding paragraphs of the article and I urge everybody to
read the whole thing and to look for the book when it comes out. After
reading something like this, I hope that if the American people ever gain
democratic control over their country, the people responsible for these
kinds of crimes will be brought to justice and pay for their awful crimes
like in Cuba in 1960.]

By the mid-seventies, the Yanomami had become the most intensively studied
and filmed tribal group in the world. In Paris in 1978, a festival was
devoted to films about them. As scientists, news teams, filmmakers, and
others competed for footage and new data about the tribe, some of the
Yanomami along the Orinoco became part-time film extras and anthropological

At the same time, native-rights advocates began to criticize outsiders—gold
miners, journalists, missionaries, scientists—claiming that cultural
disruption and epidemics invariably followed their visits into tribal
territories. The first group to defend Yanomami rights was formed in
Brazil, and a split developed in anthropology between the researchers who
wanted simply to observe tribal culture and those who wanted Indians to
have land rights and health care. From 1976 until 1985, Chagnon was
prohibited from reentering Yanomami territory. During those years, he and
his wife, Carlene, raised two children, and he became a popular lecturer at
Northwestern and then at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

In 1985, Chagnon, accompanied by a University of California graduate
student, Jesus Cardozo, who was Venezuelan, succeeded in reentering
Yanomami territory He returned to Mishimishimabowei-teri, where he hoped to
finish his long-term study of the relationship between Yanomami homicide
and reproductive success. Cardozo, who no longer has cordial relations with
Chagnon, went on to help create the Venezuelan Foundation for
Anthropological Research, which promotes Yanomami education and land
rights. As Cardozo later recalled of the expedition, "We hadn’t even got
our boat moored to the shore at Mavakita"—a Mishimishimabowei-teri village
that had broken off from the main group following various epidemics in the
early seventies—"when Yanomami started coming out and shouting, ‘Go away!
Shaki brings xawara [illness].’ Within our first twenty-four hours there,
three children died—two in the night and another in the morning." Although
there was no connection between Chagnon’s arrival and the deaths, the
events were seen as further evidence of the anthropologist’s malefic power.
"On our second night, half of the village fled into the forest to get away
from us.

After another day of searching for a community where he could continue his
genealogical research, Chagnon found a village, Iwahikoroba-teri, that was
willing to receive the expedition. "When we arrived at Iwahikoroba-teri,
everybody was sick, throwing up and moaning and lying down in their
hammocks," Cardozo said. "I remember a little girl, Makiritama. She was
vomiting blood. She was defecating blood, too. I remember her husband—she
was very young, she was to be his future wife—showed me where she was
spitting up and everything. And I went up to Chagnon and said, ‘You know
these people are really sick. Some of them could die. I think we should go
and get medical help.’ Chagnon told me that ii would never be a scientist.
He said, ‘No. No. That’s not our problem. We didn’t come to save the
Indians. We came to study them."’

For the next several weeks, Chagnon collected homicide data, numbering each
Yanomami’s chest or arm with a Magic Marker, posing the Yanomami for
identification photographs, and paying them with trade goods. He summarized
his findings in an article in Science, which was published in February
1988. The article was noted in Scientfic American for providing a new,
though grim model for human evolution: "Through violence a Yanomamo male
seems to enhance his reproductive success and that of his kin: he becomes

But Yanomami specialists generally rejected the study In a number of
anthropological journals, they challenged Chagnon’s findings on ethical,
statistical, linguistic, and interpretive grounds. And Chagnon’s presence
in the media— he was mentioned in the Los Angeles Times, in February, 1988,
as having said that when the Yanomami were not hunting, or searching for
honey, they were often killing one another—became provocative. Less than a
year after the Times article appeared, the Brazilian military chief of
staff cited the Yanomami’s truculence as a reason for breaking up their
lands. A past president of the Brazilian Anthropological Association, Maria
Manuela Camneiro da Cunha, wrote a letter to the Anthropology Newsletter in
which she held Chagnon accountable, in part, for the government’s actions
against the Yanomami. In an article entitled "The Academic Extermination of
the Yanomami," which was published in the Brazilian cultural journal
Humanidades, two anthropologists, Alcida Ramos and Bruce Albert, wrote,
"Few indigenous people.. have had their image as denigrated as have the
Yanomami, who had the misfortune of being studied by a North American
anthropologist named Napoleon Chagnon."

Chagnon responded to da Cunha in the Anthropology Newsletter by saying that
he could not control the press’s tendency to sensationalize his findings,
and that he should not be held responsible for the failure of Brazilians to
defend the rights of indigenous people. In his 1992 revised edition of
"Yanomamo," for which he dropped the subtitle "The Fierce People," he drew
a distinction between researchers who sought objective facts, like him, and
other anthropologists, who were motivated by a sense of political activism
and who "hold a romantic, Rousseauian view of primitive culture."

In 1989, Chagnon proposed bringir a BBC film crew to Bisaasi-teri to con
memorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of his arrival in the village. By
this time many more Yanomami had left the highlands to live near the
missions along the Orinoco and its tributaries, whet they could attend
schools, get medical care, and eat a more varied diet. The Yanomami at the
missions were con siderably more robust than those ii the hills, and they
had learned how to market their own handicrafts through a trade cooperative
run by elected representatives. Along the Orinoco and Mavaca rivers, it was
no longer easy fox researchers to hire Yanomami porters, informants, or
film extras. When the Yanomami at Bisaasi-teri learned that Chagnon was
returning, they instructed their representative, a former guide of
Chagnon’s named César Dimanawa, to write a letter asking the anthropologist
to keep away, because his films contained so much "fighting and bloodshed."
Dimanawa wrote, "We do not want you to make any more films." Again, the
Venezuelan government cancelled Chagnon’s permit, citing the "turmoil" that
his visit would provoke.

