Secrets of the Tribe: BBC Yanomami Documentary

Napoleon Chagnon is again the focus of the storm of discontent within the American Anthropological Association.  Which motivates societies more, resources (food), reproduction (sex), population, or a combination?  How should anthropological research be conducted?  Is anthropology a science that measures, uses the scientific method to create a body of research, or should anthropologists be defenders of cultures, languages, and people? – carlos

Documentary Explores Anthropological Controversies

Posted on January 14, 2011 by Richard Bartholomew (

On Monday evening BBC Four broadcast Secrets of the Tribe as part of its Storyvillestrand. The documentary, which was widely reviewed when it came out last year, explores various controversies and ethical scandals around anthropologists who have worked with the Yanomami people in the Amazon basin – these range from feuds over method and the interpretation of data through to the sexual abuse of minors and accusations of involvement with  fatal medical experiments funded by the Atomic Energy Commission.

Much of the programme focuses in particular on Napoleon Chagnon, a Hemingway-like character who has been controversial for some time: in 2000 a journalist named Patrick Tierney published a book that accused him of having been part of a project that had spread disease among the Yanomami, and other anthropologists have rejected his characterisation of the Yanomami as a fierce warrior people. Chagnon in turn is scathing of his critics, accusing them of idealising and misrepresenting the Yanomami, and of ignoring the role of biology; although he may be isolated among anthropologists, he now has a new audience with sociobiologists, and we’re shown footage from an event in Chagnon’s honour held by the Human Behavior and Evolution Society.


About carlos

I'm a curious person, of reasonable intellect, "on the beach" (retired) and enjoying my interest in anthropology, language, civil rights, and a few other areas. I've been a hippie/student/aerospace tech writer in the '60s, a witness to the Portuguese revolution in the ‘70s, a defense test engineer and witness to the Guatemalan genocide in the '80s, and a network engineer for an ISP in the '90s. Now I’m a student and commentator until my time is up. I've spent time under the spell of the Mesoamerican pyramids and the sweet sound of the Portuguese language. I've lived in Europe, traveled in Brazil, Central America, Iceland, New Zealand, and other places. My preferred mode of travel is with a backpack and I eat (almost) anything local. Somehow, many of the countries I have been to have had civil unrest (for which I was not responsible). I'm open to correspond with anyone who might share my liberal, humanist interests. I live in San Buenaventura, California.
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