A statement by Kim Hill of the University of New Mexico, one of the world’s foremost authorities on Native tropical South Americans, on Patrick Tierney’s book, Darkness in El Dorado.
I recently became aware that Dr. Leslie Sponsel, Univ. of Hawaii, sent out an unsolicited email mailing to 19 prominent international media organizations coaching them on appropriate “experts” to interview concerning the controversy surrounding Patrick Tierney’s book “Darkness in El Dorado”. In that mailing my name is included in a list entitled “Among those who have defended Chagnon by criticizing Tierney’s book even before reading it are:” That statement is false on two accounts. First I have read the book. I was provided detailed information about the contents of the book in August of this year by a friend of mine who received an unsolicited copy apparently because he was expected to sympathize with the book’s goals. At that time I chose not to read the book because I thought it would have no impact in anthropology nor be taken seriously by most informed scholars. After the infamous Sponsel/Turner letter to the president of the American Anthropological Association warning of an impending scandal, I was given a copy of the book by the president of the AAA in order to help advise her on appropriate reaction to the book. I read the entire thing from cover to cover in two days (including all 1599 footnotes) and long before I ever did any press interviews on the topic. I informed all members of the press who interviewed me that I had indeed read the entire book. None of them had seen a copy despite numerous requests to the publisher.
Second, the statement is false because in my interviews (and in my statement below) I have not unconditionally defended Napoleon Chagnon. Instead I have defended him only from obvious ideological persecution and from some specific charges that I know to be false. There are many other charges in the book that Chagnon himself will be in the best position to answer. I have suggested in interviews and in past public forums (some of this is quoted in the Tierney book) that Chagnon may have made some errors in judgement and that I disagreed with some of his actions, specifically during the time period when he was allied with Charles Brewer-Carias, and was making helicopter trips into the Siapa region. I have also mentioned that I was concerned about the negative attitude that many Yanomamo I have met seem to have towards Chagnon, and despite the fact that much of this attitude is clearly due to coaching by Chagnon enemies I do believe that some Yanomamo have sincere and legitimate grievances against Chagnon that should be addressed by him. The strongest complaints that I heard were about his lack of material support for the tribe despite having made an entire career (and a good deal of money) from working with them, and 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 and an occasional unwise penchant for self promotion (something which seems to infuriate Yanomamo specialists who are less well known than Chagnon). The main reason he has been targeted by Tierney and his collaborators is clearly related to ideological and theoretical differences which his detractors believe are so immoral that they are prepared to use “whatever means necessary” to discredit him.
I have suggested in interviews about the Tierney book and in a series of documents to the president of the AAA that I think the book raises some important issues about the ethics of fieldwork (see this document here), the lack of coherent medical policy about contacts with isolated peoples (see this document here), and the use of personal smear tactics in anthropological debate. Most importantly I have suggested in some interviews that the book could serve a constructive purpose if it raises awareness about the terrible suffering and precarious situation of native South Americans (see document here detailing these current problems). However I am equally concerned that the anti-science message of the book will lead to greater suffering and death among South American Indians rather than a solution (same document).
