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Anthropological Niche of Douglas W. Hume
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Internet Source: Time Magazine, OCTOBER 2, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 14
Source URL: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/articles/0,3266,55750,00.html

OCTOBER 2, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 14

What Have We Done to Them?

A new book charges scientists with abusing the famous Yanomami tribe, stirring fierce debate in academia


The Yanomami are the celebrities of the rain forest. No tribe on the planet is more lauded, defamed, protected, exploited and fought over. Best sellers chronicle their warlike savagery. Missionaries convert them. Gold miners massacre them. And TV movies zoom in on their loincloths and painted faces, their shaman magic and hallucinogenic habits.

But who is more fierce and primitive? These aboriginals of the Venezuelan and Brazilian Amazon, stars of Anthropology 101 and beneficiaries of rock-music fund raisers? Or the scholars, filmmakers, journalists and do-gooders who have studied them, publicized them and labored to "save" them for four decades? Last week the question ricocheted through academia as scientists responded to charges of fraudulent research, intellectual vendettas, sexual misbehavior and unethical experimentation that has spread disease and death through the Yanomami. "This nightmarish story [is] a real anthropological heart of darkness beyond the imagining of even a Joseph Conrad (though not, perhaps, a Josef Mengele)," warned two professors, Cornell University's Terence Turner and the University of Hawaii's Leslie Sponsel, in a memorandum to the American Anthropological Association.

The uproar was prompted by allegations in investigative journalist Patrick Tierney's upcoming book Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon. Tierney, author of an earlier book on human sacrifices among the Inca, spent 11 years researching the Yanomami's exposure to the outside world. In his most hotly contested charge, he claims that during a research project funded by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, the late James Neel, a human geneticist at the University of Michigan, used a measles vaccine on the Yanomami that helped spread an epidemic, killing "hundreds, perhaps thousands" in a population of roughly 24,000.

Tierney also takes on the swashbuckling ethnographer Napoleon Chagnon, whose 1968 volume Yanomamo: The Fierce People first made the tribe famous and whose books continue to be staples of college anthropology courses. Chagnon has been challenged before, notably by Rutgers University Newark anthropologist Brian Ferguson, whose 1995 book on Yanomami warfare suggested that the presence of foreigners, Chagnon in particular, sparked much of the conflict among the Yanomami. Tierney's charges go further. He claims that Chagnon manipulated his data to support his sociobiological thesis that natural selection favored Yanomami who were genetically prone to violence. Moreover, he asserts that Chagnon and the late filmmaker Timothy Asch staged fights and created artificial villages to promote their theories.

W.W. Norton, which will publish Tierney's book in mid-November, sent galleys to Turner and Sponsel, and when their memorandum began zipping around the Internet, a vituperative debate exploded. Last week the story broke in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Turner and Sponsel not only found Tierney's research credible but warned that "the impending scandal...in its scale, ramifications, and sheer criminality and corruption is unparalleled in the history of anthropology." In a controversial extrapolation, they suggested a motive for spreading the measles epidemic: if deliberately ignited, it may have been to prove Neel's "fascistic eugenics" theories--that dominant males could survive epidemics and pass on their genes.

Chagnon, a member of Neel's 1968 expedition, said last week he had yet to see galleys either of the book or of an excerpt scheduled to be published next week in the New Yorker magazine. The New Yorker did offer to interview him, but he declined. In a widely circulated e-mail, he charged that an American Anthropological Association open forum next month would be "a feeding frenzy in which I am the bait." In a statement posted on a website of the University of California at Santa Barbara, where he remains professor emeritus, he accuses Tierney, Turner and Sponsel of engaging in a "long vendetta against me." The allegations, he told TIME, are "grotesque... Nobody died of measles in the villages we vaccinated." As for the staged fights and phony film sets, Chagnon said the charges are "totally incorrect."

Late last week the defense of Neel and Chagnon gained momentum when University of Pennsylvania science historian Susan Lindee reviewed Neel's papers from the expedition and found nothing improper about the scientist's procedures. In an e-mail to colleagues, Lindee acknowledged that "if we wish to adopt an X-Files theory of history, we could propose that he planted these records, including the much scribbled on and often almost illegible field notes, in order to mislead future historians." But, she notes, papers from Venezuelan authorities and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control specifically refute some of Tierney's charges, including his assertion that Neel did not have official permission to vaccinate. Irving Devore, former chairman of the anthropology department at Harvard, also rallied to Chagnon's side, calling Tierney's book "a scurrilous tissue of lies."