Napoleon Chagnon, Anthropologist, Discusses His Dramatic Career from Northern Michigan

When Indiana Jones burst onto the screen in 1981, most people who’d read the Amazonian ethnography, Yanomamö: The Fierce People by University of Michigan Ph.D. Napoleon Chagnon, figured Jones had nothing on the real life, pipe-smoking professor. During his decades of fieldwork Chagnon bushwhacked through the jungle to isolated villages, dodged poisonous arrows, inhaled the tribal hallucinogen (green snot free-flow and all), wore paint and feathers and brushed hairs with a jaguar. That he was raised in rural Northern Michigan (Onaway High School, class of 1956), where he’d honed his stellar outdoor skills, just made the story even better for his Michigan fans.

First published in 1968, Yanomamö: The Fierce People is arguably the best selling anthropology textbook of all time (move over Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa). But Chagnon’s career has been as tumultuous as it has been epic. For decades his peers hotly debated his view that humans had, as he describes it, an "evolved nature in addition to a learned nature." Then a book released in 2000, Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon, by Patrick Tierney, turned those academic skirmishes into all-out war on Chagnon and his career.

Among Tierney’s worst accusations: That a 1968 University of Michigan medical expedition, which included Chagnon and was led by renowned geneticist Dr. James Neel, abetted or even caused a deadly measles epidemic that broke out nearly simultaneously with the team’s arrival in the jungle.

The book’s most damning accusations have been publicly and factually refuted and Chagnon’s reputation largely cleared, but a new movie, Secrets of the Tribe, made by Brazilian filmmaker Jose Padilha and premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, resurrects the old charges, again insinuating Chagnon’s guilt in the Amazon measles affair. And once again, Chagnon is waging a defense. Look for a thorough airing of Chagnon’s side of the story in his book Noble Savages, scheduled to be released by Simon & Schuster next year.

These days Chagnon’s command central is his home in a Northern Michigan forest not far from Traverse City, a place he shares with his wife, Carlene, and his dog, Darwin. He works at a big-screened Apple computer, flanked by Amazonianmasks and book-lined shelves. In interviews that spanned seven months,

Chagnon, who is still one of the most renowned living anthropologists on the planet and a professor emeritus of the University of California, Santa Barbara, talked about his passion for his life’s work and the controversies that have marked his career. The following Q & A is drawn from those discussions.

You were a rural Northern Michigan boy who first trained to work for the highway department. Why the switch to anthropology?

Chagnon: Anthropology offered to explain many of the things almost everybody thinks about at some time in their life—explanations of the origins of things, scientific explanations independent of and in addition to theological explanations. I was raised a Catholic, and when people wanted to know who made the sun, or the world, the answer was “God.”

Each time I interviewed you, you wore a University of Michigan football cap and shirt and pants in some variation of maize and blue—what’s up with that?

Chagnon: I love that university. That’s where the scales fell off my eyes. I got three degrees there and afterwards served on the faculty.

You are vehement in your insistence that anthropology be based on science. How do you apply scientific method to your fieldwork?

Chagnon: What I do is collect factual, empirical data as distinct from dealing only in subjective stories like myths as some cultural anthropologists do. I’m trying to push the study of societies toward an empirical set of scientific procedures. I do, however, also collect and study myths, the understanding of which lies more in the arena of comparative literature … which can also be studied scientifically, even with evolutionary theory, as some of my former students do.

So what was your scientific pursuit in studying the Yanomamö?

Chagnon: To shed greater light on these people and where they fit among all tribal peoples at this level of cultural complexity. Are all tribes as warlike as the Yanomamö? That’s an empirical question you can answer, for example, by finding out how many people in a tribe have died violently.

During that 1968 University of Michigan expedition that Tierney and others have used against you, the University of Michigan team gathered several hundred vials of Yanomamö blood. Why did Dr. Neel want it?

Chagnon: Among other things, he wanted to study the genetics of the sub groups of American Indians. In other words, when did the Navajo separate from the Apache and the Aztecs and when did all of them separate from the Inca? On a previous 1967 expedition, however, Neel had found that the Yanomamö had no antibodies for measles. When he got back to Ann Arbor he persuaded a drug company to give him, gratis, 2,000 Edmonston B measles vaccines and another company to donate gamma globulin, a medicine that alleviates some of the side effects of vaccines, so we could administer them when we went back the next year. It was purely for humanitarian purposes.

What of Tierney’s charge that the University of Michigan team’s use of Edmonston B was a high-risk vaccine?

Chagnon: The Edmonston B has been given to tribesmen all over the world. It’s one of the safest vaccines ever developed, and it has an admirable record. Those charges are just unsupportable by the evidence.

