Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, 00095982, 7/8/2005, Vol. 51, Issue 44
Source URL: none

Retreat at El Dorado

Section: Research: Hot Type

The American Anthropological Association has voted to rescind its acceptance of a committee report that reviewed allegations that two prominent American anthropologists had committed serious misconduct in Brazil and Venezuela between 1967 and 1990.

The reversal is a new twist in a dispute that simmered for decades but exploded into prominence in 2000, with the publication of Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon (W.W. Norton), by the freelance reporter Patrick Tierney.

In his book, Mr. Tierney charged that Napoleon A. Chagnon, who is now a professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and the late James V. Neel, a longtime professor of human genetics at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, had badly mistreated an indigenous group, known as the Yanomami, in the upper Amazon.

The anthropology association appointed a small committee, known as the El Dorado Task Force, to assess the questions raised in Mr. Tierney's book. That committee's report, completed in 2002, concluded that Mr. Tierney's most sensational allegations were false — but that many elements of Mr. Chagnon's conduct were seriously troubling. The committee encouraged the association to take steps to improve scholars' ethics in the field and the discipline's relationship with indigenous people.

The report came under immediate and heavy criticism from several scholars. Those critics claimed that the panel's composition was biased, that Mr. Chagnon had not been afforded due process, and that the association's Web site had propagated (in "comments" pages associated with the task-force report) a new stream of lurid and unsubstantiated allegations against Mr. Chagnon.

Last fall, two of the report's critics offered a resolution to rescind the association's acceptance of the report. The association's members voted on the resolution by mail in April and May, and the results were announced in late June. The resolution passed, 846 to 338.

Jane H. Hill, a professor of anthropology and linguistics at the University of Arizona, who was the chair of the task force, said that she was very disappointed in the referendum's outcome.

Ms. Hill said that she fears that anthropologists and indigenous activists in South America will view the resolution as a slap in the face.

Another scholar said the saga had much to teach the field. "I hope we can move on now to really get a good sense of where ethics lie in the discipline, and how we can evaluate anthropologists fairly and honorably," said Robert Borofsky, a professor of anthropology at Hawaii Pacific University and the author of Yanomami: The Fierce Controversy and What We Can Learn From It (University of California Press, 2005). Mr. Borofsky said that, whatever the report's merits or shortcomings, it is vital that the association continue to seek ways to foster ethical conduct among scholars who work with indigenous people.

By David Glenn