Although I am not seeking out press interviews concerning this book, I have been motivated to write this document because of Sponsel’s attempt to censor my viewpoint from the debate about the value of the book. I have worked with South American Indians for 23 years and have done nearly 120 months of fieldwork with remote Indian tribes. I have published nearly 80 articles and one book containing scientific data about the native groups with whom I worked. In particular my co-authored book (Hill and Hurtado 1996, Ache Life History) represents the most complete demographic analyses ever done of a remote South American tribe and contains a great deal of specific information about contact epidemics and the associated age specific mortality profiles of pre- and post-contact Indians as well as the disastrous virgin soil contact epidemics. I am married to a Venezuelan (Magdalena Hurtado) whose mother was a senior research scientist at IVIC (the Venezuelan Science Institute) and knew personally Neel, Chagnon and all the Venezuelan scientists who collaborated with them during the period of time covered in the book. My wife met both scientists when she was a child and is currently an associate professor of anthropology at the Univ. of New Mexico. She has collaborated in most of my fieldwork and all documents that I have written in the past about Chagnon or the Yanomamo situation (but she is not on Sponsel’s list of those who should not be interviewed). I did anthropological fieldwork with my wife in Venezuela between 1982-1991, and we visited the Yanomamo area in 1988. The purpose of that visit was to consider scientific research on Yanomamo health problems, and our host was Jesus Cardozo. We stayed at the Platanal Salesion mission and visited several nearby shabonos providing medical care. We also visited several other downstream Yanomamo communities and Salesian missions, made a short trip with Cardozo and Jacques Lizot to an abandoned Shabono in a more isolated region, and visited the New Tribes settlement of Tama Tama where we talked with some protestant missionaries who worked in remote Yanomamo villages. I have personally met nearly all the main protagonists of the book including Chagnon, who I have known for nearly 20 years, and Neel, who was my colleague at the University of Michigan when I was on the faculty there (1988-1991). I have discussed many scientific issues with both of them at great length including especially some of the major themes of this book: virgin soil epidemics, sexual selection, and warfare. I have read all the primary Yanomamo literature referred to in the Tierney book and I also met and conversed (in Spanish) with some of the Yanomamo “informants” in the Tierney book, including especially Alfredo Awerohe who is mentioned many times in the book. Since Sponsel hopes you do not contact me, below are my reactions to this book.
Tierney book- comments from Kim Hill
After reading the Tierney book I was concerned about a variety of issues, from the truth of specific allegations to the motives behind publishing the myriad of obviously false allegations, and from the ethics of specific fieldwork activities described to the overall impact the book would have on the health and welfare of indigenous peoples. The book is complex and brings up many important issues that have not been well discussed in anthropology. However, unfortunately, the book is also full of false and misleading information, half-truths and deception by omission. As such it constitutes unethical journalism. It does not honestly examine the true causes of the current precarious situation of the Yanomamo and other native South Americans. Specifically, while embellishing a longstanding vendetta and self righteous ideological witch hunt against two prominent anthropologists, Jim Neel and Napoleon Chagnon, and including many highly detailed accounts of their alleged misdeeds, it remains curiously silent on the roll of the Venezuelan/Brazilian governments in failing to provide healthcare assistance and territorial protection to the Yanomamo. The book also ignores entirely, the numerous easily revealed misdeeds of several missionaries and anthropologists who constitute its main source of information against its scientific targets thus rapidly revealing a blatant and powerful bias against only a few individuals in recent Yanomamo history. Finally, it attempts to confuse the reader into believing that some Yanomamo opinions which have been coached for years by bitter enemies of Chagnon and Neel are somehow now independent assessments and representative of the Yanomamo people as a whole.
I make the following observations:
First the book is blatantly anti-science, anti-sociobiology, and anti- a specific view of warfare: the theory that warfare is important in human history and is sometimes related to mate competition. However, the book goes beyond taking a position against certain ideas, it attempts to demonize any who would dare hold ideas contrary to those of the author and his collaborators (some of whom are unfortunately anthropologists who have dishonestly represented their activities in conjunction with this book). It suggests that those who engage in scientific research with native populations are generally evil and uncaring (unlike the engaged “activist” author and his collaborators), that any engagement in general scientific research (rather than pure help) is criminal (p.43), and that sociobiologists are the wickedest of all scientists uniquely capable of anything including sacrificing the lives of their study subjects to prove their theories (p.17). Tierney on the other hand, sees himself as the ally of certain “survival groups, missionaries, and Marxist anthropologists who had opted to help Indians rather than just study them” (p. XXIII). Here his agenda is laid bare. Scientists can’t possibly both study and help Indians, therefore they are evil. Only survival groups, missionaries and left leaning anthropologists really care about Indians, all others should be denounced and be punished. Because Tierney knows that he will have a difficult time convincing many readers that dedicated scientists who work in Indian lands and often provide free medical care and a variety of other types of assistance, and who often research topics designed to advance the welfare of all humans on the planet, are instead evil and serve only some military-capitalist-industrial complex and seek to gain secret support for hidden Nazi-like eugenics theories, he engages in a massive exercise of embellishment and deceit– that exercise is this book.
