New York Times
February 13, 2013
Among the hazards Napoleon Chagnon encountered in the Venezuelan jungle were a jaguar that would have mauled him had it not become confused by his mosquito net and a 15-foot anaconda that lunged from a stream over which he bent to drink. There were also hairy black spiders, rats that clambered up and down his hammock ropes and a trio of Yanomami tribesmen who tried to smash his skull with an ax while he slept. (The men abandoned their plan when they realized that Chagnon, a light sleeper, kept a loaded shotgun within arm’s reach.) These are impressive adversaries — “Indiana Jones had nothing on me,” is how Chagnon puts it — but by far his most tenacious foes have been members of his own profession.
At 74, Chagnon may be this country’s best-known living anthropologist; he is certainly its most maligned. His monograph, “Yanomamö: The Fierce People,” which has sold nearly a million copies since it was first published in 1968, established him as a serious scientist in the swashbuckling mode — “I looked up and gasped when I saw a dozen burly, naked, filthy, hideous men staring at us down the shafts of their drawn arrows!” — but it also embroiled him in controversy.
In turning the Yanomami into the world’s most famous “unacculturated” tribe, Chagnon also turned the romantic image of the “noble savage” on its head. Far from living in harmony with one another, the tribe engaged in frequent chest-pounding duels and deadly inter-village raids; violence or threat of violence dominated social life. The Yanomami, he declared, “live in a state of chronic warfare.”
The phrase may be the most contested in the history of anthropology. Colleagues accused him of exaggerating the violence, even of imagining it — a projection of his aggressive personality. As Chagnon’s fame grew — his book became a standard text in college courses — so did the complaints. No detail was too small to be debated, including the transliteration of the tribe’s name. As one commentator wrote: “Those who refer to the group as Yanomamö generally tend to be supporters of Chagnon’s work. Those who prefer Yanomami or Yanomama tend to take a more neutral or anti-Chagnon stance.”
In 2000, the simmering criticisms erupted in public with the release of “Darkness in El Dorado,” by the journalist Patrick Tierney. A true-life jungle horror story redolent with allusions to Conrad, the book charged Chagnon with grave misdeeds: not just fomenting violence but also fabricating data, staging documentary films and, most sensational, participating in a biomedical expedition that may have caused or worsened a measles epidemic that resulted in hundreds of Yanomami deaths. Advance word of the book was enough to plunge anthropology into a global public-relations crisis — a typical headline: “ Scientist ‘Killed Amazon Indians to Test Race Theory .’ ” But even today, after thousands of pages of discussion , including a lengthy investigation by the American Anthropological Association (A.A.A.), there is no consensus about what, if anything, Chagnon did wrong.
Shut out of the jungle because he was so polarizing, he took early retirement from the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1999. “The whole point of my existence as a human being and as an anthropologist was to do more and more research before this primitive world disappeared,” he told me bitterly. He spent much of the past decade working on a memoir instead, “Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes — the Yanomamö and the Anthropologists,” which comes out this month. It is less likely to settle the score than to reignite debate. “The subtitle is typical Chagnon,” says Leslie Sponsel, an anthropologist at the University of Hawaii and a longtime critic of Chagnon. “Some will interpret it as an insult to the Yanomami and to anthropology in general.” Sponsel despaired that what is known as “the fierce controversy” would ever be satisfactorily resolved. “It’s quicksand, a Pandora’s box,” he said. “It’s also to some degree a microcosm of anthropology.”
When Chagnon first went into the jungle, in 1964, the public image of anthropology was at its peak. Claude Lévi-Strauss’s “Tristes Tropiques,” his magisterial memoir of his years studying tribes in Brazil, had recently been translated into English, prompting Susan Sontag to declare anthropology “one of the rare intellectual vocations that do not demand a sacrifice of one’s manhood. Courage, love of adventure and physical hardiness — as well as brains — are used by it.” “ Dead Birds ” (1963), Robert Gardner’s depiction of ritual warfare among the Dani people of New Guinea, was greeted as a landmark of ethnographic filmmaking. In the “Stone Age” culture of the Dani, anthropologists believed they had a snapshot of human development at a crucial early stage, and rumors of other “uncontacted” tribes fueled fantasies of genuine discovery. Membership in the A.A.A. doubled between 1960, when Margaret Mead, the field’s pre-eminent authority, served a term as president, and 1968.
Chagnon was well cast for life in the field. A 26-year-old graduate student at the University of Michigan, he grew up poor in rural Port Austin, Mich., the second of 12 children. He was self-sufficient and handy with a shotgun — minimum requirements for surviving on jungle terrain where the nearest airstrip was several hours downstream by motorized canoe. “It’s the harshest environment in the world, physically speaking,” Kenneth Good, an anthropologist at New Jersey City University, who accompanied Chagnon to Venezuela in 1975 and eventually married a teenage Yanomami woman , told me. “I nearly died of malaria several times.”
