October 20, 2000
Update from University of Michigan
University of Michigan Report (Parts 1, 2, 3)
of the Ongoing Investigation of the Neel-Chagnon Allegations


Part 1

Following is the official statement by the University of Michigan on the book, Darkness in El Dorado, by Patrick Tierney, forthcoming from W.W. Norton & Co. on November 16, 2000.

We now have galley proofs of the book, and are examining them in detail. In the meantime, however, we will respond to the allegations outlined in an e-mail message from two reviewers, Terence Turner of Cornell University and Leslie Sponsel of the University of Hawaii-Manoa. Their e-mail makes reference to the work of James V. Neel, M.D., and Napoleon Chagnon, Ph.D., with the Yanomami of Venezuela. Dr. Neel died last February.

The University takes allegations of impropriety seriously and we have begun an internal inquiry. In the short time we have been engaged in this review, we have already found materials directly contradicting a number of the claims cited in the e-mail message regarding Dr. Neel and Dr. Chagnon. These errors are repeated in the galley proofs.

We believe that Mr. Tierney has not consulted important original source material that was readily available for review. Analysis of that material and other material from persons familiar with the expeditions, the measles outbreak, and the measles vaccine refutes the allegations.

Below are listed some of the allegations and a description of our initial findings.

Claim: Improper use of a vaccine initiated and exacerbated a measles epidemic that killed "hundreds, perhaps thousands."

Our findings: The measles outbreak occurred in November 1967. Measles was introduced into the region by a party of Brazilian missionaries before the January 1968 arrival of the Neel expedition. There is substantial evidence of the outbreak existing long before Dr. Neel left for Venezuela, so Dr. Neel could not have been the cause.

Previous studies in 1966 had indicated a substantial absence of measles antibody in the Yanomami. There were some individuals in Villages J and W with antibodies to measles, indicating there had been sporadic prior exposure but many individuals were not protected. Accordingly, in the fall of 1967, in anticipation of the January 1968 expedition, Dr. Neel initiated requests to pharmaceutical companies and obtained 2,000 doses of Edmonston B vaccine plus gamma globulin. He also consulted with a Center for Disease Control expert on measles on the best way to administer the vaccine.

Upon hearing of the outbreak, Dr. Neel acted quickly and responsibly to stop the spread of the disease. The records show Dr. Neel spent at least two full weeks providing vaccine, antibiotics and medical care as needed. Forty Indians and Brazilians in the immediate area of the noted cases received vaccine and then Dr. Neel initiated an extensive program of immunization throughout the region. One thousand doses were administered by Dr. Neel; the rest were provided to and given by missionaries and medical auxiliaries of the Venezuelan government to "get ahead" of the disease. All doses, except for the original 40, were given with gamma globulin. At that time, administration of vaccine, with or without concomitant gamma globulin, was the accepted and recommended procedure. No death or serious untoward events resulted from use of the vaccine with or without gamma globulin.

Edmonston B vaccine, developed in 1958, was an internationally tested and safe vaccine. Dr. Samuel L. Katz, professor emeritus and chairman of Pediatrics at Duke University Medical School, was the co-developer of the vaccine (with John F. Enders) and he reports that its use was safe and appropriate in this population.

It is claimed that a "fatal" epidemic was "caused" or "greatly exacerbated" by the vaccine. Live attenuated vaccine has never been shown to be transmissible from a recipient to a subsequent contact. Dr. Katz has studied the vaccine in developed and developing nations and never saw any transmission of vaccine to susceptible contacts. Moreover, death as a result of the vaccine is an exceedingly rare event in any population. In fact, Dr. Katz reports that "despite the administration of millions of doses of vaccines to children throughout the world, the only deaths known to have occurred were in several youngsters who were under intense therapy for their leukemia and more recently a young adult with AIDS."

Claim: Refusal of medical care so that Dr. Neel could observe an epidemic.

Our findings: Dr. William Oliver, professor emeritus and chairman of Pediatrics at the University of Michigan Health System, was on several of the expeditions and reports that on every expedition a large quantity of medical supplies was brought in and used to treat the Yanomami. Dr. Neel's basic philosophy was to treat all illnesses before any scientific observations. Each day he would treat any new illnesses before starting the day's planned studies. Any medicines not used would be left with resident missionaries with detailed instructions for use.

In the case of the measles outbreak, the facts are clear. The predicted death rate from untreated measles is 30 percent to 36 percent; the most common complication is bacterial pneumonia. In this outbreak, the death rate was a very low 8.8 percent, showing clearly that proper medical care was provided. The records show that the research team systematically and aggressively treated every patient with all available medications. As indicated above, Dr. Neel stopped his research work so that he could provide medical care to the population.

