Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

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Statement regarding the book, "Darkness in El Dorado"

The University of Michigan

News and Information Services
News Release

412 Maynard
Ann Arbor, Michigan

October 31, 2000

ANN ARBOR---Following is a statement from University of Michigan Provost Nancy Cantor on the e-mail discussion regarding the book, "Darkness in El Dorado," by Patrick Tierney, forthcoming from W.W. Norton & Co. The supporting research was conducted by the offices of the Executive Vice President for Medical Affairs, Vice President for Research, and General Counsel, and by the Medical School and Department of Anthropology.

We have requested a pre-publication copy of the book from the publisher, but so far have not been able to obtain the manuscript. We are responding only to the allegations outlined in an e-mail message from two reviewers, Terry Turner of Cornell University and Leslie Sponsel of the University of Hawaii. The e-mail makes reference to the work of James V. Neel, M.D., and Napoleon Chagnon, Ph.D., with the Yanomama of Venezuela. Dr. Neel died last February.

The University takes allegations of impropriety seriously and we have begun an internal inquiry. In the short time we have been engaged in this review, we have already found materials directly contradicting a number of the claims cited in the e-mail message regarding Dr. Neel and Dr. Chagnon. If the e-mail message correctly characterizes what is in "Darkness in El Dorado," there may be other erroneous information that inaccurately portrays the research.

We believe that Mr. Tierney has not consulted important original source material that was readily available for review. Analysis of that material and other material from persons familiar with the expeditions, the measles outbreak and the measles vaccine refutes the allegations.

Below are listed some of the allegations and a description of our initial findings.

Allegations, particularly those involving academic work of highly distinguished scholars in their field, require a fair and proper peer review -- not a sensationalized public discussion in the headlines and over the Internet.

As soon as we can obtain a copy of the book, we will review the actual allegations in the book and the evidence and documentation the author uses as the basis for his claims. We also will be reviewing all of the original source materials we have available to us, including Dr. Neel's own research logs. If upon review of the book we determine it necessary to continue the review process, we will consider additional steps including asking outside experts to evaluate the allegations.

Claim: Improper use of a vaccine initiated and exacerbated a measles epidemic that killed "hundreds, perhaps thousands."

Our findings: The measles outbreak occurred in November 1967. Measles was introduced into the region by a party of Brazilian missionaries before the January 1968 arrival of the Neel expedition. There is substantial evidence of the outbreak existing long before Dr. Neel left for Venezuela, so Dr. Neel could not have been the cause.

Previous studies in 1966 had indicated a substantial absence of measles antibody in the Yanomama. There were some individuals in Villages J and W with antibodies to measles, indicating there had been sporadic prior exposure but many individuals were not protected. Accordingly, in the fall of 1967, in anticipation of the January 1968 expedition, Dr. Neel initiated requests to pharmaceutical companies and obtained 2,000 doses of Edmonston B vaccine plus gamma globulin. He also consulted with a Centers for Disease Control expert on measles on the best way to administer the vaccine.

Upon hearing of the outbreak, Dr. Neel acted quickly and responsibly to stop the spread of the disease. The records show Dr. Neel spent at least two full weeks providing vaccine, antibiotics and medical care as needed. Forty Indians and Brazilians in the immediate area of the noted cases received vaccine and then Dr. Neel initiated an extensive program of immunization throughout the region. One thousand doses were administered by Dr. Neel; the rest were provided to and given by missionaries and medical auxiliaries of the Venezuelan government to "get ahead" of the disease. All doses, except for the original 40, were given with gamma globulin. At that time, administration of vaccine, with or without concomitant gamma globulin, was the accepted and recommended procedure. No death or serious untoward events resulted from use of the vaccine with or without gamma globulin.

Edmonston B vaccine, developed in 1958, was an internationally tested and safe vaccine. Dr. Samuel L. Katz, professor emeritus and chairman of Pediatrics at Duke University Medical School, was the co-developer of the vaccine (with John F. Enders) and he reports that its use was safe and appropriate in this population.