Today, Chagnon’s own health is fragile. He had open-heart surgery in 2006 — “a likely consequence of the attacks on me,” he says — and suffers from a lung condition that keeps him tethered to a portable oxygen tank much of the time. Still, when I met him in January, at his home in a wooded subdivision near the University of Missouri in Columbia, where he and his wife, Carlene, had just moved so that he could take up a new position in the anthropology department, he had half a dozen pheasants in his freezer, quarry from a recent hunting expedition with his German shorthaired pointer, Darwin. “Pheasant breast on toast with butter is one of the more delicious breakfasts I’ve ever eaten,” he said solemnly.
In his baseball cap and faded jeans, with a thermos of Heineken at his side, he seemed a pointed rebuke to Ivory Tower decorum. The house, a cavernous brick two-story, was only partly furnished — the Chagnons had lived there all of 10 days. But elegantly arrayed along a ledge above the mantel were a couple dozen woven baskets, like so many households around the rim of a shabono — the vine-and-leaf structure that encloses an entire Yanomami village.
Chagnon’s account of his first encounter with the tribe is legendary: he crept through the low entrance of a shabono , startling a group of Yanomami warriors — the dozen “filthy, hideous men” — who had just concluded a bloody club fight with a neighboring village over the abduction of seven women. “Immense wads of green tobacco were stuck between their lower teeth and lips making them look even more hideous,” Chagnon wrote, “and strands of dark-green slime dripped or hung from their noses.” (The green snot was a side effect of ebene , a hallucinogen that the Yanomami blow into one another’s nostrils.)
By the end of that first day, Chagnon knew he needed to rethink what he had been taught. Apart from a handful of reports by missionaries and European ethnographers, little was known about the Yanomami, who were scattered among several hundred shabonos across roughly 70,000 square miles on the Venezuelan-Brazilian border. According to the reigning “cultural materialist” doctrine — which owed as much to Marx as to the noble-savage ideal — conflict among groups arose only when there was competition for strategic resources: food, tools, land. The Yanomami in Bisaasi-teri, the shabono that Chagnon had entered, appeared not to be lacking these things. They shouldn’t have been fighting with their neighbors, and certainly not over women — that kind of reproductive competition, cultural materialists claimed, had nothing to do with warfare. During Chagnon’s initial 17 months in the field, one nearby village was raided 25 times. “I began realizing that my training in Michigan was not all that it was supposed to be,” he said.
He spent his first few months trying to learn the villagers’ names and kinship ties, a standard practice at the time and a particular challenge in this case, given the Yanomami’s name taboos: to call someone by his name is often an insult, and the names of the dead aren’t supposed to be uttered at all. Chagnon rewarded informants with fish hooks, matches and, for men who really dished, knives and machetes. (The Yanomami made no metal tools themselves.) Then, on a visit to another village, Chagnon cautiously mentioned the names of the Bisaasi-teri headman and his wife. The residents burst out laughing. He realized that he’d been had: the names he’d been given were slang for genitalia.
Genealogies became Chagnon’s driving obsession. They were crucial for tracing patterns of reproduction — determining which men had the most offspring or how many had wives from other villages. By the end of his last trip to the jungle, in 1995, Chagnon had data on about 4,000 Yanomami, in some cases going back to the 19th century. “That’s what he lives for,” Raymond Hames, an anthropologist at the University of Nebraska who worked with Chagnon as a graduate student, told me. “To collect the data, update the data, crosscheck it. He’s incredibly meticulous.”
Genealogies could also be useful for understanding genetic variations within social groups — then a new avenue of research. Before leaving Ann Arbor, Chagnon met with James V. Neel, a prominent geneticist at the university’s medical school, to propose a collaboration. Neel was best known for his genetic studies of survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. But he was interested in indigenous populations, in part because, having never been exposed to atomic radiation, they could provide a base line for comparison. After taking samples of the Yanomani’s blood, Neel discovered that the tribe’s levels of heavy metals and other environmental toxins were similar to Westerners’. They also lacked immunity to measles. In 1968, Chagnon helped Neel’s team vaccinate 1,000 Yanomami against the disease, just as it broke out near Bisaasi-teri.
Chagnon believed that biology was essential to understanding the tribe’s warfare over women. After all, more women meant more opportunities to pass on genes through reproduction — a basic tenet of evolutionary thought. But biology had no place in the cultural-materialist paradigm. And explanations of human behavior that relied on evolutionary theory were typically met with suspicion in anthropological circles, a legacy of the American eugenics movement, which invoked Darwinian ideas to justify racist efforts to “improve” the gene pool. “The last bastions of resistance to evolutionary theory,” Chagnon told me, “are organized religion and cultural anthropology.”
