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Anthropological Niche of Douglas W. Hume
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Internet Source: Slate.com, December 8, 2000
Source URL: http://slate.msn.com/code/thefray/thefray.asp?m=508451

Subject: Chagnon and Neel saved hundreds of lives

From: Edward Hagen, UCSB

Date: Dec 8 2000 1:56 PM

Populations with little or no previous exposure to measles typically suffer 20-30% mortality rates. The vaccination program carried out by Napoleon Chagnon, James Neel, and their colleagues involved the distribution of over 2000 doses of a safe and effective vaccine during a grueling 2-3 month period in a remote corner of the Amazon. As the logs of both men make clear, locating villages, transporting people and supplies, administering vaccine, and collecting data was a physically exhausting enterprise. However, their efforts paid off handsomely: mortality during the 1968 epidemic among the Yanomamö was about 8.8%, approximately one third the typical rate.

As a consequence of Chagnon and Neel's previous medical work among the Yanomamö, which revealed them to be vulnerable to a measles epidemic, and of Chagnon and Neel's foresight in obtaining vaccine, hundreds of Yanomamö were able to freely speak the names of their living sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, friends and neighbors for years to come.

And however history may judge Chagnon’s method of obtaining accurate genealogies (Native North Americans rely heavily on accurate genealogies in laying claim to valuable government benefits, etc.) it is important to properly represent what he did. He did not, as Shulevitz says, “go to the rival and reel off the names of his kin, gauging the accuracy of the first man's information by the amount of anger it elicited in the second.” In fact, he took care to *avoid* mentioning the names of the dead to their kin:

“I had to be careful in this work and scrupulously select my local informants in such a way that I would not be inquiring about *their* closely related kin. Thus, for each of my local informants, I had to make lists of names of certain deceased people that I dared not mention in their presence.” (Yanomamö, p. 23-24, emphasis in the original)

As Chagnon notes, despite his precautions, he occasionally and inadvertently would mention the name of a dead kinsman, with disastrous results. Shulevitz also fails to note that, Kaobawa, a Yanomamö headman, *demanded* that Chagnon learn the truth, even though he knew that would involve Chagnon learning the names of his dead kinsmen:

“[Kaobawa’s] knowledge of details was almost encyclopedic, his memory almost photographic. More than that, he was enthusiastic about making sure I learned the truth, and he encouraged me, indeed, *demanded* that I learn all details I might otherwise have ignored....With the information provided by Kaobawa, and Rerebawa [another informant], I made enormous gains in understanding village interrelationships based on common ancestors and political histories and became lifelong friends with both. And both men knew that I had to learn about his recently deceased kin from the other one. It was one of those quiet understandings we all had but none of us could mention.”

Those who are interested can view the entire section of his monograph that details his collection of genealogies here:



Edward Hagen
Department of Anthropology