An overriding theme of the book is that anybody who believes that the Yanomamo engage frequently in coalitionary violence is an evil person (because the author engages in the naturalistic fallacy believing that anything which is factual in nature must therefore also be moral or acceptable, or “natural” and that certain scientific findings imply the inability to legislate away competition, p. 14). Even more evil still are those that accept that warfare was common AND entertain the idea that some violent conflicts may represent mate competition between males. The theory of sexual selection is ridiculed in this book (despite the fact that it is virtually accepted as a biological “fact” among modern biologists), and those who would believe that male traits associated with success in male-male competition are favored by natural selection are deemed equivalent to Nazis (never mind the fact that there is no other likely explanation, for example, about why Yanomamo men are larger than women in the first place). Chagnon and Neel are portrayed as genocidal maniacs because of their scientific positions on some of the above themes. The book goes beyond ideological persecution to pure academic McCarthyism (and ironically asserts that Chagnon must be a McCarthy sympathizer because he was raised in rural Michigan, p. 40).
Second, the book is full of false information. It incorrectly ascribes a measles epidemic to the vaccination program by Neel and Chagnon, and then speculates on how this epidemic was intentionally caused in order to test an incoherently presented theory that never was advocated by either Neel or Chagnon. The carelessness of this accusation and the ease with which it has been shown false since pre-publication copies of the book were released, quickly informs the reader about the malicious nature of this entire work. The book claims that certain film scenes were faked when in fact there is an overwhelming body of evidence that they were spontaneous and indeed not even fully understood by the filmmakers. It asserts that Chagnon caused high levels of conflict and warfare through his gift giving and alliance arranging activities, but bases this assertion on a bizarre theory of Yanomamo warfare which claims that steel tools are the ONLY cause of lethal conflict among the Yanomamo. That theory is so incongruent with what is known about primitive warfare worldwide that I refused to waste my time reviewing the book in which it was developed (Ferguson 1995) even after being given a free copy by a prominent anthropological journal. Warfare has been commonly reported among the Yanomamo for centuries, and is obvious in the archeological record of the Americas going back thousands of years. Although it is reasonable that some native peoples in some places and some times may have attacked other groups in order to acquire valuable western tools (just as they may kill to acquire any valuable resource), the theory that all modern native warfare is due to competition for western metal tools is absurd and panglossian. According to the theory in some cases natives attack because they have tools, and in other cases they attack because they do not have them. Still other raids take place where no tools are involved but supposedly represent conflict over hypothetical trade routes of potential access to hypothetical tools that have not yet materialized. Since all modern groups are exposed directly or indirectly to western tools or other groups who may have them or want them, virtually any recent act of violent aggression can be somehow explained as a desire for these tools. This theory however, fails to explain all the pre-European warfare in the Yanomamo, in the Americas, and around the world, and fails to explain why natives would fight for tools which they subsequently trade for wives but not be willing to fight to acquire the wives directly (or any other valuable resource). It also is completely at odds with the best direct sources of Yanomamo ethnography. The two largest ethnographic works that are uninterpreted (without any anthropological theory) storytelling about Yanomamo lifestyles are the testimony of Helena Valero (Yo soy Napeyoma, 1984) and “Jungleman’s” stories taped by Mark Ritchie (Spirit of the Rainforest 1996). Both contain numerous graphic accounts of Yanomamo warriors exterminating enemy villages IN ORDER TO steal their women. In both accounts rape of women captives is common and committed by virtually all warriors (contra Tierney). In both accounts adult men, infants and boys are systematically killed while women and female children are captured. There are accounts of arguments after successful raids on how to divide up the captured women and some of those arguments lead to lethal raiding as well. Nowhere in either book is the theme of fighting for metal tools developed by the narrators. Indeed there are no stories of arguments between raiders over who would get a specific machete or axe, and indeed the material bounty gained from most raids is never even mentioned by native informants, but the fate of captured women is detailed in page after page of narrative. Likewise, Chagnon’s hypothesis that “killers” sometimes enjoy high biological fitness has been tested in only two other South American societies and both found some support for this idea. Specifically the Robarcheck’s study of the Waorani in Ecuador showed that “killers” had more wives, and my own study of the Ache in Paraguay shows that “killers” have high offspring survival. Why does Tierney fail to mention all this evidence in these sources that he cites at times on other points. One can only conclude that he is adamantly committed to his “modern people have caused Yanomamo warfare” worldview and is not an “objective journalist”, but an “advocate” as he himself claims (p.XXIV). If so he has no business stepping onto the turf of academic debate because he is not an honest broker of information.