It is claimed that a "fatal" epidemic was "caused" or "greatly exacerbated" by the vaccine. Live attenuated vaccine has never been shown to be transmissible from a recipient to a subsequent contact. Dr. Katz has studied the vaccine in developed and developing nations and never saw any transmission of vaccine to susceptible contacts. Moreover, death as a result of the vaccine is an exceedingly rare event in any population. In fact, Dr. Katz reports that "despite the administration of millions of doses of vaccines to children throughout the world, the only deaths known to have occurred were in several youngsters who were under intense therapy for their leukemia and more recently a young adult with AIDS."

Claim: Refusal of medical care so that Dr. Neel could observe an epidemic.

Our findings: Dr. William Oliver, professor emeritus and chairman of Pediatrics at the University of Michigan Health System, was on several of the expeditions and reports that on every expedition a large quantity of medical supplies was brought in and used to treat the Yanomama. Dr. Neel's basic philosophy was to treat all illnesses before any scientific observations. Each day he would treat any new illnesses before starting the day's planned studies. Any medicines not used would be left with resident missionaries with detailed instructions for use.

In the case of the measles outbreak, the facts are clear. The predicted death rate from untreated measles is 30 percent to 36 percent; the most common complication is bacterial pneumonia. In this outbreak, the death rate was a very low 8.8 percent, showing clearly that proper medical care was provided. The records show that the research team systematically and aggressively treated every patient with all available medications. As indicated above, Dr. Neel stopped his research work so that he could provide medical care to the population.

Claim: Secret radiation experiments were conducted.

Our findings: Dr. Neel did not conduct any radiation studies with the Yanomama. In 1962 and 1968 a physician named Marcel Roche conducted a population study of thyroid uptake in the lowlands of Venezuela and high in the Andes showing that at very high altitudes there was a uniformly higher thyroid radioiodine uptake. This study used proper doses of radioiodine (I-131). Use of radioiodine was then and remains today a commonly used diagnostic tool to measure pathological conditions including thyroid function.

(See: Riviere, R., Comar, D., Colonomos, M., Desenne, J. and Roche, M. "Iodine Deficiency Without Goiter in Isolated Yanomama Indians: A Preliminary Note". In: Biomedical Challenges Presented by the American Indian. Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization, September 1968, pp 120-123.)

Dr. Neel was well-known for his extensive study on the aftereffects of atomic radiation on survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and their children. A review of Dr. Neel's field journal and daily logs makes it clear that he never conducted any "secret radiation" studies.

Claim: The e-mail suggests that Mr. Tierney documents that Dr. Neel held extreme eugenic theories.

Our findings: Dr. Neel's published works show that he was a critic of eugenics from his graduate student days in the late 1930s. Far from holding "eugenics" positions, Dr. Neel strongly supported maintaining the rich diversity of the entire human gene pool and urged "egalitarian control of population growth" to protect the future of our species. (See: Neel, "Physician to the Gene Pool: Genetic Lessons and Other Stories" New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1994). He championed the view that each individual be able to maximize genetic potential; this is a far cry from eugenic efforts to "improve" the species through reproductive theory and policy. His work with the Yanomama helped them survive the pre-existing measles outbreak and was a humanitarian act by a compassionate physician.

Claim: Dr. Napoleon Chagnon staged the violence in the film called "The Ax Fight," which depicts Yanomami fighting.

Our findings: The director of the film, "The Ax Fight," was Timothy Asch. No documentary film analyst we have consulted believes that any part of "The Ax Fight" film was staged.

Dr. Peter Biella, of the Department of Anthropology at San Francisco State University, has studied this film extensively for several years and observes "that Asch is not alive to defend himself." Biella says, "The film's structure, as I argue in my introduction to the 'Yanomami Interactive CD' (a study of 'The Ax Fight' film), bends over backwards to qualify and reject stereotypic impressions of irrepressible Yanomami violence. The film is about ways that violence is muted, restrained, and non-fatal. Essentially it argues that without police, Yanomami manage to make their system of dispute settlement work pretty well, with nobody in this case getting very hurt." Biella has published transcripts of tape recordings of Chagnon in 1971 in support of his statement that "the 1971 taped evidence confirms that at first Chagnon knew virtually nothing about the origins of the fight." Dr. Biella and a co-author (Dr. Gary Seaman, Director of the Center of Visual Anthropology at the University of Southern California) plan to submit a lengthier analysis of "The Ax Fight" to the American Anthropological Association Newsletter with all the reasons why they believe "The Ax Fight" was not staged. Biella gives several cogent reasons why "the criticism that' The Ax Fight' was staged for the camera strikes me as obviously and manifestly untrue."

