More Secrets of the Tribe – Yanomamö

This is another cut at one of the more interesting conflicts in contemporary anthropology.  Much has been written; Chagnon is often required reading for cultural anthropology 101


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Secrets of the Tribe

  1. John Homiak

Article first published online: 19 MAR 2012

DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1433.2011.01410.x

American Anthropologist

Volume 114, Issue 1, pages 150–152, March 2012, Abstract

Secrets of the Tribe . Jose Padilha , dir. 98 min . Watertown , MA : Documentary Educational Resources , 2010 .

Eleven years ago the publication of Patrick Tierney’s Darkness in El Dorado (2000) precipitated a scandalous indictment of anthropological practice in the Venezuelan Amazon. Stated briefly, Tierney argued that warfare and violence among the Yanomami was largely contact induced by anthropologists and other scientists who introduced large quantities of steel trade goods (e.g., machetes, axes, fishhooks, and pots) into Yanomami villages as a means of procuring data relevant to their biomedical investigations. Tierney’s more far-reaching claim, however, focused on the implications of the Atomic Energy Commission’s long-term funding of the Yanomami project, including a now-infamous expedition to Yanomami territory in 1968. As an isolated group that had never experienced an incidence of epidemic disease, they were prized as an indispensable control group for the study of genetic mutations caused by exposure to radiation and chemical or biological agents. Headed by James V. Neel, the celebrated geneticist who headed the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission in Hiroshima, and Napoleon Chagnon, the anthropologist who brokered access to various remote Yanaomani villages, the expedition members (some of whom may themselves have been sick) collected blood and tissue samples and vaccinated several groups of Yanomami in advance of a measles outbreak among the southern Yanomami. The fact that some 200 Yanomami subsequently died and that standards of informed consent then in place were ignored in these backwaters of the Amazon has raised a host of ethical issues about the nature of cultural contact with indigenous people. The Yanomani who survived this episode have not forgotten the impacts on them, nor have members of the anthropological “tribe” who were involved or who witnessed the barrage of incriminations and recriminations associated with the matter.

This charged terrain is now revisited by Brazilian filmmaker José Padilha in Secrets of the Tribe, a film that provokes ethical and methodological questions about encounters with indigenous peoples and about the uneasy positioning of anthropology between science and the humanities. In a 21st-century account of “anthropology on trial,” Padilha tackles Chagnon’s representation of the Yanomami as “the fierce people”; contentious debate over the varied materialist, cultural, and biological determinants of Yanomami warfare; anthropological ethics and human rights abuses; and the negative impact that all of this has had on the Yanomami themselves. These issues and debates may be public secrets within the relatively parochial sphere of the discipline, but here they are served up as grist for a broader television audience. If ever there existed the notion that anthropologists are a group of innocuous and dispassionate individuals interested largely in detached analysis about non-Western cultures, Padilha demolishes it. In so doing, he provides viewers with a glimpse into how professional egos, jealousies, and politics have shaped the reproduction of knowledge about what was, until recently, one of the last isolated and pristine indigenous tribes on the planet. Conflict sells, and Padilha understands the significance of this particular story.

Padilha has successfully turned the tables on anthropologists—making them the subjects of his story and giving the Yanomami the opportunity to “talk back” to their erstwhile interrogators. One senses that he has spent considerable time in acquiring familiarity with the issues at hand. He has certainly had an abundance of documentary materials with which to work. This includes recently shot interview materials with the protagonists to this debate and with the Yanomami themselves as well as archival footage from the Asch–Chagnon film corpus.

