Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: The Associated Press, Domestic News, September 28, 2000
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New Book Alleges Deadly Experiments on South American Tribe

By Matt Crenson, AP National Writer

A new book alleging that U.S. scientists deliberately started a deadly measles epidemic among South America's Yanomami Indians in 1968 has caused an uproar among anthropologists.

Investigative journalist Patrick Tierney's "Darkness in El Dorado" charges that hundreds or thousands of Yanomami Indians died in experiments meant to test the controversial eugenics theories of James V. Neel, a University of Michigan geneticist who passed away himself in February.

The book was originally scheduled for release Sunday, but publisher W.W. Norton delayed publication until November so the author could add material.

Few people have actually seen the book, which will be excerpted in the Oct. 9 issue of The New Yorker. But pre-publication copies sent to anthropologists have generated a bitter academic war waged by e-mail.

Anthropologists Terence Turner of Cornell University and Leslie Sponsel of the University of Hawaii initiated the furor with a message to the American Anthropological Association, warning of an "impending scandal" that would be "unparalleled in the history of anthropology."

Since then the association has issued a lengthy statement about its ethical rules governing research on indigenous people, and members of Neel's 1968 expedition have attempted to defend their actions.

"Tierney, Turner and Sponsel have repeatedly accused me of some of these things in the past, both in print and verbally in public anthropology meetings. This is just a more elaborate extension of their long vendetta against me," University of California-Santa Barbara anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon wrote in a message posted on the Internet last week.

W.W. Norton bills the book as an account of decades of misconduct by scientists and journalists working among the Yanomami, an indigenous tribe that lives in the Amazon rainforest in Venezuela and Brazil.

Anthropologists consider the Yanomami one of the most isolated indigenous groups remaining in the modern times and the best remaining example of Stone Age human society.

In his work, Chagnon portrays the Yanomami as violent and prone to constant warfare. He has been accused before of instigating much of the violence he observed, and Tierney's book reportedly expands on those allegations.

Early in 1968, geneticist Neel and his colleagues inoculated hundreds of Yanomami with an early measles vaccine called Edmonston B. Their 1970 account of the inoculation program in the American Journal of Epidemiology says that the shots were an attempt to stop an epidemic that had been going on for months.

But Tierney charges in his book that in isolated populations that had never been exposed to measles, the shots would actually generate the disease. He theorizes that Neel sought to stimulate an epidemic to test his theory that a "leadership gene" would generate resistance to disease in some powerful males of the tribe.

Susan Lindee, a University of Pennsylvania historian of science, has studied Neel's field notes of the 1968 expedition and said they do not support the book's allegations.

Neel's papers show that he had permission from the Venezuelan government to administer the shots, and that he also provided antibiotics in an attempt to stop the disease.

"If we wish to adopt an 'X-Files' theory of history, we could propose that he planted these records," Lindee wryly concluded.

Samuel Katz, a Duke University professor emeritus who developed the Edmonston B vaccine, said that as it is being portrayed, Tierney's scenario wouldn't even work.

"It was given to something like 18 million children around the world," Katz said. "It never caused any of the troubles that this man is accused of."

The vaccine can cause mild measles-like symptoms, Katz said, but has been implicated in only three deaths. In those cases, leukemia or AIDS had already weakened the patients' immune systems.