Marvin Harris, the leading cultural materialist and a professor at Columbia, was adamant that the Yanomami could not be fighting over women, and in 1975, he threw down a gauntlet. One of Harris’s former students, Daniel Gross, had just published a paper arguing that a scarcity of animal protein led to conditions that favored violence among Amazonian tribes, a theory Harris enthusiastically adopted. Chagnon, who had taken a job at Penn State, and three graduate students met with Harris in New York, on their way to Venezuela. “Harris said, ‘If you can show me that the Yanomami get the protein equivalent of one Big Mac per day, I’ll eat my hat,’ ” recalled Chagnon, who accepted the challenge.
By then Chagnon was waging battles on several fronts. That year, the Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson published “Sociobiology,” to the dismay of many anthropologists, who were appalled by what they perceived as Wilson’s attempt to reduce human social behavior to an effect of genes. But Chagnon was excited by Wilson’s ideas, and in 1976 he and a colleague arranged for two sessions on sociobiology to take place at the annual A.A.A. convention. The evening before the sessions, several scholars moved to prohibit them. “Impassioned accusations of racism, fascism and Nazism punctuated the frenzied business meeting that night,” Chagnon writes in “Noble Savages.” Only after Margaret Mead denounced the motion as a “book burning” was it defeated.
At the same time, Chagnon’s portrayal of Yanomami aggression was meeting with increasing resistance. One theory had it that his habit of rewarding cooperative subjects with steel tools — common practice at the time — worsened conflicts. Jacques Lizot, a French anthropologist who spent more than 15 years in a village near Bisaasi-teri, wrote that he hoped to “revise the exaggerated representation that has been given of Yanomami violence. The Yanomami are warriors; they can be brutal and cruel, but they can also be delicate, sensitive and loving.” These latter traits also appeared, though less prominently, in Chagnon’s work. In “The Fierce People,” he recounts the night he became “emotionally close to the Yanomamö for the first time.” A village headman had been killed in a raid, and his brothers were audibly mourning his death. Moved, Chagnon lay quietly in his hammock, not wanting to intrude with his tape recorder or notebook. When asked why he was not “making a nuisance of himself as usual,” Chagnon explained that he was sad. This news was quickly passed around, and for the rest of the night he was treated with great deference: “I was hushuo , in a state of emotional disequilibrium, and had finally begun to act like a human being as far as they were concerned.”
What could have been fruitful academic debates became personal and nasty. It didn’t help that Chagnon could be arrogant and impolitic. “Oh, God, did we have some fights in the field,” says Raymond Hames, who accompanied him on the 1975 protein-challenge trip. “He’s pretty damn sure of himself.” Hames, who remains a close friend, says he and Chagnon “made it work out.” But this was not the case with others.
Kenneth Good was also on the trip and was delegated to study protein consumption at a village far upstream from Bisaasi-teri. Chagnon, he says, refused to give him a steel boat or replenish his anti-malaria pills and didn’t care that he capsized and was stranded without food for three days. “If he had behaved in a civil way, we could have been lifelong allies,” Good told me. (Chagnon says that Good’s demands were unreasonable: “He wasn’t civil to me from the very beginning. I took him into the most exciting field opportunity that existed in anthropology at the time, and he never even sent me a progress report.”)
After Good returned to the United States, he left Chagnon’s department and finished his dissertation with Harris. When the protein studies were finally published, the findings, perhaps unsurprisingly, were split: Good showed that the Yanomami in his village ate slightly less protein than what’s in a Big Mac; Chagnon and Hames showed that their group ate much more. Daniel Gross, who recently retired from the World Bank, says the debate remains unresolved. He pointed out that the Yanomami are about five feet tall, on average. “You have to wonder what accounts for their low stature,” he said. “It’s most likely not a genetic trait.”
Chagnon also fell out with Lizot, the French anthropologist, and with Timothy Asch, an ethnographic filmmaker with whom he collaborated on more than a dozen documentaries. The partnership yielded ingenious work, including “ A Man Called ‘Bee’ ” (1974), in which the camera turns, for once, on the ethnographer. Chagnon strides into the middle of a shabono in a loincloth and faded high tops and strikes a warrior pose — a bearded Tarzan aping his subjects, to their audible delight. (The film’s title comes from Chagnon’s Yanomami nickname, “Shaki,” their word for a particularly pesky species of bee.) But by 1975, with the release of “ The Ax Fight ,” a prizewinning record of a Yanomami brawl, Chagnon and Asch’s own fighting, mostly over who should get top billing in the credits, had destroyed their relationship.
Nor did Chagnon manage to stay on good terms with the local Salesian priests, who, thanks to their influence in Caracas, had considerable say over which scientists got to work with the tribe. In 1993, Chagnon attacked the Salesians in an Op-Ed in The New York Times, charging that the Yanomami were using mission-issued guns to kill one another. The Salesians fought back , depositing anti-Chagnon leaflets at the annual A.A.A. convention and mailing packets of letters — including one from Lizot — to anthropology departments across the country, denouncing his claims.