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Internet Source: In These Times.com, November 13, 2000
Source URL: http://www.inthesetimes.com/web2425/graeber2425.html


What did this man do to the Yanomami

David Graeber

Did James Neel, a geneticist working on a grant from the Atomic Energy Commission, commit an act of mass murder? In 1968, did he, in a fiendish experiment that resulted in hundreds of deaths, intentionally unleash a measles epidemic on a population of Yanomami Indians in Venezuela? It seems extremely unlikely. Was he, instead, guilty of some kind of mass manslaughter, by intentionally using an outdated and extremely powerful vaccine on a notoriously vulnerable and immune-deficient population, then skipping off with all the trained medical personnel in the area as the epidemic spread? We'll probably never know for sure.

Still, the possibility that he might have, along with other claims made in Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon, a book by investigative reporter Patrick Tierney, has sparked an enormous, burgeoning scandal in the world of anthropology--which might seem rather surprising, considering that Neel was not an anthropologist, and the book has not even been released.

Here is the story so far.

In mid-September, two anthropologists who had read advance copies of Tierney's book e-mailed a letter to the president of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), warning her that the organization should begin to brace itself. The mother of all scandals was about to hit the discipline. It concerned anthropology because Tierney's book was largely focused on one man, Napoleon Chagnon, one of the world's most famous anthropologists, who along with filmmaker Timothy Asch is responsible for having made the Yanomami--his notorious "fierce people"--perhaps the single most famous "primitive" society on the face of the earth.

Not only had Chagnon assisted Neel in his inoculation campaign, he was also, according to the book, a bully, a fraud and an irresponsible adventurer who staged most of his famous movies, created endless wars by his heavy-handed intervention in Yanomami affairs, tried to carve out a jungle empire with corrupt Venezuelan officials and gold miners, systematically doctored his data to represent the Yanomami as incurably warlike and treacherous, and, in doing so, played directly into the hands of miners and government officials who used his writings as justification for a campaign meant to seize their lands and destroy their society. Clearly, this was going to be bad news for the discipline.