[Editor’s Note (9/30/19): Anthropologist Napoleon A. Chagnon died on September 21, 2019, at the age of 81. He studied the Yanomamö people of Amazonia. In this 2001 profile of Chagnon by Scientific American editor Kate Wong, the anthropologist responds to a book by journalist Patrick Tierney, published in 2000, that alleged, among other things, that Chagnon stoked violence among the Yanomamö to substantiate his ideas about human nature. In 2001 the American Anthropological Association appointed a task force to conduct an inquiry into the book’s allegations. In 2002 it accepted the task force’s report, which concluded that Chagnon’s characterization of the Yanomamö as the “fierce people” was false and damaging and that he had acted unethically in the early 1990s in working with people connected to Venezuela’s then president Carlos Andrés Pérez to get access to the Yanomamö after being denied a research permit by Venezuelan authorities. In 2005 the American Anthropological Association rescinded its acceptance of the task force’s report.]
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 Yanomamö. 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 Yanomamö 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 Yanomamö 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.
With such sordid scandal swirling around him, I’m a bit surprised by his relaxed demeanor. But perhaps I shouldn’t be. Napoleon Chagnon is no stranger to controversy, and he has a history of rising to the challenge.
The second of 12 children, he grew up in rural Port Austin, Mich., in a house that lacked indoor plumbing. His father, having been discharged from the military, took odd jobs as a painter, police officer, bartender and factory worker to support the family. “Most of my youth was spent with my father off working someplace,” Chagnon recollects. “I didn’t really get to know him.” High school was “stimulus-free,” he laments, and after graduating, his father handed him a small sum of money and told him he was on his own.
Chagnon secured a modest scholarship that enabled him to take an intensive eight-week course on surveying. This led to a job with the Michigan State Highway Department, where he worked for a year, saving his money to go to college. As a physics major at the University of Michigan, he had to meet certain distribution requirements, including a two-semester sequence in a social science. All he could fit into his schedule was anthropology, which he had never heard of. But it didn’t take long before Chagnon was hooked: “The second week into the second course, I decided that that’s what I wanted to be.” He stayed on at Michigan for his Ph.D.
Once he decided to study “really primitive people,” Chagnon says, he had two parts of the world to choose from: New Guinea or the Amazon Basin. He opted for the latter, as it was the lesser studied of the two, and initially selected a central Brazilian tribe called the Suyà. Just before leaving, however, a revolution broke out in Brazil, making fieldwork impossible. Around the same time, James Neel, a geneticist at the university, was looking into doing research in Venezuela. The two decided to conduct a multidisciplinary study of the Yanomamö—a tribe of about 27,000 Indians who live in some 300 villages spread across an area roughly the size of Texas—about whom there were only a few published accounts. “They were quite unknown at the time, but I did know they lived in both Venezuela and Brazil,” Chagnon recalls. “So if Brazil was in a revolution, I would study them in Venezuela, and vice versa.” Soon thereafter, the young Chagnon set off with his wife and two small children. His family stayed in Caracas for the 15-month period while he plunged deep into the rain forest in search of “primitive man.”
What little Chagnon knew about the Yanomamö beforehand did not prepare him for that initial encounter, which he described memorably in his first book, Yanomamö: The Fierce People:
I looked up and gasped when I saw a dozen burly, naked, sweaty, hideous men staring at us down the shafts of their drawn arrows! Immense wads of green tobacco were stuck between their lower teeth and lips making them look even more hideous, and strands of dark-green slime dripped or hung from their nostrils—strands so long that they clung to their pectoral muscles or drizzled down their chins.
He later learned that the men had taken a hallucinogenic snuff, which causes a runny nose, and that he and his missionary companion had arrived just after a serious fight between this village and a neighboring group—a fight that apparently had erupted over women. It was a pattern of violence that Chagnon would observe and report on again and again and one that would ultimately pit many of his colleagues against him.
