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Anthropological Niche of Douglas W. Hume
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Internet Source: The Times (London), Features, November 30, 2000
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Did science kill a tribe?

Anjana Ahuja

Anthropologists are accused of infecting a tribe with a deadly vaccine. Anjana Ahuja reports

The claims were nothing short of explosive. In the Sixties, two anthropologists ventured deep into the Amazon to meet a previously unknown tribe, the Yanomami. The tribe's gift to the visitors would be the priceless opportunity to observe a people untouched by modern life. In return, one of the anthropologists would bring death and destruction in the shape of a virulent measles vaccine that would wipe out hundreds of their hosts.

This most chilling of scenarios is the subject of a book that has consumed the anthropology profession for almost two months. Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon took Patrick Tierney ten years to write, and points an accusing finger at some of the most famous names in the anthropology community. Published in America, it has unleashed a spate of claims about the malignant intent of those who first brought the Yanomami to international attention.

Publication this month was timed to coincide with a meeting of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and led to Professor Terry Turner, from Cornell University, warning the organisation that Tierney had uncovered evidence that "in its scale, ramifications, and sheer criminality and corruption...is unparalleled in the history of anthropology...Mr Tierney's analysis is a case study of the dangers in science of the uncontrolled ego, of lack of respect for life, and of greed and self-indulgence".

However, the claims are being vigorously disputed. One of the alleged villains has hit back (the other died recently) and engaged a lawyer. Tierney has been accused in some quarters of perpetrating a huge hoax. Nonetheless, the affair has sparked a period of intense soul-searching by this most curious of professions, which has not fully shaken off its politically incorrect image of Western explorers trespassing on other cultures in the stampede for professional recognition.

The AAA has set up a taskforce to investigate Tierney's claims; its ethics committee will review how social anthropologists go about their business; another committee will investigate how tribes in South America can be protected from exploitation.

The most serious allegation centres on the deaths of hundreds of Yanomami from measles in the late Sixties. The chief culprit, Tierney claims, is the late James Neel, a geneticist who visited the Yanomami in Venezuela in 1968 with funding from the now defunct Atomic Energy Commission.

In his possession were 2,000 doses of a measles vaccine called Edmonston B. What Neel intended to do with these vaccines is the nub of the controversy - Tierney suggests that the genetic-ist believed in eugenics and wanted to test his idea that an isolated group of people would have superior genes to those found in the melting pot of other cultures, and would therefore be able to resist an imported disease. If people died, the remaining individuals would be those with innate resistance and therefore the Yanomami stock would improve. Tierney adds that the spread of measles in the remote area mirrors the movements of Neel on his expedition, and that Neel refused medical help to the dying.

This suggestion has horrified some, who say that Neel had brought the vaccines along because missionaries had already informed him that a measles outbreak was imminent (a letter found among Neel's papers confirms this).

Also, medical experts believe that Edmonston B is incapable of causing measles, although it has nasty side-effects such as high fever. The only people to die from receiving the vaccine, says Dr Samuel Katz, its co-developer, were a handful of leukaemia sufferers. The vaccine was withdrawn from use in the 1970s.

The University of Michigan, where Neel worked, has rebutted the accusation that he denied medical care to his hosts. The normal death rate from untreated measles is around one in three, whereas the outbreak among the Yanomami claimed one in 11 lives.

The image of Neel as a eugenicist has been refuted; Nancy Cantor, the provost of the University, described the conduct of Neel and his co-workers as "humane, compassionate and medically appropriate". She adds: "We believe that Tierney did not consult important original source material that was readily available for review."

The other target in Tierney's sights is Napoleon Chagnon, a distinguished anthropologist whose fame stemmed from a bestseller on the violent rituals of the Yanomami, and who accompanied Neel on his 1968 expedition. Critics claim Chagnon distributed steel goods such as machetes - coveted by the tribe - as a way of extracting information, and that his generosity was contrived to foment antagonism between those who received gifts and those who did not, resulting in the violence he recorded so enthusiastically. Cantor also refutes this: "Warfare among Indian groups in South America goes back a minimum of 3,500 years." Tierney has called these counterclaims "highly technical quibbling". Meanwhile, Chagnon is contemplating legal action.

Does the controversy highlight wider issues about the behaviour of scientists studying human subjects? Dr Robert Foley, an anthropologist at Cambridge University, says that the idea of scientists blundering into a new tribe without due regard is 50 years out of date. "As a community, anthropologists are extraordinarily sensitive to the people they study," Dr Foley says. "That's usually why they become anthropologists in the first place - they are interested in how people live and usually want to help them."

Hilary Callan, the director of the Royal Anthropological Institute in London, says that the moral wrangle over how science studies other cultures will never go away. The debate is likely to intensify with the hunt for "pure" gene pools to aid the hunt for the causes of genetic diseases.

"This is not a problem that will be solved finally and for ever," she says. "The honest thing is to be aware of these issues and sensitive to them. Field work should be a shared enterprise, with not only the anthropologist benefiting but also the people under study. The time is now overdue for a serious public discussion."