Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: The Ottawa Citizen, NEWS, Pg. A11, November 30, 2000
Source URL: none

Science decimated Amazon tribe: author: Patrick Tierney has stirred controversy in his book on the Yanomami, claiming anthropologists infected the tribe with a deadly vaccine. Anjana Ahuja reports.

Anjana Ahuja

The Times of London

The claims were nothing short of explosive. In the 60s, two anthropologists ventured deep into the Amazon to meet a previously unknown tribe, the Yanomami.

The tribe's gift to the visitors would be the priceless opportunity to observe a people untouched by modern life. In return, one of the anthropologists would bring death and destruction in the shape of a virulent measles vaccine that would wipe out hundreds of their hosts.

This most chilling of scenarios is the subject of a book that has consumed the anthropology profession for almost two months. Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon took Patrick Tierney 10 years to write, and points an accusing finger at some of the most famous names in the anthropology community. Published in the U.S., it has unleashed a spate of claims about the malignant intent of those who first brought the Yanomami to international attention.

However, the claims are being vigorously disputed. One of the alleged villains has hit back (the other died recently) and engaged a lawyer.

The anthropological association has set up a task force to investigate Mr. Tierney's claims; its ethics committee will review how social anthropologists go about their business; another committee will investigate how tribes in South America can be protected from exploitation.

The most serious allegation centres on the deaths of hundreds of Yanomami from measles in the late 60s. The chief culprit, Mr. Tierney claims, is the late James Neel, a geneticist who visited the Yanomami in Venezuela in 1968.

In his possession were 2,000 doses of a measles vaccine called Edmonston B. What Mr. Neel intended to do with these vaccines is the nub of the controversy. Mr. Tierney suggests that the geneticist believed in eugenics and wanted to test his idea that an isolated group of people would have superior genes to those found in the melting pot of other cultures, and would therefore be able to resist an imported disease.

If people died, the remaining individuals would be those with innate resistance and therefore the Yanomami stock would improve. Mr. Tierney adds that the spread of measles in the remote area mirrors the movements of Mr. Neel on his expedition, and that Mr. Neel refused medical help to the dying.

This suggestion has horrified some, who say that Mr. Neel had brought the vaccines along because missionaries had already informed him that a measles outbreak was imminent (a letter found among Mr. Neel's papers confirms this).

Also, medical experts believe that Edmonston B is incapable of causing measles, although it has nasty side-effects such as high fever. The only people to die from receiving the vaccine, says Dr. Samuel Katz, its co-developer, were a handful of leukemia sufferers. The vaccine was withdrawn from use in the 1970s.

The University of Michigan, where Mr. Neel worked, has rebutted the accusation that he denied medical care to his hosts. The normal death rate from untreated measles is around one in three, whereas the outbreak among the Yanomami claimed one in 11 lives.

The image of Mr. Neel as a eugenicist has been refuted; Nancy Cantor, the provost of the university, described the conduct of Mr. Neel and his co-workers as "humane, compassionate and medically appropriate." She adds: "We believe that Tierney did not consult important original source material that was readily available for review."

Hilary Callan, the director of the Royal Anthropological Institute in London, says the moral wrangle over how science studies other cultures will never go away. The debate is likely to intensify with the hunt for "pure" gene pools to aid the hunt for the causes of genetic diseases.