His cast of characters provides more pathos and drama than any filmmaker could hope for. There is Chagnon, famously self-celebrating, whose controversial field methods involved exploiting existing animosities within and between Yanomami groups and violating their most significant cultural taboo to acquire data for “science.” There is Kenneth Good, Chagnon’s one-time student who acrimoniously broke with him at the end of his Yanomami fieldwork in the mid-seventies, only to ally himself with Marvin Harris, one of Chagnon’s major critics. Himself not free of controversy, Good married an adolescent Yanomami girl and made this crossing of cultural boundaries a major part of a trade publication about his fieldwork, a publication that was transformed into several screenplays. And there is Jacques Lizot, an anthropologist personally selected by Claude Lévi-Strauss to research the Yanomami, who became infamous for assembling a “harem” of adolescent Yanomami boys for his sexual gratification during fieldwork that extended from 1968 through the 1970s. Both Chagnon and Lizot were part of the 1968 expedition, and both have become persona non grata in Yanomami territory. Lizot is taken on by the Yanomami for the humiliation and pain inflicted on them, and at least one Yanomami interviewed by Padilha has vowed to kill Chagnon if he returns. In all of this drama, one senses the double entrendre in the film’s title. If the firestorm of accusations that lies behind the Yanomami having been used in the name of a global project (i.e., genetic population testing) is a scandalous secret, it is one inextricably tied to a breaching of cultural secrets of the Yanomami themselves. These are the unspoken and tabooed names of their dead—the “secrets” of kinship and genealogy that were essential to analyzing the blood samples taken by Neel and Chagnon. Using this turmoil caused by this case, Padilha casts the discipline as an unstable field of alliance and hostility—mimicking the tribal sociology of what has been studied—with professional insults and innuendo replacing the poison arrows of the Yanomami.

Some will question why this film is appearing now, but it is reasonable to think that Padilha’s project would have been impossible sooner. The AAA El Dorado Task Force roiled anthropology. Camps of opinion have formed, positions have become caricatured, and the contending parties—those on the biological wing of the discipline and those centered in cultural–interpretive practice—are now comfortably talking past one another. Statements such as “they have no standards of proof” or “they can’t even agree if reality exists” parry with “how can you go back and check the data—things have changed.” One hopes that the popular audiences at which this film is directed will see more than merely argumentative egos debating arcane points about remote ex-primitives. Here Padilha’s inclusion of Yanomami voices is critical, including subjects of differing ages who had direct contact with Chagnon and Lizot over many years. Their perspectives are coupled with information about the political economy of region, including things like the encroachment and deadly impact of gold miners in Yanomami territory. This enables viewers to assess local impacts on the Yanomami as well as to appreciate that the representations of a people have real political implications for even the most remote groups against the inescapable power and policies of nation states.

Padilha’s film does not—nor can it be expected to—provide viewers with sufficient information to appreciate the interpretive complexities that inform debate over Chagnon’s claims about the relationship between Yanomami aggression and reproductive success, which is the basis for his characterization of them as “the fierce people.” More often than not, sound bites stand in for complex argumentation and personalities for reasoned scholarly content. As such we are afforded but the broad intimations of Chagnon’s debates with Harris, Good, and Brian Ferguson regarding the materialist (i.e., protein scarcity, capacity of hunting territories, steel trade goods), cultural (revenge killing, reciprocity), or biological (selection for aggression, reproductive success) determinants of Yanomami warfare (see Chagnon 1988; Ferguson 2004, 2010). Neither can the film give uninitiated viewers the wherewithal to grasp the complexities associated with ethnographic knowledge (e.g., the contested interpretations that have been applied to the Yanomami term unokai, their term for “killers”[see Ferguson 2010]) nor to understand the ambiguity often associated with the interpretation of anthropological data. But Padilha’s skillful engagement with the broad sweep of this controversy and with the personalities involved commands the viewer’s attention with a sense of unfolding expectation. The debate he unfolds makes us want to understand more about the actual details and substance of the arguments engaged. This, in my view, is what is most significant about his film.

It is happily the case the Documentary Educational Resources is distributing this work. As noted, it won’t explain to students all they should know, but I can’t think of a more engaging way to introduce them to issues about methods and ethics in fieldwork, the relative scientific and humanistic aspects of anthropological investigation, and debates about the cultural versus biological determinants of behavior.

Full disclosure: Homiak is the Director of the Anthropology Collections and Archives Program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. This program is the repository for the Asch–Chagnon Yanomami films and associated archival materials. These were records were used by Padilha and were also accessed during the AAA El Dorado Task Force investigation. Homiak played no role in either project.


  • Chagnon, Napoleon 1992 Yanomamo: The Last Days of Eden. New York : Harcourt, Brace, Janovich.
  • Ferguson, Brian 1995 Yanomami Warfare: A Political History. Sante Fe , NM : School of American Research Press.
  • 2001 Materialist, Cultural, and Biological Theories of Why Yanomami Make War. Anthropological Theory 1(1):99–116.
  • Tierney, Patrick 2000 Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon. New York : W. W. Norton.

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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