Claim: Secret radiation experiments were conducted.

Our findings: Dr. Neel did not conduct any radiation studies with the Yanomami. In 1962 and 1968 a physician named Marcel Roche conducted a population study of thyroid uptake in the lowlands of Venezuela and high in the Andes showing that at very high altitudes there was a uniformly higher thyroid radioiodine uptake. This study used proper doses of radioiodine (I-131). Use of radioiodine was then and remains today a commonly used diagnostic tool to measure pathological conditions including thyroid function.

(See: Riviere, R., Comar, D., Colonomos, M., Desenne, J., and Roche, M. "Iodine Deficiency Without Goiter in Isolated Yanomama Indians: A Preliminary Note". In: Biomedical Challenges Presented by the American Indian. Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization, September 1968, pp 120-123.)

Dr. Neel was well-known for his extensive and humanitarian study on the aftereffects of atomic radiation on survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and their children. A review of Dr. Neel's field journal and daily logs makes it clear that he never conducted any "secret radiation" studies.

Claim: The e-mail suggests that Mr. Tierney documents that Dr. Neel held extreme eugenic theories.

Our findings: Dr. Neel's published works show that he was a critic of eugenics from his graduate student days in the late 1930s. Far from holding "eugenics" positions, Dr. Neel strongly supported maintaining the rich diversity of the entire human gene pool and urged "egalitarian control of population growth" to protect the future of our species. [See: James V. Neel, Physician to the Gene Pool: Genetic Lessons and Other Stories (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1994)]. He championed the view that each individual be able to maximize genetic potential; this is a far cry from eugenic efforts to "improve" the species through reproductive theory and policy. His work with the Yanomami helped them survive the pre-existing measles outbreak and was a humanitarian act by a compassionate physician.

Allegations, particularly those involving academic work of highly distinguished scholars in their field, require a fair and proper peer review -- not a sensationalized public discussion in the headlines and over the Internet.

We are now beginning to review in detail the allegations in the galley proofs and investigating the evidence and documentation the author uses as the basis for his claims. We are reviewing all of the original source materials we have available to us, including Dr. Neel's own research logs and field notes. We are considering additional steps including asking outside experts to evaluate the allegations.

Part 2 of University of Michigan’s Ongoing Investigation

Following is a statement from the University of Michigan regarding the allegations against Napoleon Chagnon in the book Darkness in El Dorado by Patrick Tierney (forthcoming on November 16, 2000 from W.W. Norton & Co.). We have now obtained galley proofs of the book. We are also responding to the allegations made in a letter from two reviewers: Terence Turner of Cornell University and Leslie Sponsel of the University of Hawaii-Manoa.

The University of Michigan takes such allegations of impropriety very seriously and thus we have begun an internal inquiry. In the short time we have had to investigate these allegations, we have already found materials that directly contradict the allegations made against Dr. Neel, Dr. Chagnon, and Dr. Timothy Asch (both Neel and Asch are deceased and unable to defend themselves). It is now clear that the book contains numerous errors and inaccurately presents the work of Chagnon and Neel.

We believe that Mr. Tierney has not consulted important original source materials that were available for study. Analyses of those source materials by specialists and experts refute the allegations.

Allegations, particularly those involving academic work of highly distinguished scholars in their field, require a fair and open-minded peer review –not a sensationalized public discussion in the headlines and over the Internet.

Claim: Dr. Napoleon Chagnon staged the violence in the film called "The Ax Fight," which depicts Yanomami fighting.

The director of the film, The Ax Fight, was Timothy Asch. No documentary film analyst we have consulted believes that any part of The Ax Fight film was staged, and Dr. Chagnon, who was an eyewitness, rejects the allegation.

Dr. Peter Biella, of the Department of Anthropology at San Francisco State University, has studied this film extensively for several years and laments "that Asch is not alive to defend himself." Biella says: "the film’s structure, as I argue in my introduction to the Yanomami Interactive CD (a study of The Ax Fight film), bends over backwards to qualify and reject stereotypic impressions of irrepressible Yanomami violence. The film is about ways that violence is muted, restrained, and non-fatal. Essentially it argues that without police, Yanomami manage to make their system of dispute settlement work pretty well, with nobody in this case getting very hurt." Biella has published transcripts of tape recordings of Chagnon in 1971 in support of his statement that "the 1971 taped evidence confirms that at first Chagnon knew virtually nothing about the origins of the fight." Dr. Biella and a co-author (Dr. Gary Seaman, Director of the Center of Visual Anthropology at the University of Southern California) plan to submit a lengthier analysis of The Ax Fight to the American Anthropological Association Newsletter with all the reasons why they believe The Ax Fight was not staged. Biella gives several cogent reasons why "the criticism that The Ax Fight was staged for the camera strikes me as obviously and manifestly untrue".

