Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: United Press International, GENERAL NEWS, March 4, 2001
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Not the "baddest" guy in the bush


Continuing a long controversy, the American Anthropological Association has established a task force to investigate charges against two eminent scholars. But the chairman emphasized that the task force will not target individuals.

James V. Neel, called the father of human genetics, and Napoleon Chagnon, renowned for his fieldwork among Amazonian Indians, have been charged with malfeasance in the book "Darkness in El Dorado," published last year by W.W. Norton.

The author, Patrick Tierney, accused the two of deliberately starting a deadly measles epidemic among the Yanomomo Indians in 1968 in order to test discredited eugenic theories. Tierney charges Chagnon with a multitude of infractions during the anthropologist's field research over three decades.

Neel, an eminent specialist in internal medicine, passed away on Feb. 1, 2000, in Ann Arbor, Mich., at age 84. He was associated with the University of Michigan's School of Medicine for 39 years. Chagnon, 64, earned his Ph.D. at the university and taught there until 1972. He is retired in the Wolverine State, emeritus professor of anthropology from the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Last fall, a report from the University of Michigan's Anthropology Department and School of Medicine found no basis for Tierney's accusations. In November, the prestigious National Academy of Sciences disputed Tierney's characterizations of Neel's work on the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission in Japan after World War II.

Most of Tierney's accusations concern Chagnon. These include intrigues with non-native Venezuelans and alleged misbehavior at this obscure village or that at one time or another. Such charges are difficult to confirm or refute, and Chagnon has denied wrongdoing.

The American Anthropological Association, in its annual meeting last November in San Francisco, devoted two days of discussion to the controversy. On Feb. 4, its Executive Board launched a formal inquiry into the allegations by creating the El Dorado Task Force made up of five AAA members appointed by association President Louise Lamphere of the University of New Mexico. Past AAA president Jane Hill, of the University of Arizona, heads the group.

"Our goal is to set up the committee, collaborate with people in South America, and try to react in a way that a responsible profession would to this kind of situation," Hill told United Press International in a phone interview Sunday.

At present, the task force has two definite members, Hill said. University of Michigan anthropologist Fernando Coronil is in Venezuela extending an offer of cooperation with officials there, she said. The second confirmed member is Joe Watkins, a Native American archeologist and museum curator at the University of Oklahoma. Watkins specializes in "indigenous affairs," Hill told UPI.

Hill, a linguist, is negotiating with two other potential task force members. One is a cultural anthropologist, and the other is a biological anthropologist, so all four major subgroups of the discipline -- cultural anthropology, biological anthropology, archaeology and linguistics -- are represented. "We very much wanted someone on the human genetics side to deal with the technical details there," Hill said.

She said that because of the book's many allegations, the committee is going to have to set some priorities as to which are more significant.

"Our goal is not to go after individuals," she said. "We're all human; we all make mistakes. We also recognize that the politics of the whole situation are extremely complex.

"But we do feel that it's absolutely essential that the AAA not ignore the situation." Hill said that "Darkness in El Dorado" is a serious book, and Tierney is a serious person. "We don't want to have to look people in the eye 20 years from now and say we did nothing to examine our own practices. We owe it to indigenous peoples all over the world to make sure that we get it right next time."

Chagnon is noted for his strong personality, and Hill agreed that any such person who spends as much time in the field as he has will offend some people.

"Clearly, I'm sure if you go down to the area where I did my work, you are going to be able to find people who will say very bad things about me for some slight that I administered that I didn't even know I was doing," she said.

"But Chagnon's practice, since it has been called into question, makes for something to learn from, just as we can learn from any anthropologist's field experience. I don't think anybody on the committee is starting out with the idea that Chagnon is a "badder" guy than anyone else in the field. That's for sure."