Third: The book fails to honestly examine the plight of the Yanomamo and the causes of current suffering. The Yanomamo are loosing land and being invaded by gold-miners. This process has happened all over South America many times, beginning 500 years ago (read “Red Gold” by John Hemming for good historical overview). The suggestion that Napoleon Chagnon has had any affect on the process would be laughable if the assertion were not so malicious. Invaders have killed and enslaved Indians regardless of whether they were thought to be warlike or peacelike. Indeed, if anything the “warlike” characterization might help to keep a few timid explorers out of the area. The true responsibility for this tragedy however rests squarely on the institutions that are capable of stopping it. This means primarily the national and departmental governments of the two countries where the events have taken place. A second major cause of Yanomamo suffering is their health situation. If they are anything like other South American native groups they are suffering from high levels of tuberculosis, malaria, respiratory infections, diarrhea, misc. infectious diseases and parasites. This is exacerbated by relatively poor nutrition. Again, no small group of anthropologists could possibly remedy this situation or be held responsible. Why doesn’t Tierney investigate and report on the lack of governmental assistance in this area. Why doesn’t he use his investigative skills to uncover what happened to the millions of dollars that were allocated to the Venezuelan Indian agency (DAI) that never reached the native communities for which they were intended. Why doesn’t he investigate the causes of low monetary allocation to any indigenous assistance programs in Venezuela and Brazil and the rampant corruption that keeps the small amount allocated from ever reaching the target populations. The tenor of his book suggests that he is more interested in “punishing” a few evil scientists (ie. those who hold different ideological or political views from his own) than in uncovering the causes of “Darkness in El Dorado”.
Fourth: The hoax that Tierney and his collaborators have propagated with this book will have serious negative impact on the indigenous populations of South America. To the extent that Tierney’s lies are successfully spread (and we can be certain that well known anti-science, anti-sociobiology, and anti-American groups will do their best to publicize the false accusations of this book), native populations may be convinced not to allow scientific research on their communities. This will unfortunately remove them from many of the benefits enjoyed by the rest of the developed world and hinder any attempt to find answers to important questions about native health issues. In this book for example Tierney attempts to denigrate Jim Neel’s ideas about disease resistance in native populations. In short Neel believed that much of the disease susceptibility of newly contacted Indians was due to lack of immune system responses that should be developed during childhood exposure rather than genetic susceptibility. Tierney asserts that Neel’s ideas are not accepted by scientists working in the area. That is flat out false. Instead there is a good deal of information suggesting that Neel was indeed right. Most isolated Indian groups die from virgin soil epidemics because of the lack of a developed immune response not because of a genetic inability to combat the diseases. This is why native communities have fairly good survival rates from infectious disease epidemics once they engage in long term peaceful interactions with the outside world. It is also congruent with the age-specific mortality patterns during virgin soil epidemics. The only published study of this that I am aware of is in my co-authored book on Ache demography. In that study we showed that mortality was particularly high only among the old and very young during contact epidemics, and that most of the young victims died from lack of parental support (food and care) rather than the effects of the disease. The mortality rate among those with active and developing immune systems who are no longer dependent on parents (ie. young adults) is many fold lower than for other age categories. This was precisely what Jim Neel had predicted would be found, and his ideas about native disease resistance rather than being lunatic fringe (as Tierney implies) are in fact very congruent with all available evidence.