Dr. Gregory A. Finnegan of Harvard University has extensive background in visual anthropology. Dr. Finnegan was originally a student of Dr. Timothy Asch (when Asch was teaching at Brandeis University). Finnegan also does not believe The Ax Fight film was staged, pointing out that the fight was already in progress when the crewman doing the sound recording was in his first full day among the Yanomami. He adds that the film’s dialogue indicates that Chagnon himself was so taken by surprise by the fight that he was initially confused about the reasons for the fighting; at first, he says on camera that he had been told it was over "incest." Only later did Chagnon and Asch discover that the fight grew out of "political tensions in a fissioning lineage."

Dr. Alexander Moore, Chair of the University of Southern California’s Department of Anthropology, notes that the television show NOVA did stage a film of a Yanomami feast, and for that purpose an entire communal long house was built. However, neither Asch nor Chagnon were involved in that NOVA production. It may be that Tierney has confused the NOVA production with the earlier films of Asch and Chagnon, none of which were staged. [For information on obtaining a copy of the Interactive CD on the Yanomami Ax Fight film, contact biella@sfsu.edu].

Claim: Chagnon himself is directly or indirectly responsible for endemic warfare among the Yanomami.

This claim is among the easiest to refute, especially since there is an extensive history on the topic. Warfare among Indian groups in South America goes back a minimum of 3,500 years. Abundant archaeological data show raiding, including the saving of trophy heads, throughout the pre-Hispanic periods called Chavin, Moche, Chimu, Wari, and Inka. Warfare was also reported by the Spanish conquerors of the sixteenth century A.D.

In the specific case of the Yanomami, our first report about these people is from the mid-1800s, by Moritz Schomburgk (1847-1848). Then sometime between 1875 and 1910, we have reports that women had been acquired by Yanomami raiding (Peters 1998:167-168). In 1911 Theodor Koch-Grunberg (1923) described the Yanomami as "very warlike people who succeeded in dominating several weaker tribes." The year 1931 is given as the year a war occurred between two Yanomami subgroups, the Xilixana and the Macu; 1935 as the year of the war between the Xilixana and the Yekwana; and 1946 as the year of a major epidemic (Peters 1998:167-168). Particularly illuminating is the story of Helena Valero, a woman of Spanish descent born in 1925 and captured in a Yanomami raid in 1937. Her biography is filled with data showing how fierce and brutal some Yanomami could be when abducting women from other villages as wives (Biocca 1971). These and many other accounts, too numerous to mention here, make the claim that Yanomami violence began with Chagnon’s arrival obviously false.

[References---Moritz Schomburgk (1847-48). Reisen in Britisch Guinea in den Jahren 1840-44. 3 vols. Leipzig; Theodor Koch-Grunberg (1923) Von Roroima zum Orinoco, Ergebnisse einer Reise in Nordbrasilien und Venezuela in den Jahren 1911-1913. Vol. 3. Stuttgart, Germany; John F. Peters (1998) Life among the Yanomami. Broadview Press; Ettore Biocca (1971) The Yanoama: The Narrative of a White Girl Kidnapped by Amazonian Indians. Dutton paperback, New York.]


Claim: Chagnon’s characterization of the Yanomami as "fierce people" encouraged 40,000 invading gold miners to use violence against them between 1980-1987.

We have already established that Chagnon was not the first author to describe the Yanomami as violent. In fact, critics who have accused him of this characterization forget that the Yanomami refer to themselves as waitiri, "fierce and valiant." What Chagnon did was translate the term into English.

Given that the behavior of miners toward indigenous people during "gold rushes" in the 1850s and 1860s in places like California and Australia was similar to that seen in the 1980s in the Amazon, the idea that Chagnon is responsible for such behavior is not plausible. Published accounts of Yanomami violence had preceded Chagnon’s arrival by a considerable length of time. Thus it seems much more plausible that the miners were familiar with sensationalized newspaper articles on Yanomami warfare than that they had spent time reading the anthropological literature.

Below is just a sample of the extensive literature on the effects of gold mining in the Yanomami area. [Bruce Albert "Gold Miners and Yanomami Indians in the Brazilian Amazon: The Hashimu Massacre." Published in Portuguese October 10, 1993 in Folha de Sao Paulo, Brasilia; Jed Greer (1993), ‘The Price of Gold: Environmental Costs of the New Gold Rush," in The Ecologist 23 (3):91-96; David Cleary (1990) Anatomy of the Gold Rush. University of Iowa Press, Iowa City; Dennis Berwick (1992) Savages: The Life and Killing of the Yanomami. Hodder and Stoughton, London]

Claim: Turner and Sponsel learned of this "impending scandal" from reading the galley proofs of Tierney’s book.