Chagnon did not expect to see violence among the Yanomamö, nor did he anticipate that he would discover biological underpinnings to their behavior, he says. But in asserting that these conflicts arose over women and not material resources such as food, he broke with the view held by many cultural anthropologists—including those who had trained him. In that view, influenced in part by Marxist economics, material forces drive human behavior.
“Even though it was an unwanted discovery in anthropology—it was too biological—I nevertheless had to confront the fact that they were fighting over women, not scarce material resources,” Chagnon recounts. In doing so, he adds, “I basically had to create and invent my own theory of society.” Chagnon’s Darwinian perspective on culture jibed with Harvard University scientist E. O. Wilson’s 1975 treatise on animal behavior, Sociobiology. Chagnon—who tends to refer to his detractors as Marxists and leftwingers—thus became identified with that school of thought, which also made him unpopular among social scientists who believe that culture alone shapes human behavior.
In the years that followed, Chagnon took various academic posts and continued to return to Yanomamö territory, conducting censuses and collecting detailed genealogical data. (Appropriately enough, the Yanomamö, unable to pronounce Chagnon’s name, dubbed him “Shaki”—their word for a pesky bee.) Then, in 1988, he published a paper in Science in which he reported that 40 percent of adult males in the 12 villages he sampled had participated in the killing of another Yanomamö; 25 percent of adult male deaths resulted from violence; and around two thirds of all people age 40 or older had lost at least one parent, sibling or child through violence.
Perhaps most stunning of all, he found that men who had killed were more successful in obtaining wives and had more children than men who had not killed. “The general principle is not so much that violence causes reproductive success. It’s that things that are culturally admired and strived for are often correlated with reproductive success,” Chagnon explains. “It may be wealth in one society, or political power. You don’t have to be violent to have political power. But in the primitive world, where the state doesn’t exist, one of the most admired skills is to be a successful warrior.”
The Science paper came out as the Brazilian gold rush was reaching full throttle in Yanomamö territory, prompting impassioned responses from Brazilian anthropologists and human-rights activists. Portraying the Yanomamö as killers, they warned, furnished miners with a powerful means of turning the public against the Indians. Neither was Chagnon making friends in Venezuela, where his relationship with the Salesian Catholic missionaries who control the region had soured. Indeed, on a 1991 trip to a Yanomamö village he had visited on friendly terms several times before, the headman threatened Chagnon with his ax, claiming that Chagnon had killed their babies and poisoned their water. The headman later revealed that Salesian missionaries had spread these lies.
“The Salesians don’t want anybody in with the Yanomamö whom they don’t have control over,” observes University of New Mexico anthropologist Kim Hill, an Amazon specialist. He further notes that there aren’t many researchers in that area who are not openly allied with the missionaries. “Nap was the wild card. He wouldn’t play by their rules, and he openly opposed them on some of their policies. I think they just decided they were going to make damn sure that he never came back again.” (Raised Catholic, Chagnon recalls with irony that his mother had wanted him to enter the priesthood. “I reassured her that although I hadn’t become a priest, I’m very well known in the highest circles of the Catholic Church.”)
Chagnon retired in 1999 from the University of California at Santa Barbara after realizing that he probably would not be able to return to Yanomamö territory. On his last three attempts, officials in Boa Vista and Caracas had denied him the necessary permits. So he and his wife, Carlene, moved back to Michigan, into an airy, sun-filled house tucked away in the woods, on the outskirts of Traverse City, a resort town bordering Lake Michigan. There Chagnon figured he would work on a new book and maybe do some bird hunting with his dog, Cody.
That reverie was shattered, however, when a book brimming with explosive allegations leveled against Chagnon and other Yanomamö researchers came out last November. Specifically, Tierney’s Darkness in El Dorado charges Chagnon with inciting warfare, staging films and falsifying data on the Yanomamö in order to create the myth of “the fierce people.” In reality, Tierney suggests, the Yanomamö are generally fragile and fearful. The violence that did occur, he asserts, erupted over the windfall of machetes and axes Chagnon distributed in exchange for their cooperation. He further accuses Chagnon of tawdry activities such as demanding a Yanomamö wife and indulging in drugs. Tierney also strongly implies that Chagnon and the geneticist Neel, who died in February of last year, sparked a deadly measles epidemic among the Indians, claiming perhaps thousands of lives, by using an outmoded vaccine known to have potentially severe side effects.
