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  • Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon
  • Christian L. Jordan
Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon. By Patrick Tierney. New York: W.W. Norton, 2000.

In this provocative and controversial polemic, Patrick Tierney lays out a thorough and impassioned investigation of the plundering of the famous Yanomami of Amazonia by everyone from Catholic missionaries to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. The relentless narrative churns through account after account of how the Yanomami have been exploited and colonized in the name of science, journalism, and profit. Tierney’s main focus centers on how since first contact anthropologists and other friends have exposed Yanomami to outside diseases that have had disastrous impact on the very Yanomami way of life.

While Tierney villainizes many, most severe scrutiny is reserved for anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon and geneticist James Neel. In the most disputed sections of this book, Tierney contends that Chagnon and Neel knowingly exposed numerous Yanomami villages to measles and other deadly diseases, resulting in staggering mortality rates. In addition to attributing the epidemics to Chagnon and his closest cohorts, Tierney asserts that Chagnon falsified data in order to further his own personal agendas. Tierney goes on to point out how Chagnon created the myth of the brutal, hypersexual Yanomami warriors, especially in his best-selling ethnography, Yanomamo: The Fierce People. As for geneticist James Neel, Tierney presents him as a self-righteous eugenicist with “a romantic attraction to tribal societies” (p. 39).

The greatest merit of Darkness in El Dorado lies in Tierney’s exploration of the range of factors and influences that have brought the Yanomami to their present state. Adding to his critiques of Chagnon and Neel, Tierney describes a gauntlet of devastating influences, including the detrimental rise of materialism among the Yanomami, the impact of Christian missionaries, and influence peddling and misuse of governmental funds in Venezuela and Brazil. Further condemnation is heaped upon the droves of journalists and moviemakers who have hounded the Yanomami in order to document their way of life for the global exotica market. In so doing, these outsiders have carried in disease and exacerbated mistrust and hostility between different Yanomami groups.

While Tierney provides a compelling account of the Yanomami cataclysm, his narrative and descriptions are put forth as a sanctimonious morality play. The book damns the work of so many scholars that Tierney seems to be waging a personal crusade against all those deemed to have betrayed the Yanomami. Further, the book adopts a resolutely anti-science stance, condemning the scientists who have worked in the region, while identifying very few “appropriate” understandings of the Yanomami and their world.

Despite these misgivings, Tierney raises awareness of the delicate circumstances that investigators in relatively remote regions must deal with. Moreover, Darkness in El Dorado points out how the Yanomami, like other indigenous groups in Latin America and elsewhere struggle to preserve their unique culture, mend internal divisions, and defend their land while seeking to benefit from an outside world that is increasingly pushing into their own.

Overall, the author raises urgent ethical issues, relating to Western contact, treatment, and study of indigenous peoples. However, discussion is so entwined with disdain, especially for Chagnon, that it undermines his argument. On one level, he becomes one more journalist opportunistically exploiting (the fierce exploiters of) the Yanomami to boost book revenues. A less personalized condemnation of Yanomami Studies would have lent more credibility to his narrative. Nonetheless, the book is thoroughly and methodically researched, and provides extensive evidence to support its key points. Tierney’s main contribution is not that he is the first to point out that the Yanomami (the people and their culture) have been colonized, but rather in his detailed assessment of the cost to the Yanomami, and to science, of ongoing colonization. Whether or not the specifics of his critiques stand up to the already unleashed counter-assault, the book will surely leave a trail of questions and inquiries for others to investigate.

Christian L. Jordan
Pacific Lutheran University

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