Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: CNN, Friday, October 2, 2000
Source URL (Archive.org): http://cnn.ch/2000/books/news/10/02/anthro.controversy/

New book, article accuses scientists of disrupting Yanomami tribes

(CNN) -- The Amazon's Yanomami Indians were the victims of a measles epidemic caused by U.S. scientists in the late 1960s, and were later misrepresented to the global community as an intensely violent people, an article in the most recent edition of The New Yorker magazine claims.

Investigative journalist Patrick Tierney wrote the piece for the magazine. It's based on his book, "Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon," which is being published by W.W. Norton in November.

Tierney, a visiting anthropology scholar at Pittsburgh University, points the finger at anthropologists Napoleon Chagnon and his mentor James Neel, who spent years studying the Yanomami tribes in Brazil and Venezuela under funding by the Atomic Energy Commission. Tierney focuses on the scientists' 1968 expedition, during which time they provided the Yanomami with Edmonston B, a measles vaccination that has since been discontinued.

Patrick Tierney alleges in his book, "Darkness in El Dorado" that renowned anthropologists may have intentionally introduced the measles to the Yanomami tribespeople to test their evolution theories

Though the scientists claim they gave the vaccinations to protect the Yanomami, Tierney says that over a three-month period following the vaccinations, "the worst epidemic in the Yanomami's history broke out," he writes in The New Yorker. He also states that his research of the expedition suggests that the epidemic "closely tracked" the course of the mission.

According to Tierney, "between 15 and 20 percent of the Yanomami who contracted measles died in the epidemic." The population of the Yanomami tribe now stands at about 10,000, down from 20,000 at the time of the expedition.

In the most inflammatory accusation of the book and article, Tierney theorizes that Neel, a former University of Michigan geneticist who died in February, knew the effects that the vaccine might have, and administered it anyway to test his controversial eugenics theory -- an only-the-strong-survive concept in which a "leadership gene" in certain people would generate resistance to disease.

In other words, according to Tierney, Neel might have conducted a human experiment that killed hundreds of Yanomami Indians, who are considered the closest living example of Stone Age human society.

Whirlwind of controversy

The article and book have caused a whirlwind of controversy in the anthropological community. Two weeks ago, anthropologists Terence Turner of Cornell University and Leslie Sponsel of University of Hawaii sent an open letter to the American Anthropological Association and several hundred email recipients.

The letter stated that "Darkness in El Dorado" would uncover the scandal, which they called "unparalleled in the history of Anthropology."

Heated debates have ensued, with many scientists rushing to defend Neel and Chagnon. Susan Lindee, a historian of science at University of Pennsylvania, says Neel's field notes of the expedition do not support the book's claims.

For instance, according to Lindee, Neel's records and audiotapes of the expedition indicate that Neel and Chagnon were caught by surprise by the epidemic. Neel's records also include permission from the Venezuelan government to administer the vaccinations, and that he also gave the Yanomami tribes antibiotics to stop the epidemic.

"It we wish to adopt an 'X-Files' theory of history, we could propose that (Neel) planted these records," Lindee said.

Chagnon is also targeted in the book on another front -- that his research with the Yanomami was often staged, and therefore unreliable. Chagnon, who is perhaps the best-known anthropologist in America, is the author of "Yanomamo: The Fierce People" and the co-creator of a series of documentaries on Yanomami village life.

His work, which is used extensively in anthropology education, includes reports of the Yanomami as a violent people that engage in deadly ax fights, punching contests and hallucinogenic ceremonies.

But Tierney, in his book, notes that Timothy Asch, the filmmaker who worked with Chagnon on his documentaries, later wrote an article claiming Chagnon would become "bitter" if Asch tried to film non-aggressive behavior or activities involving females in the tribes.

Staged for film

Tierney also says certain events -- like Chagnon's entrance into a Yanomami village -- were staged for film, and that Chagnon rewarded natives with steel machetes and cooking pots if they displayed violent behavior. This led to more violence that would have never happened had Chagnon not meddled with tribe affairs, Tierney says.

Tierney believes that portraying the Yanomami as a murderous people to scientists and students worldwide was "greatly exaggerated." Tierney uses his own 10-year study of the Yanomami to conclude, "What I found was sharply at odds with what Chagnon described."

Tierney also quotes other scientists, including Kenneth Good, who lived with among Yanomami for 12 years. Good said Chagnon is "a hit-and-run anthropologist who comes into villages with armloads of machetes to purchase cooperation for his research. Unfortunately, he creates conflict and division wherever he goes."

Chagnon, who retired this year from the University of California at Santa Barbara, has only responded to Tierney's book and article, and the open letter sent to the AAA by Turner and Sponsel, by posting on an Internet message board: "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."

"Darkness in El Dorado" publisher W.W. Norton, meantime, is billing the book as "an explosive account of how ruthless journalists, self-serving anthropologists, and obsessed scientists placed one of the Amazon basin's oldest tribes on the cusp of extinction."