Napoleon Chagnon studied the Yanomamö people for decades.
Napoleon Chagnon studied the Yanomamö people for decades. apomares/Getty Images

Napoleon Chagnon, a towering figure in the field of anthropology, has died, and he leaves behind not just a legacy in science, but a valuable case study in what happens when activists and the media spread misinformation.

Chagnon, who passed away at the age of 81 earlier this month, is best known for his work with the Yanomamö people of the Amazon, whom he studied and lived with for various periods from the 1960s to the 1990s. But his story got even more fascinating—and troubling—after he retired.

Chagnon, a pioneer in his field, portrayed the Yanomamö as a violent people: the men engaged in constant warfare, kidnapping, and rape. The more murderous the men were, according to Chagnon, the more children they had and the more successful they were, at least from an evolutionary perspective. Almost half of Yanomami men participated in killings, and a quarter were the victims of murder and warfare themselves. His work was a repudiation of what he saw as the myth of the “noble savage,” which romanticized the idea that humans, when uncorrupted by civilization, are inherently peaceful and good.

Chagnon became famous for his work, especially after the publication of Yanomamö: The Fierce People, his 1968 ethnography that sold nearly a million copies and became standard reading in anthropology classes all over the world. But Chagnon was not without his detractors. There was, and still is, a fierce battle in anthropology that can be simplified as science versus constructivism, or realism versus postmodernism.

In the former camp, you had people like Chagnon, who believe that biological explanations of behavior are just as important as social and cultural explanations. In the latter camp, you had Margaret Mead, who favored cultural explanations over biological ones. Any academic worth his or her PhD (including both Chagnon and Mead) would acknowledge that both are important in human development. But this division is so contentious that university departments have split because of it.

But no sort of intra-discipline university drama compares to what happened after the New Yorker got involved.

In October 2000, just after Chagnon retired, the New Yorker published an article called “The Fierce Anthropologist,” which was an excerpt from book by a little-known journalist and human rights activist named Patrick Tierney. Tierney had also spent time with the Yanomamö in South America, and his article and his book (which was called Darkness in El Dorado) accused both Chagnon and his colleague James Neel (who died before the book’s publication) of not just misrepresenting Yanomamö behavior and the level of violence in their society, but of committing serious crimes against their own research subjects. He wrote that Neel and Chagnon gave the Yanomami weapons to see if this would increase violence within the tribes and knowingly exacerbated a deadly measles epidemic as a sort of eugenics experiment. Tierney wrote that this killed 10 to 15 percent of the population, and the New Yorker published it.

At the time Tierney’s article and book were published, Washington State University professor Ed Hagen was a graduate student in anthropology at the University of California—Santa Barbara, where Napoleon Chagnon had been his master’s advisor. He first learned about Tierney's accusations against Chagnon through an email that long-time Chagnon critics Terence Turner and Leslie Sponsel sent out to researchers in the field a month before the article’s release.

Their email, which was sent to the leadership of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), began: “In its scale, ramifications, and sheer criminality and corruption, it is unparalleled in the history of anthropology.” The two then detailed some of Tierney’s allegations—including that Chagnon and Neel exposed the Yanamomi to measles and gave them flawed vaccines—and included a reference to Nazi eugenics. They called the scandal “a real anthropological heart of darkness beyond the imagining of even a Joseph [sic] Conrad (though not, perhaps a Josef Mengele).”

The implication was clear: Chagnon wasn’t just a fraud; he was a killer.

An email like that doesn’t stay secret for long, and it passed from college to college and colleague to colleague, soon reaching into Ed Hagen’s inbox.

“It spread like wildfire,” Hagen told me in an interview. “My initial reaction was that I really needed to know if there was any truth. Chagnon had been my advisor but he was also a friend, so finding out the truth was as much a personal quest as a professional one.”

Hagen, who had done fieldwork with the Yanomami himself, got a galley of Tierney’s book and started combing through the citations along with a couple of colleagues from UCSB. They found problems immediately. “I had to go to the UCLA library. I was deep in the stacks Xeroxing journal articles from the 1950s and 1960s and it became apparent very, very quickly that Tierney had selectively misquoted pieces of these articles and that the conclusions were uniformly quite the opposite of what he said. None of his accusations could possibly be true.” Further research, including from Neel’s own archives, revealed that not only had Chagnon and Neel not withheld medical treatment to the Yanomami, they had administered proven, safe measles vaccinations themselves.

Hagen says that within a week or two, they uncovered massive holes in Tierney’s text—and they weren’t alone. Others in the field were doing similar sleuthing and coming to similar conclusions. He says a number of Chagnon’s most prominent allies reached out to the book's publisher (WW Norton), the New Yorker, and people they knew to be reviewing the book, and urged them to denounce it. This, Hagen told me, was a mistake.

“In retrospect,” he said, “this was really dumb. It made it sound like we were trying to hide something. We really should have gone in the exact opposite direction and pushed for rapid publication. It would have shown we weren’t trying to cover it up and it would have been much easier for us to make our case.”

