Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: Edmonton Journal (Alberta), September 29, 2000 Friday Final Edition
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Scientists sparked deadly Amazon measles epidemic -- author: 1968 vaccine killed thousands says controversial book


U.S. scientists sparked a measles epidemic that killed "perhaps thousands" of Amazon natives, says an as-yet unpublished book that has sparked a firestorm of controversy on the Internet.

Patrick Tierney's Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon, presents evidence that during a 1968 expedition, scientists inoculated Yanomami natives against measles and possibly contributed to an epidemic of the disease that killed "hundreds, perhaps thousands" of the isolated tribe in a remote region of Venezuela.

The expedition was funded by the former Atomic Energy Commission and led by the late geneticist James Neel of the University of Michigan and University of California at Santa Barbara anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon.

At the time the expedition arrived in the Amazon Basin to study the relatively isolated Yanomami, the tribe's population numbered about 20,000. It is now estimated closer to 10,000.

Tierney suggests Neel's inoculating the Yanomami actually gave some of them measles and they infected others. But medical scientists said such a thing has never been shown before.

The Edmonston B measles vaccine did have side-effects and eventually was withdrawn from the market in the early 1970s but was a standard treatment in 1968.

The epidemic charge is the most explosive in the book, which also accuses the now-retired Chagnon of debauched behaviour.

The sedate world of anthropology has been turned upside-down by reports of the book's scandalous accusations, which have sparked a rash of e-mails, accusations and papers that are whipping around the Web.

One of Chagnon's critics and one of the few people to have actually read the book, Prof. Thomas Headland of the Summer Institute of Sociology in Dallas, has doubts about Tierney's book.

"There is no love lost between Chagnon and me. He has

criticized me in print and I him," Headland said in an e-mail message.

"But I don't believe, after reading Tierney's book, that Chagnon is guilty of genocide, or that he purposely helped introduce and spread measles into the Yanomami population ... I don't believe that Chagnon 'demanded that villagers bring him girls for sex.' "

Chagnon declined comment but posted a statement on the Web, blaming the turmoil on "the extremely offensive document focusing on allegations made in the book ... by cultural anthropologists Terence Turner and Leslie Sponsel ... full of accusations that have no factual foundation."

Turner, a Cornell University professor, and University of Hawaii professor Sponsel's electronic memo repeated Tierney's allegations, warned of a scandal and was sent around the Web.

The book's publication date has been moved from Oct. 1 to Nov. 16, coinciding with the American Anthropological Association's annual meeting in San Francisco. The AAA has posted a statement on the book at www.aaanet.org/press/eldorado.htm