Dr. Gregory A. Finnegan of Harvard University has extensive background in visual anthropology. Dr. Finnegan was originally a student of Dr. Timothy Asch (when Asch was teaching at Brandeis University). Finnegan also does not believe "The Ax Fight" film was staged, pointing out that the fight was already in progress when the crewman doing the sound recording was in his first full day among the Yanomami. He adds that the film's dialogue indicates that Chagnon himself was so taken by surprise by the fight that he was initially confused about the reasons for the fighting; at first, he says on camera that he had been told it was over "incest." Only later did Chagnon and Asch discover that the fight grew out of "political tensions in a fissioning lineage."

Dr. Alexander Moore, Chair of the University of Southern California's Department of Anthropology, notes that the television show "Nova" did stage a film of a Yanomami feast, and for that purpose an entire communal long house was built. However, neither Asch nor Chagnon was involved in that "Nova" production. It may be that Tierney has confused the "Nova" production with the earlier films of Asch and Chagnon, none of which was staged. [For information on obtaining a copy of the Interactive CD on the Yanomami Ax Fight film, contact biella@sfsu.edu.]

Claim: Chagnon himself is directly or indirectly responsible for endemic warfare among the Yanomami.

Our findings: This claim is among the easiest to refute, especially since there is an extensive history on the topic. Warfare among Indian groups in South America goes back a minimum of 3,500 years. Abundant archaeological data show raiding, including the saving of trophy heads, throughout the pre-Hispanic periods called Chavin, Moche, Chimu, Wari, and Inka. Warfare also was reported by the Spanish conquerors of the sixteenth century A.D.

In the specific case of the Yanomami, our first report about these people is from the mid-1800s, by Moritz Schomburgk (1847-1848). Then sometime between 1875 and 1910, we have reports that women had been acquired by Yanomami raiding (Peters 1998:167-168). In 1911 Theodor Koch-Grunberg (1923) described the Yanomami as "very warlike people who succeeded in dominating several weaker tribes." The year 1931 is given as the year a war occurred between two Yanomami subgroups, the Xilixana and the Macu; 1935 as the year of the war between the Xilixana and the Yekwana; and 1946 as the year of a major epidemic (Peters 1998:167-168). Particularly illuminating is the story of Helena Valero, a woman of Spanish descent born in 1925 and captured in a Yanomami raid in 1937. Her biography is filled with data showing how fierce and brutal some Yanomami could be when abducting women from other villages as wives (Biocca 1971). These and many other accounts, too numerous to mention here, make the claim that Yanomami violence began with Chagnon's arrival obviously false.

[References: Moritz Schomburgk (1847-48). Reisen in Britisch Guinea in den Jahren 1840-44. 3 vols. Leipzig; Theodor Koch-Grunberg (1923) Von Roroima zum Orinoco, Ergebnisse einer Reise in Nordbrasilien und Venezuela in den Jahren 1911-1913. Vol. 3. Stuttgart, Germany; John F. Peters (1998) Life among the Yanomami. Broadview Press; Ettore Biocca (1971) The Yanoama: The Narrative of a White Girl Kidnapped by Amazonian Indians. Dutton paperback, New York.]

Claim: Chagnon's characterization of the Yanomami as "fierce people" encouraged 40,000 invading gold miners to use violence against them between 1980-1987.

Our findings: We have already established that Chagnon was not the first author to describe the Yanomami as violent. In fact, critics who have accused him of this characterization forget that the Yanomami refer to themselves as waitiri, "fierce and valiant." What Chagnon did was translate the term into English.