Indeed, pushing for the book’s denunciation before it was published made one reviewer, John Horgan, review Darkness in El Dorado in a more, not less, favorable light. After Chagnon died, Horgan wrote: “I was still working on my review of Darkness when I received emails from five prominent scholars: Edward Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Daniel Dennett and Marc Hauser. Although each wrote separately, the emails were obviously coordinated. They had learned (none said how, although I suspected via a friend with whom I discussed my review) that I was reviewing Darkness for the Times. Warning that a positive review might ruin my career, the group urged me either to denounce Darkness or to withdraw as a reviewer. … I was so disturbed by the pressure from Dawkins et al—who seemed to be defending not Chagnon per se but the sociobiology paradigm—that I ended up making my review of Darkness more positive. I wanted Darkness to get a hearing. After all, Tierney leveled what I found to be credible accusations against not only Chagnon but also other scientists and journalists.”

The book certainly got a hearing. The leadership of the AAA convened a task force on Napoleon Chagnon and Darkness in El Dorado, and a year and a half after the New Yorker article came out, issued their findings, which included unsubstantiated allegations that Chagnon had offered to pay the Yanomamö to kill each other. Ultimately, the task force concluded that Tierney's claims that Chagnon and Neel exacerbated a measles outbreak were unsupported, but they also said that Chagnon had misrepresented the Yanomamö.

A few years later, in June 2005, they took it back: The membership for the AAA voted to rescind the task force's findings. This—along with Alice Dreger’s 2015 book Galileo’s Middle Finger, which is how I first learned of this story—helped redeem Napoleon Chagnon’s reputation.

Still, the impact on Chagnon and his family was massive.

“It was a huge blow,” says Hagen, who maintained steady contact with Chagnon until his death. “He was just very much looking forward to enjoying his retirement and to have this explode right at that point in his life was very painful.” Alice Dreger observed the same, writing that when she interviewed Chagnon about this experience, he had a tendency to start crying. This wasn’t exactly what she expected from the hardened scientist who’d spent much of his life among the “fierce people” of the jungle, but, she wrote, "this shit is hard on a person, and it was understandable someone might get a little emotional."

Of course, the work Chagnon's colleagues and friends did to thoroughly fact-check his case, which the New Yorker and WW Norton failed to do, helped immensely. “He was really encouraged by how his close colleagues really came to his defense, and when I did see him in later years, he seemed like he was doing pretty well,” Hagen told me.

As for why Patrick Tierney would publish these falsehoods, we’re left to speculate. He’s mostly disappeared from public view and could not be reached for comment. There are, however, some theories. In her thorough accounting of this saga, Dreger wrote of Tierney's connections with Roman Catholic priests and missionaries in the Amazon, a group Chagnon had major disagreements with. Indeed, most of the first-person interviews in Tierney’s book were with members of the Salesians of Don Bosco, a Catholic institute Chagnon was often at odds with.

Hagen finds this hypothesis credible. He says Darkness in El Dorado is “very much the Roman Catholic case against Chagnon.” And as for why prominent anthropologists like Turner and Sponsel would support Tierney despite the overwhelming evidence that his research and conclusions were flawed, Hagen says he’s wondered about this for years.

“The conflict between Chagnon, who is very much on the scientific side, and folks like Turner and Sponsel, who are very much on the constructivist side, really reflects the broader state of affairs in anthropology, especially back in the '80s and '90s. And then Chagnon doubles down, saying there is a biological basis to aggression, and it's tied in with sex, so you've got every hot button issue tied up into one character in Napoleon Chagnon. And he, personally, was a difficult guy to get along with. He could be really great one minute and very irascible the next.”

He’s got another hypothesis as well: class. Chagnon, the second of 12 children, was the son of an undertaker. He was working-class, and even after he rose through the ranks of academia, he had no desire to adopt the symbols of his new status.

“Chagnon just gives off—gave off, I should say—all these cues of being a blue-collar guy,” Hagen told me. “He drinks a lot of beer, smokes cigarettes. And so even though he was a brilliant guy, he didn't really adopt any of the sort of liberal, elite trappings you might expect. In my experience, Americans tend to be kind of oblivious to class conflict but it seemed very apparent.”

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When I asked what Chagnon was like before all this started, Hagen told me about the first time they met: “I'd just arrived at grad school and I finally found his office late in the evening. Chagnon opens the door and he's got these huge hunting dogs in his office just barking like crazy, and he invites me in and pulls out a 12-pack of Miller—'the good stuff,’ as he called it. After several hours of drinking and talking, I have to say, it was probably one of the best, most intellectual and stimulating conversations I've ever had. But as I stumbled out of his office several hours later, I realized this was going to be a wild ride. And it was.”

Napoleon Chagnon died on September 21 in Traverse City, Michigan. He is survived by his wife Carlene, his daughter Lisa, and his son Darius, all of whom he brought on his travels to the Amazon.

The New Yorker never apologized for publishing Tierney's work. His article is still available on their website.