Chagnon turned for help to Brewer-Carias, his old friend. A distinguished
botanist, Brewer-Carias had been criticized by environmentalists and
human-rights activists for allegedly acquiring, under the pretense of doing
research in rain forests, land for gold mining—charges that he emphatically
denies. Through Brewer-Carias, Chagnon made another powerful ally, Cecilia
Matos, the mistress of the Venezuelan President, Carlos Andrés Perez, and
the head of a foundation that had been set up to assist indigenous and
peasant families. Chagnon, Brewer-Carias, and Matos devised a plan to
create a Yanomami reserve in the Siapa Highlands— an area of thousands of
square miles in which the Indians would live in protected isolation. Only
scientists would be allowed into the area, to study the Yanomami at a
research center run by Chagnon and Brewer-Carias.

Between August, 1990, and September, 1991, Chagnon and Brewer-Carias
organized a dozen expeditions by helicopter into the Siapa region for
journalists and scientists, in order to build up national and international
support for their project. Three of the villages that were visited by
Chagnon, Brewer-Carias, and their entourage were badly damaged by the
helicopters. In 1991, Chagnon described one of these events in an article
for the magazine Santa Barbara, entitled "To Save the Fierce People": "A
few feet from landing, we aborted when we saw the leaves of their roofs
being blown away by the chopper’s downblast. We saw people fleeing in
terror and men throwing sticks arid stones at us as we treated up and away

Dr. Carlos Botto, the director of the Amazon Center for the Investigation
and Control of Tropical Disease, in Puerto Ayacucho, was in the village of
Ashidowa-teri when Chagnon landed in his helicopter and part of the shabono
collapsed. "When the poles of the roof fell, a number of Yanomamx were
injured, and we had to treat them," Botto recalls. "We had to rescue people
who were buried under the poles and roofing of the shabono. It was a
serious situation. The shamans and elders began to practice their chanting
because of the collapse of the shabono. The expedition left a tragic scar."

In September, 1993, Chagnon and Brewer-Carias were named to a Presidential
commission, which was given broad powers over the Yanomami’s land and
political future. The attorney general’s office, leaders of the Catholic
Church, and native-rights groups opposed the appointments, and three
hundred representatives from nineteen Indian tribes rallied in the streets
of Puerto Ayacucho, the capital of the state of Amazonas, in an effort to
have Chagnon and Brewer-Carias expelled from Yanomami territory. On
September 30th, Chagnon was escorted to Caracas by an Army colonel, who
confiscated his field notes and advised him to leave the country—which he did.

In the United States, Chagnon remained highly regarded. Earlier that year,
he had been elected president of the prestigious Human Behavior and
Evolution Society.

In September of 1996, after undergoing a weeklong quarantine, I trekked for
seventeen days into the Siapa Highlands with a Brazilian malaria-control
worker Marinho De Souza. We were the first outsiders to revisit the area
since Chagnon’s tumultuous helicopter descents, and we found the villages
very different from his descriptions. In articles and in interviews,
Chagnon had said that the Siapa Yanomami were healthy, well fed, and
peaceful. Here, in the tribe’s unspoiled heartland, steel goods were
scarce, and the homicide rate among men was much lower than it was in the
lowlands along the Orinoco.

What De Souza and I discovered, however, was a fearful, broken society. At
Narimobowei-teri, the first village that Chagnon’s helicopter had damaged,
men with drawn arrows greeted us, fearing that we were enemy raiders. At
night, we listened to the chanting of shamans who were trying to exorcise
the demonic flying machine that had descended upon their village,
dispensing both wonderful trade goods and, they believed, terrible disease.
At another village, Toobatotoi-teri, which Chagnon described as "the last
uncontacted group in this region," we came to a clearing where shamans were
trying to induce helicopters to land by chanting and dancing. The plan,
apparently, was to trick any outsiders into unloading their steel gifts and
then to scare them into leaving—quickly, before they could infect the
people with colds and fevers. Life in the Siapa Highlands had always been a
struggle. The villagers had com batted malnutrition, intestinal parasites,
and, more recently, malaria. But what they could not comprehend—and what
had shaken their world—was the sudden arrival of visitors who seemed to
offer an easier life and, at the same time, sowed so much confusion. For
them, Chagnon had come to personify everything that both attracted and
repulsed them about our culture. They wanted him, and they didn’t want him,
and they could not forget him.

After twelve days of trekking, we reached Ashidowa-teri, the village where
a number of Yanomami had been injured when Chagnon’s helicopter blew away a
roof. They were living in what looked like woefully inadequate lean-tos,
and they were the most sickly, dispirited Yanomami I had seen in Venezuela.
As soon as we entered their clearing, a man grabbed my hand, held it to his
feverish forehead, and cried, "Hariri!" ("Sickness.") Many of the people
had painted their faces black, in mourning, and most of the children looked

At night, in the firelight of circled hearths, the Yanomami sang about the
mysterious arrival of the helicopters and their strange riders. Then the
people around the campfires began mourning for their departed kin. The
headman, Mirapewe, said to me, "If you could count the dead, you would see
how many of us there were."

Louis Proyect
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