Fifth: The book contains some incredible judgmental hypocrisy. Aside from the false accusations of intentionally causing an epidemic, nearly all other activities of which Chagnon is accused have been committed by Tierney himself or the Chagnon critics cited throughout the book. Chagnon is accused of visiting isolated Yanomamo communities and potentially spreading dangerous infectious diseases. Tierney himself also visited remote villages and endangered the people there (as did many other of the Chagnon critics). Tierney claims to have undergone a period of “quarantine” prior to visiting isolated villages but gives no details about how this was accomplished. I suggest this quarantine was ineffective since it would have required a long enough period to ensure that he carried no slowly incubating infectious diseases and then followed by a complete lack of interaction with mission residents and other outsiders after the quarantine. It would be almost impossible to do this in the environment of the upper Orinoco since one must prepare and obtain supplies etc, just prior to leaving, and social encounters are almost inevitable. More importantly however, Tierney admits to taking a half dozen or so Yanomamo from the Platanal mission with him on his journey to the remote villages. It is quite clear that this group did not undergo quarantine because the original plan was for many of them to return before reaching the isolated villages, but instead they decided to accompany Tierney. Likewise Tierney accuses Chagnon of having caused or exacerbated Yanomamo conflict through his gift giving patterns. However, Tierney too, provided gifts to Yanomamo hosts as he traveled (as have all the Chagnon critics cited in the book). How does Tierney know that HIS gifts caused no conflicts but Chagnon’s gifts did? Tierney also accuses Chagnon of not spending enough time effort and resources in treating Yanomamo illnesses that he encountered. I know that Chagnon took medicines with him each time he went to the field. Did Tierney spend more money on medicine than Chagnon during his field trips? Did Tierney ever leave any sick or suffering individuals in a village when he moved on to do his journalist “work” elsewhere? Did the Chagnon critics provide more medical care than Chagnon? I know this is not true for some primary sources in Tierney’s book because I was in the field at a Salesian mission where there was no medical care during my entire stay and some Chagnon critics cited in this book that I observed in the field gave no medical treatment to any Yanomamo during my stay (they watched my wife and I do it). Indeed, some had no training that would have allowed them to give treatment. Finally, Tierney accuses Chagnon of profiting from and thus exploiting the Yanomamo. While it may be true that Chagnon obtained important career and economic gain from his relations with the Yanomamo there can be little doubt that this is also exactly what the Tierney book is all about. Why all the hype and media attention for this book? Does Tierney plan to donate his profits to some Yanomamo development fund?
Sixth: The book contains abundant malicious personal information about Neel and Chagnon (including totally unsubstantiated hearsay) but no personal information about Tierney’s primary informants who are bitter enemies of Chagnon. It is not hard for anyone who travels in the Yanomamo area to discover dirty little secrets and rumors about several of the anthropologists and missionaries who are sources of Tierney’s accusations. I heard a variety of highly detailed accounts from the Yanomamo themselves. I have no doubt that if I returned to the area I could collect tales about Tierney’s behavior as well. Indeed any 11 year investigation (as Tierney claims to have carried out on Chagnon) into any normal human being will reveal errors, misjudgments, imperfections, and regrettable behaviors. We may all be perfect in hindsight, but there are no Saints working in the upper Orinoco, and apparently even fewer in investigative journalism. What purpose do these personal smear tactics serve other than to further a nasty political and ideological vendetta. Jim Neel and Napoleon Chagnon are human beings with families. They worked a lifetime to build reputations that Tierney intends to destroy with this book. One would think that to perform such an “execution” of an entire lifetime of work, the judgement should be based on the highest standards of evidence. Tierney has proclaimed himself judge, jury and executioner in this act of career destruction. His evidence far from being “beyond a reasonable doubt” is instead a shoddy collection of distortions, exaggerations, misrepresentations and fabrications.
In summary, although the Tierney book raises important issues about anthropological fieldwork ethics, policies toward remote and isolated indigenous populations and the current state of native South Americans, the false accusations, ideological persecution, and sheer maliciousness of this book undermines much of the good that could have come from reporting about the Yanomamo situation.