The famed anthropologist denies it all. The idea that his gifts of steel goods (given to make their daily tasks easier) caused the warfare he observed is preposterous, he says, noting that the Yanomamö have a history of violence that predates his arrival. Gift exchange is par for the course if one wants to study the Yanomamö, he insists. Even so, he adds, his contributions hardly compare to the number of machetes doled out at the missions.
I read Chagnon the passage describing his purported request for a Yanomamö wife. “That’s so goddamn crazy,” he retorts, explaining that the story is a distortion of his referring to a girl as his crosscousin—a kinship term also used for “wife” in the Yanomamö language. The claim that he staged his award-winning documentaries is likewise false, Chagnon maintains. And with regard to drugs, he says he took the ceremonial snuff only once—to reassure some Indians who had been threatened by a missionary with being thrown into a chasm of fire if they continued to worship their “demons.”
As to mischaracterizing the Yanomamö as fierce, John Peters, a sociologist at Wilfred Laurier University in Ontario who spent 10 years among the Brazilian Yanomamö, notes that the Indians proudly describe themselves that way. “They are a very passionate people,” he observes, who are willing to go to extremes in “their anger and fury and their sense of justice.” Moreover, according to Hill, who has posted a scathing critique of Darkness on the Internet, the only other South American tribes in which Chagnon’s hypothesis has been tested—the Waorani and the Ache—appear to link “killers” and reproductive success, too. (Hill, however, interprets the data to indicate that women are attracted not to killers but to men who are big, strong and healthy—traits that also make them more likely to be successful at killing during a raid.)
“Tierney is not a scientist,” Chagnon bristles, referring to the journalist’s suggestion that he adjusted his data to fit his theory. “No serious scientist has ever doubted my data.”
Tierney’s measles argument has also drawn criticism. Anthropologist Thomas N. Headland of the Summer Institute of Linguistics in Dallas obtained documents from Protestant missionaries indicating that the measles outbreak preceded the arrival of Chagnon and Neel. And various vaccine experts argue that although the side effects of the Edmonston B vaccine may have been severe, without it, many more Yanomamö would have died.
Yet even those who have defended him so vigorously acknowledge that Chagnon does not have a sterling record. Around 1991 he started collaborating with Charles Brewer-Carías, a controversial Venezuelan naturalist and gold miner, and Cecilia Matos, the ill-reputed mistress of Venezuela’s then president, Carlos Andres Pérez. Chagnon was being prevented from doing research at the time, and going this route was his last resort, recalls University of Nebraska anthropologist Raymond Hames, who has worked with Chagnon. Still, “it was really unwise,” he says. And Hill notes that some Yanomamö with whom he has spoken complain that, considering the fact that Chagnon made his career off working with them, they have received very little in return.
For his part, Chagnon is staunchly unapologetic about the way he conducted his life’s work. “I’m not ashamed of what I’ve done. I think that I’ve produced one of the most significant and rare sets of archives and anthropological data that could have possibly been collected in this kind of a society,” he declares. Although their lands are protected (thanks in large part, Chagnon says, to the influence he and Brewer-Carías had on Pérez), their culture is changing rapidly. “It may turn out that future anthropologists will have to rely entirely on archived materials—the sort I collected—to figure out some of the questions they want answers to about the primitive world. People like the Yanomamö aren’t going to be around very long.”
As of press time, the American Anthropological Association task force that had been appointed to determine whether the allegations made in Darkness warrant formal investigation was still deliberating. The organization is also reviewing its code of ethics and guidelines for research. In Venezuela, the government has issued a moratorium on all research in indigenous areas. It is too soon to know if the controversy will be anthropology’s Armageddon. But Chagnon himself seems destined to remain the lightning rod. He was one of the first people to explore the connection between biology and behavior, “at a time when it was politically very unpopular to do so,” Hill reflects. “And he’s still paying the price for that.”