While the now-famous e-mail letter to the AAA by Turner and Sponsel leaves the impression that they had just learned of the accusations against Neel and Chagnon, there is published evidence that they knew about them long before (see Part 3). The first piece of evidence is that both Turner and Sponsel are thanked in the "Acknowledgments" section of Tierney’s book, which indicates that they read it long before the galley stage. A second piece of evidence is that Tierney’s book cites a 1995 interview with Terence Turner.

Evidence indicating that Leslie Sponsel knew of Tierney’s book and its contents can be found in the bibliography of a 1998 article by Sponsel. In the journal Aggressive Behavior,Vol. 24, Sponsel has a paper entitled "Yanomami: An Arena of Conflict and Aggression in the Amazon." In this paper, Sponsel discusses 10 major areas of disagreement with Chagnon and makes allegations not unlike those in the Turner-Sponsel letter to the AAA. Sponsel’s bibliography also includes a reference on page 122 to a book by Tierney, as follows:

Tierney P (forthcoming): Last Tribes of El Dorado: The Gold Wars in the Amazon Rainforest

It would seem that this is the same manuscript cited in a second published source, Life Among the Yanomami, a book by John F. Peters (Broadview Press, 1998). Peters, however, cites Tierney’s manuscript as follows:

Tierney, Pat. 1997. The Last Tribes of Dorado. New York: Viking.

Borders Bookstore advises us that their records showed that this book, originally scheduled for publication by Viking Press, never appeared in print for reasons unspecified. At the very least, there is evidence to suggest that Peters and Sponsel had read a version of Tierney’s book prior to 1998.

It would appear that this same book is now to be offered for sale by W.W. Norton, under the title Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon. We find it significant that the subtitle changed from an emphasis on gold mining to an emphasis on alleged scientific and journalistic misdeeds between 1997 and 2000, exactly the period Turner and Sponsel seem to have been in contact with Tierney.

An interesting paper trail, leading back at least to 1993, reveals a history of published attacks on Chagnon, some of which sound remarkably similar to those attributed to Tierney. In that year several anthropologists, including Terence Turner and Eric Wolf, received an anonymous packet of materials in the mail that attacked and impugned Chagnon’s character.

Two distinguished anthropologists sprang to Chagnon’s defense in the March issue of the AAA newsletter. Eric Wolf (Distinguished Professor, CUNY-Lehman) (1994:2) says:

"Anthropologists need to arm themselves professionally and ethically against such dubious practices of anonymous character assassination, directed in this case against an anthropologist who has built up an exemplary body of data through long-term and often difficult fieldwork. Even those among Chagnon’s colleagues who might disagree with his Neo-Darwinian premises (and these include the present writer) acknowledge his extraordinary devotion to anthropology as a science, which has provided us also with the information that allows us to debate his interpretations and suggest possible alternatives. This was recognized most recently in a meeting devoted to Chagnon’s work at the New York Academy of Sciences on September 27, 1993. … The search for relevant questions and good answers should not be inhibited by demonization."

Another distinguished professor, Robin Fox (Rutgers University) (1994:2), says:

"American anthropologists, both individually and through their organization, should rally to the support of Chagnon and the absolute value of his courageous and brilliant field studies of Yanomami culture as well as his practical efforts to save it."

According to the May 1994 issue of the Newsletter of the American Anthropological Association, "circumstantial evidence" suggests that this anonymous packet came from supporters of the Salesian Missions, a group of missionaries who have long maintained a mission among the Yanomami. These missionaries have been feuding with Chagnon since he denounced them for two practices: (1) encouraging the Indians to aggregate near the mission, which Chagnon and others feel exposes them to Western diseases, and (2) giving the Yanomami gifts of shotguns which, although intended for hunting, were also used for warfare. It is clear that this packet was intended to defame Chagnon (see Part 3 of this report).

In the same May 1994 issue of the AAA Newsletter, Turner criticizes the version of events given by Chagnon, Wolf, and Fox. In his commentary, Turner further alleges that Chagnon is linked to Charles Brewer-Carias of the University of California at Santa Barbara, a Venezuelan naturalist whom Turner describes as "an ex-Cabinet Minister with extensive interests in gold mining." It is here, in Turner’s 1994 commentary, that we first see allegations linking Chagnon and Brewer-Carias to clandestine gold mining in Yanomami country. Thus it is far more likely that Tierney learned of these allegations from Turner than the reverse.

