TRAVERSE CITY, MICH.--In 1964 a 26-year-old graduate student embarked on an expedition that would take him back in time, venturing deep into the Venezuelan jungle to study a primitive Indian tribe known as the Yanomam¿. Over the years he would make more than 25 trips into remote regions of Amazonia to study these people, vividly chronicling their way of life in a record-selling book and prizewinning documentaries. Napoleon Chagnon's research catapulted the Yanomam¿ into the limelight as the fierce people of the rain forest, and as their ethnographer Chagnon became, as one scholar described him, the most famous anthropologist in the world, living or dead.
Today the 62-year-old Chagnon (Americanized to "SHAG-non"), clad in jeans and a khaki shirt, looks the part of the contented retiree. Indeed, the casual observer would hardly suspect that the man seated on the chenille sofa across from me, with his hands behind his head and his feet up on the coffee table, now stands accused of misrepresenting and harming--perhaps even killing--the very people he was studying. Yet in Darkness in El Dorado, published last fall, journalist Patrick Tierney claims that Chagnon cultivated violence among the Yanomam¿ and cooked his data to exaggerate their behavior. He also insinuates that Chagnon and a colleague sparked a deadly measles epidemic. "If you read more than two pages of the book, you think I'm Josef Mengele," Chagnon remarks bitterly.
This article was originally published with the title Fighting the Darkness in El Dorado.