Given that the behavior of miners toward indigenous people during "gold rushes" in the 1850s and 1860s in places like California and Australia was similar to that seen in the 1980s in the Amazon, the idea that Chagnon is responsible for such behavior is not convincing. Published accounts of Yanomami violence had preceded Chagnon's arrival by a considerable length of time. Thus it seems much more plausible that the miners were familiar with sensationalized newspaper articles on Yanomami warfare than that they had spent time reading the anthropological literature.

Below is just a sample of the extensive literature on the effects of gold mining in the Yanomami area.

[References: Bruce Albert "Gold Miners and Yanomami Indians in the Brazilian Amazon: The Hashimu Massacre." Published in Portuguese October 10, 1993 in Folha de Sao Paulo, Brasilia; Jed Greer (1993), 'The Price of Gold: Environmental Costs of the New Gold Rush," in The Ecologist 23 (3):91-96; David Cleary (1990) Anatomy of the Gold Rush. University of Iowa Press, Iowa City; Dennis Berwick (1992) Savages: The Life and Killing of the Yanomami. Hodder and Stoughton, London]

Claim: Turner and Sponsel learned of this "impending scandal" from reading the galley proofs of Tierney's book.

Our findings: While the e-mail letter to the American Anthropological Association by Turner and Sponsel leaves the impression that they had just learned of the accusations against Neel and Chagnon, there is published evidence that they knew about them long before. The first piece of evidence, according to sources who have seen uncorrected page proofs of the book, is that both Turner and Sponsel are thanked in the "Acknowledgments" section of Tierney's book, which indicates that they read it long before the galley stage. A second piece of evidence is that Tierney's book cites a 1995 interview with Terence Turner.

Evidence indicating that Leslie Sponsel knew of Tierney's book and its contents can be found in the bibliography of a 1998 article by Sponsel. In the journal Aggressive Behavior,Vol. 24, Sponsel has a paper entitled "Yanomami: An Arena of Conflict and Aggression in the Amazon." In this paper, Sponsel discusses 10 major areas of disagreement with Chagnon. Sponsel's bibliography also includes a reference on page 122 to a book by Tierney, as follows:

Tierney P (forthcoming): Last Tribes of El Dorado: The Gold Wars in the Amazon Rainforest

It seems likely that this is the same manuscript cited in a second published source, Life Among the Yanomami, a book by John F. Peters (Broadview Press, 1998). Peters, however, cites Tierney's manuscript as follows:

Tierney, Pat. 1997. The Last Tribes of Dorado. New York: Viking.

Borders Bookstore advises us that their records showed that this book, originally scheduled for publication by Viking Press, never appeared in print for reasons unspecified. At the very least, there is evidence to suggest that Peters and Sponsel had read a version of Tierney's book prior to 1998.

It would appear that this same book is now to be offered for sale by W.W. Norton, under the title "Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon." We find it significant that the subtitle changed from an emphasis on gold mining to an emphasis on alleged scientific and journalistic misdeeds between 1995 and 2000, exactly the period Turner and Sponsel seem to have been in contact with Tierney.

This and other evidence leads us to believe that the accusations against Chagnon in Tierney's forthcoming book were known to both Turner and Sponsel long before that book reached the galley proof stage. Some allegations had already been made in print by Turner as far back as 1994, and others in print by Sponsel in 1998. The accusations are part of a long-standing academic feud that shows no sign of diminishing, rather than recent discoveries by an investigative reporter.

[References: Eric R. Wolf (1994) Demonization of Anthropologists in the Amazon. Anthropology Newsletter (of the American Anthropological Association)/March 1994:2; Robin Fox (1994) Evil Wrought in the Name of Good. Anthropology Newsletter (of the American Anthropological Association)/March 1994:2; Terence Turner (1994) The Yanomami: Truth and Consequences. Anthropology Newsletter (of the American Anthropological Association)/May 1994:46, 48.]

Contact: Julie Peterson
Phone: (734) 936-5190
E-mail: juliep@umich.edu

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