Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

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The following comments were submitted for publication in the Anthropology Newsletter of the American Anthropological Association in the October or November issue as my response to a previous commentary by William J. Oliver in the September 2004 AN. The Editor of the AN refused to give me an opportunity to respond appropriately, thus it is offered here for those who might be interested.

An Epidemic of Disinformation

In the September AN William J. Oliver denies being on the James Neel expedition during the 1968 measles epidemic. I apologize if my sources were mistaken. However, neither Oliver’s absence nor his recent comments invalidate anything else in my May AN commentary. Also, contrary to his assertions, I made no reference to Patanowa-teri or experimentation, and never disparaged any medical treatment that saves lives.

My foremost point remains the logical proposition that, if medical doctors Neel and Willard Centerwall saved some Yanomami lives in sacrificing a portion of their research time by providing medical attention to Yanomami in the midst of a rapidly spreading and lethal epidemic, then it is highly probable that temporarily suspending for even a few weeks all research to devote themselves entirely as physicians to the crisis would have saved even more lives. Oliver asserts: “All planned research studies were postponed.” This is contradicted by readily available documentation like “Yanomama: A Multidisciplinary Study” filmed by Timothy Asch during the epidemic and by Neel’s own field notes. My criticism was not about the medical treatment provided, but about that which was not provided. (See articles 2, 8, 10, and 19 of the 1964 Declaration of Helsinki).

Oliver writes that scientific individuals and organizations have stated their opinions on the matter of the epidemic; however, he neglects the fact that they do not agree. Furthermore, those who published conclusions after initial inquiries have failed to revise them responsibly following new information, questions, and conclusions raised by subsequent systematic investigations. For example, the AAA Task Force concluded, among many other things, that adequate informed consent from Yanomami was not obtained by the standards of the time; promises to them that blood samples and other research would benefit their health care in the future were never honored; and Neel failed to bring a sufficient supply of gamma globulin to accompany all vaccinations to alleviate any serious reactions.

These and other matters in this ugliest of all scandals in the entire history of anthropology have repeatedly revealed that some scientific individuals and organizations can be unscientific, unprofessional, unethical, biased, deceptive, and dishonest. By far the most balanced and thorough discussion on the above and a multitude of other serious concerns is the new book edited by Robert Borofsky, Yanomami: The Fierce Controversy And What We Might Learn From It.

Leslie Sponsel
U Hawai`i