Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: The Statesman (India), October 8, 2000
Source URL: none

Literary Debate

A new book alleges that U.S. scientists caused a measles outbreak among the Yanomami tribe

U.S. scientists sparked a measles epidemic that killed "perhaps thousands" of Amazon Indians, according to a not-yet published book that has already sparked a firestorm of controversy on the Internet. Patrick Tierney's Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon, presents evidence that scientists during a 1968 expedition inoculated Yanomami Indians against measles and possibly contributed to an epidemic of the disease that killed "hundreds, perhaps thousands" of the isolated tribe in a remote region of Venezuela. The expedition was funded by the former Atomic Energy Commission and led by the late geneticist James Neel of the University of Michigan and then-University of California at Santa Barbara anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon.

At the time the expedition arrived in the Amazon Basin to study the relatively isolated Yanomami, the tribe's population numbered around 20,000. It is now estimated closer to 10,000. Tierney suggests that Neel's inoculating the Yanomami actually gave some of them measles and they infected others. But medical scientists said such a thing has never been shown before. The Edmonston B measles vaccine did have side-effects and eventually was withdrawn from the market in the early 1970s, but was a standard treatment in 1968. The epidemic charge is the most explosive in the book, which also accuses the now-retired Chagnon of debauched behaviour.

The sedate world of anthropology has been turned upside down by reports of the book's scandalous accusations, which have sparked a rash of e-mails, accusations and papers that are whipping around the World Wide Web. One of Chagnon's critics and one of the few people to have actually read the book, Professor Thomas Headland of the Summer Institute of Sociology in Dallas, has his doubts about Tierney's book. "There is no love lost between Chagnon and me. He has criticised me in print, and I him," Headland said. "But I don't believe, after reading Tierney's book, that Chagnon is guilty of genocide, or that he purposely helped introduce and spread measles into the Yanomami population.... I don't believe that Chagnon 'demanded that villagers bring him girls for sex...'"

Chagnon declined comment, but posted a statement on the Web (http:/www.anth. ucsb.edu/chagnon.html), blaming the turmoil on "the extremely offensive document focusing on allegations made in the book ... by cultural anthropologists Terence Turner and Leslie Sponsel is full of accusations that have no factual foundation." Turner, a Cornell University professor, and University of Hawaii professor Sponsel's electronic memo repeated Tierney's allegations, warned of a scandal and was sent around the Web. "It was a confidential memo sent to three people - the president of the American Anthropological Association, the president-elect and the chairman of the association's human rights committee," says Turner, adding "it was very unprofessional for someone to pirate that memo and send it to a million people around the world." Academics quickly lined up on both sides. University of Pennsylvania historian Susan Lindee, who wrote a book about Neel and his efforts to study radiation's effect on the Japanese after the Second World War, actually looked at the geneticist's field notes from the 1968 expedition. "He actually brought with him 2,000 doses of vaccine. He brought gammaglobulin and penicillin," she said, adding Neel had Venezuelan government permission and had consulted with the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention to learn how to give the drugs before the January 1968 trip.

"Tierney is right in the sense that the Yanomami have been treated in a grotesque manner by many different groups, scientists, journalists, miners, government and military officials ... who have grievously damaged their health, their environment and their way of life," Lindee said. The book's publication date has been moved from Oct. 1 to to Nov. 16, which coincides with the American Anthropological Association's annual meeting in San Francisco. The AAA has already posted on its Web site, (www.aaanet.org/press/ eldorado.htm), a statement about the book which is to be excerpted in next week's New Yorker magazine. And Amazon.com says the 499-page W.W. Norton book, with 1,599 footnotes, is already ranked 279 in sales.