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Anthropological Niche of Douglas W. Hume
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Internet Source: USA TODAY , LIFE; Pg. 8D , November 16, 2000
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Anthropologists to air violent Amazon dispute

Dan Vergano

Anthropologists today face the world's most fractious tribe -- themselves.

On the menu at tonight's American Anthropological Association meeting in San Francisco: Patrick Tierney, author of Darkness in El Dorado: How Journalists and Anthropologists Devastated the Amazon, and University of California, Santa Barbara, anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, charged in the new book with faking research, sparking warfare and possibly spreading disease among Venezuela's Yanomami tribe.

"It's almost a conspiracy theory, just not a very good one," says anthropologist William Irons of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. In tonight's panel, scheduled to give five speakers 10 minutes each, he stands in for Chagnon, who Irons says is too "disgusted" to take part.

Tierney links a 1968 measles epidemic among the Yanomami with a measles vaccine effort headed by Chagnon's colleague, the late University of Michigan geneticist James Neel. Late last week, the National Academy of Sciences directly refuted that suggestion and said it found other "misleading or demonstrably false" statements.

Tierney calls those critiques and others "highly technical quibbling" with the main points of his book, which he says shows distortions in Chagnon's research and raises ethical questions about the measles epidemic. "I see no evidence Neel deliberately hurt the Yanomami," he says.

In her 10 minutes tonight, science historian Susan Lindee of the University of Pennsylvania plans to lay out a chronology of the 1968 research and vaccination mission, showing points at which she says the historical record contradicts Tierney's book.

After other presentations, Tierney plans to respond "impromptu" to any attacks on his book, followed by Irons, who plans to summarize fact-checking done by teams at Neel's and Chagnon's universities, refuting the book.

Irons ascribes the book's claims to a long-running feud between Chagnon and Venezuelan missionaries over access to Yanomami territory and to anthropologists ideologically opposed to Chagnon's suggestion that human nature is not peaceful. Tierney denies he is the pawn of such players in the current drama.

For years, anthropologists and others have criticized Chagnon's interest in violence. "Describing the Yanomami as 'fierce,' he created that," says Claudia Andujar, a Brazilian activist for the Yanomami for decades and an award-winning photographer. "In all my years there, I only saw a fight over a woman once."

Amid the controversy, the executive board of the association plans to discuss its efforts to further investigate the book's claims.