How did that measles epidemic get started?

Chagnon: It was introduced to the Yanomamö in Brazil. The young daughter of a missionary brought it back from a trip to Manaus. The incubation period is about two weeks—she was perfectly healthy when she left Manaus. There’s good documentation of this origin of the 1968 epidemic. The missionary published this account, and it should have ended there. All serious investigators accept this account.

Tierney’s motives for alleging that you abetted a measles epidemic, you charge, stem from your feud that began in the early 1990’s with Catholic Salesian missionaries who work with the Yanomamö. How do you explain what happened to sour your relationship with those missionaries?

Chagnon: There were two reasons. The first was that the Salesians were giving Yanomamö shotguns intended for hunting—but also to entice them away from the Protestant missions. When it became clear through my demographic research that these Yanomamö were using the introduced shotguns to kill their enemies in more remote villages, this of course conflicted with ethical or moral principles.

The second reason?

Chagnon: I stopped briefly at the Salesian Mavaca Mission [Amazon, 1992]. The Salesian priest there mentioned a rumor that some of the Yanomamö at a village called Kedebaböwei-teri were getting sick. He said he didn’t send someone to check on this and said something to the effect: “You know, these Yanomamö are always trying to trick us to go to their village because they want the presents we always bring.” I flew over their abandoned village and the helicopter landed at a nearby village. Two men from the abandoned village arrived the next day begging us to help them. I sent two Venezuelan medical doctors on foot to the village. We were able to show with my census data that 25 people died of an upper respiratory infection a day or two before, including the headman and a very famous leader I had known for 25 years. Most respiratory infections are treatable with re-hydration packets and making sure the sick people didn’t remain supine in their hammocks like bananas until their lungs filled up with fluids. If the priest had sent help sooner most of them would have recovered.

Earlier, the Salesians had persuaded these Yanomamö to move out to the riverbank [nearer the mission], but where they would also be exposed to new sicknesses. This is a policy the Catholic Church has followed for 500 years in the Americas. [Then in this case], they failed to send help when the Yanomamö got sick.

In July of 1993 Brazilian gold miners brutally attacked a Yanomamö village, decapitating women and children with machetes and murdering about a dozen people in all. The Venezuelan government appointed you to an investigative commission whose work you say was obstructed by Salesian missionaries. In the wake of that and the incidents you speak of above, you wrote opinion pieces that were published in The New York Times and The London Times that were highly critical of the Salesians. In your view, what was the fallout of those two op-ed pieces?

Chagnon: Sensational. The two largest and most influential papers in the English-speaking world carried the stories, and the story became widely known all over the world. One of the Salesian priests told me that they intended to get revenge on me for discrediting their policies so publicly—and for the negative impact this had on worldwide charitable (monetary) contributions to the Salesian Order.

What impelled your decision to retire early from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1999?

Chagnon: My entire life was devoted to learning more and more and more about these remarkable people by returning frequently to their villages. Two of my most strident anthropological opponents cynically dismissed my research efforts as ‘career aggrandizement’ or ‘careerism’… as if pursuit of knowledge was a professional offense. The handful of critics I had in anthropology joined forces with the Salesians to create obstacles for me to return to the Yanomamö.

How did Patrick Tierney become involved in the tensions between you and the missionaries?

Chagnon: He’d been working on a book for a number of years about the impact of the Brazilian gold rush on the Yanomamö. He had a monetary advance from Viking Press, and it was far enough along to have an ISBN number assigned to it. Advance copies were sent out to reviewers. Then suddenly the book disappeared. He then explained that he was doing research on a book about how scientists destroyed the Yanomamö. My suspicion is that the Salesians actually hired Tierney to do a hatchet job on my career … as they had threatened. But that is only speculation on my part.

Darkness in El Dorado came out a year after your move to Traverse City. Carlene says that it was a lonely time—you both kind of hunkered down.

Chagnon: It is not really true that my life has gotten much more tranquil since I left the jungle and my university, and moved to Traverse City.

After the better part of a decade spent clearing your name, the 2010 documentary Secrets of the Tribe has forced you to defend your career again. In fact, you actually allowed Padilha access to the valuable footage that you and filmmaker Timothy Asch shot of the Yanomamö.

Chagnon: I was very skeptical about letting Padilha have access to my films. But after a lengthy correspondence by email that got very philosophical at times and in which he eventually persuaded me about his firm commitment to truth, the scientific method, and objectivity in reporting, I allowed him access to my films. Then when the film came out it was just a piece of trash.

In Secrets of the Tribe filmmaker Jose Padilha runs contemporary footage of Yanomamö blaming you for deaths from measles 40 years ago. Care to explain?

