As someone with a more than a passing interest in the Napoleon Chagnon/Yanomami controversy, I found the HBO documentary “Secrets of the Tribe” totally riveting. For those who are not familiar with the ideological warfare that followed in the trail of Patrick Tierney’s “Darkness in El Dorado”, the film is a terrific introduction. It interviews all the major figures in the debate, as well as the Yanomami people who encountered them for better or—mostly—for worse.
Although I have been reading about these characters for years, this was my first opportunity to see them defend themselves. Their stories beggar the imagination and embody the cliché that truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. Here are the cast of characters:
Napoleon Chagnon: Chagnon developed the thesis of the Yanomami as the “fierce people”. He claimed that 40 percent of the men he interviewed confessed that they had killed at least one man from another tribe. He tried to explain the warfare in terms of sociobiology. The dominant males were those who were most likely to propagate their genes.
Kenneth Good: Originally an assistant to Chagnon, he became an early adversary. Charged with the responsibility of evaluating food intake in Yanomami territory, a possible generator of conflict in line with Marvin Harris’s materialist anthropology, he found himself growing skeptical of Chagnon’s data. Chagnon insisted that the Yanomami had plenty of food to eat and only fought for sexual reasons. As proof, he cited a village that was well-fed in a 1979 Science article. When Good discovered that the village was not in the forest but attached to a missionary complex that included a general store, Science refused to publish it. Good became as controversial a figure as Chagnon eventually after he married a 13 year old Yanomami girl.
Jacques Lizot: Lizot was a protégé of Claude Levi-Strauss who, like Good, became estranged from Chagnon after initially working closely with him. Unlike Chagnon and Good, he refused to be interviewed. A major scandal erupted after it was learned that Lizot was a homosexual pedophile who kept a retinue of Yanomami boys attending to his sexual needs in exchange for gifts of various sorts. A number of them are interviewed.
Patrick Tierney: Tierney was not an anthropologist but an investigative journalist who spent years pursuing the facts on Chagnon. While the film makes a scrupulous attempt not to favor any of the principals, it effectively supports the case made against Chagnon in Tierney’s book.
In addition to these four principals, there are a host of other anthropologists and native people who offer their opinions. Of the greatest interest to me was Brian Ferguson, a Rutgers professor who spent far less time in the field than Chagnon, Good or Lizot but whose theoretical contribution is enormous. As author of “Yanamami Warfare: A Political History”, Ferguson puts the question of sociobiology in the foreground. As good as Tierney is on the investigative journalism front, he really lacks the theoretical depth of Ferguson. I recommend a short article by Ferguson titled “A Reputation for War” as a good introduction to his views:
In the first decade of this century, for example, the frenzied rubber-tapping boom in Amazonia led to a surge in Western trade goods passing along the Uraricoera and other rivers near Brazilian Yanomami territory. In a series of raids, ambushes, and at least one pitched battle, some local Yanomami groups carved out a niche in the trade system. They then gave up raiding, but soon were pressed from behind by the “wild” Yanomami in the mountains.
For some Yanomami, including those living around the mission posts of the upper Orinoco River, contact with resident outsiders has led to a much more sedentary way of life. Over time, hunting depleted local game supplies and was replaced by fishing, more intensive cultivation, and consumption of mission foods. Having lost their mobile way of life, these groups are unable to follow the traditional option of moving away when frictions arise. And with little hunting, they lose the custom of sharing meat, which as Kenneth Good has observed, is a source of solidarity. Worst of all, their exposure to outsiders brings them new diseases, with epidemics tearing great holes in the social fabric. For some Yanomami, such as those encountered by Chagnon, long and strong contact with the outside world created so much disruption that, for a time, violence became almost normal in interpersonal relations.
The Yanomami case shows the extraordinary reach and transforming effects a centrally governed society, or state, may have, extending way beyond its last outpost. The impact of disease, trade goods, migrations, and political restructurings can spread far in advance of face-to-face contact, and when the state’s advance agents do arrive, they commonly bring even more destruction with them. Because they may possess firearms or dispense coveted trade goods, even contemporary missionaries and anthropologists can become important players in these conflicts and the focus of violent competition.
Anybody who has studied North American indigenous peoples can testify to the accuracy of this. As a rule of thumb, it is very difficult to isolate the Indian from the web of capitalist social relations that pervaded the Western Hemisphere from the moment that Columbus arrived.
For those who have a subscription to HBO, the film can be downloaded at any time like any of their other shows. I discovered this feature not long after I upgraded to my new HDTV but have a feeling it was always available.
For those who do not have HBO, the film can be downloaded as a bit torrent. Please contact me if you need some help in getting set up for bit torrent. It is really quite simple and a tremendous source of valuable material, especially films that cannot be rented from Netflix.
Finally, my articles on the Yanomami can be accessed by clicking