Chagnon: The film ignorantly misrepresents the facts. The Yanomamö who spoke in Padilha’s film were talking about people who died 40 years earlier after being infected with measles by a Brazilian who arrived at this mission post in 1968, the year we were fighting the measles epidemic. Tierney took Padilha to that village 40 years later and was ignorant of these facts.  I was horrified to find, in 1968, that the Salesian Priest, Padre Sanchez, had a Brazilian man with an active case of measles at this mission and urged him to get this man out or he would expose all of the Yanomamö to the disease—and told him that the Yanomamö were now coming back from Patanowä-teri where they had attended a feast.  He refused to let me take the man downsteam.  I then notified the two Salesian Priests at Mavaca and Ocamo to radio Padre Sanchez and insist that he get this sick man out of the village. He refused again.  When the Yanomamö returned they all got measles and many of them died because Padre Sanchez refused to evacuate this man.  I discuss this in more detail in Noble Savages.

If you’d been invited to answer questions about the film at Sundance would you have?

Chagnon: I certainly would have. Somebody would have had to have constrained me not to.

In a recent video interview at the Los Angeles Film Festival, Jose Padilha said, “throughout the history of anthropologic research in Venezuela anthropologists have failed to produce knowledge.” Care to comment?

Chagnon: I find it preposterous and arrogant that a documentary filmmaker, in utter ignorance of the facts, can make the claim that anthropologists have “produced no knowledge” after 40 years of research. Fortunately the self-serving opinions of documentary filmmakers like Padilha do not shape the trajectory of science and research.

More than 40 years after Dr. Neel’s University of Michigan team collected vials of Yanomamö blood (during expeditions that ranged from 1966 through 1971), Brazil has requested the blood taken from Brazilian Yanomamö to be sent back because there was no informed consent when it was taken. Thoughts?

Chagnon: We took those samples 40 years ago and informed consent procedures have radically changed since then. It’s interesting because the Venezuelan Yanomamö aren’t requesting the samples back. Their attitude is ‘why don’t we just let the scientists keep them—it might just save us from future diseases?’ The people who have gotten the Yanomamö roiled up over this in Brazil should also advise the Yanomamö that we are all together in this world community and medical scientists who collect a blood sample are not necessarily able to produce a ‘cure’ for a specific ailment on demand. This kind of advice quickly leads to suspicion of the very medical people who want to help them, threatens worldwide vaccination programs in the underdeveloped world, and depresses well-intended medical research interest in the vulnerable populations in these areas.

Elizabeth Edwards is managing editor of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. [email protected]

Further Reading:

"Covering Up the Yanomamo Massacre," Napoleon Chagnon, OP-ED The New York Times, October 23, 1993

"The Fierce People, the Wages of Anthropological Incorrectness," John Miller, National Review, November 20, 2000

A summary of "Researchers to Return Blood Samples to the Yanomamö," Science magazine, June 4, 2010

A summary of "Chagnon Critics Overstepped Bounds, Historian Says," Science magazine, December 11, 2009

A summary of "Last Word on Eld Dorado," Science magazine, July 19, 2002.

Find much more about Dr. Napoleon Chagnon and the Yanomamö at sciencemag.org, search "Chagnon".

More on Dr. Napoleon Chagnon:

"Nap’s contributions are not just to sociobiology – they’re contributions to our understanding of human beings. Nap was the first to give a detailed, quantified, and honest appraisal of violence in tribal peoples. His discovery that the men fight over women, even when they have plenty of food and land, refuted the idea that people fight only over physical resources. His discovery that men who had killed had more wives and more children suggests that violent tendencies could have been favored by natural selection. But he documented more than violence – he gave us a detailed (and often humorous) look at their diet, myths, conflict resolution, humor, and personalities. In my own work I’ve cited his observations on, for example, spatial reasoning in tribal people (as in this recent article, just published a couple of months ago):http://pinker.wjh.harvard.edu/articles/papers/PNAS-2010-Pinker-8993-9.pdfAnd, in my book How the Mind Works, their sense of humor and tastes in food."

Steven PinkerHarvard College Professor
Johnstone Family Professor
Department of Psychology
Harvard University 

Article Comments

  • TOM

    HI NAP,

    I JUST WANT TO TELL YOU I MENTIONED YOU ON PAGE 145 IN MY CHAPTER FOOTBALL, PATRIOTISM, WOMEN, AND WAR IN MY RECENTLY PUBLISHED BOOK CHOOSY WOMEN AND CHEATING MEN. –TOM SHELLBERG

    I REMEMBER MANY WONDERFUL CONVERSATIONS WITH YOU AT HBES MEETINGS WHEN WE SMOKED IN BETWEEN SESSIONS