In the September 1994 issue of the same AAA Newsletter, Chagnon and Brewer-Carias respond to Turner’s allegations as well as the anonymously mailed packet. They assert that Brewer-Carias has a record of 30 years of scientific work and has never explored for gold in the Yanomami area (or in any other area occupied by indigenous peoples). Chagnon and Brewer-Carias also expand on their concern over the practice of providing guns and ammunition to the Yanomami.

It would thus appear that the accusations against Chagnon in Tierney’s forthcoming book were known to both Turner and Sponsel long before that book reached the galley proof stage. Some allegations had already been made in print by Turner as far back as 1994, and others in print by Sponsel in 1998. The accusations are part of a long-standing academic feud that shows no sign of diminishing, rather than recent discoveries by an investigative reporter.

[References: Eric R. Wolf (1994) Demonization of Anthropologists in the Amazon. Anthropology Newsletter (of the American Anthropological Association)/March 1994:2; Robin Fox (1994) Evil Wrought in the Name of Good. Anthropology Newsletter (of the American Anthropological Association)/March 1994:2; Terence Turner (1994) The Yanomami: Truth and Consequences. Anthropology Newsletter (of the American Anthropological Association)/May 1994:46, 48.]


Part 3 of University of Michigan’s Ongoing Investigation

Allegations against Neel and Chagnon made by Tierney, Turner, and Sponsel:

An Investigation of Motives and Agendas

The University of Michigan takes allegations of impropriety very seriously. Such allegations have been made against Drs. James Neel and Dr. Napoleon Chagnon in two sources: (1) galley proofs of the book Darkness in El Dorado by Patrick Tierney (forthcoming from W.W. Norton & Co. on November 16, 2000); and (2) a widely circulated e-mail letter from two anthropologists, Drs. Terence Turner of Cornell University and Leslie Sponsel of the University of Hawaii-Manoa, who are thanked in Tierney’s acknowledgments for providing him with comments and encouragement.

In two previous statements (Parts 1 and 2) related to our ongoing investigation we have presented published source materials, as well as expert testimony from geneticists, physicians, epidemiologists, medical researchers, anthropologists, documentary film specialists, and eyewitnesses who accompanied Drs. Neel and Chagnon to the territory of the Yanomami people. This body of material collected by our team of investigators refutes most claims made by Turner and Sponsel, as well as those already reported by scholars who have now read the galley proofs of Tierney’s book.

Given that the allegations are untrue, what possible motives would Tierney, Turner, and Sponsel have for making them? As suggested in our second statement, a long paper trail reveals that most of the allegations are not new, but part of ongoing feuds between Chagnon and two sets of detractors:

1. A group of anthropologists who are passionately opposed to Chagnon’s use of neo-Darwinian theory to explain Yanomami violence.

2. A group of missionaries who view Chagnon’s presence in Venezuela as a threat to their own agenda for the Yanomami.

Both feuds can only be understood by extensive examination of published background material. In this brief statement, we can give only a summary of our team’s findings.

1. Science vs Anti-science and the "Moral Agenda":

A Source of Friction in Anthropology

During the last two decades, a schism has developed between anthropologists who believe in a scientific paradigm and those who do not. The first major casualty of that schism was Stanford University’s Anthropology Department, which recently split into two departments: one of "Anthropological Sciences" and one of "Cultural and Social Anthropology." Citing Gerald Holton’s The Anti-Science Phenomenon (1993), University of Missouri anthropologist Robert Benfer (1996) describes "science" as objective, quantitative, extrapersonalized, and based on proof and consensus; "anti-science" is subjective, qualitative, personalized, moralistic, and based on individual authority with no accommodation of contrary views.

A further development within anti-scientific anthropology has been the growth of a "militant" or "politically committed and morally engaged anthropology" (Scheper-Hughes 1995) which grew out of the moralistic aspects of anti-science. Anthropologist Roy D’Andrade of UC-San Diego describes this as an effort to abandon objective models of the world and change anthropology to a discipline based on moral models. Anthropology’s purpose then becomes "to identify what is good and what is bad and to allocate reward and punishment" (D’Andrade 1995:399). In such an approach, debate is not closed by the discovery of the truth, but by the most powerful group’s exclusion of their rivals from the community of scholars. D’Andrade calls such an approach "estheticized journalism and moralistic pamphleteering" and suggests that it can be more easily replaced than scientific anthropology. Moral engagement against military dictatorships seems appropriate; against "the guy in the office down the hall," it seems inappropriate.

In Turner and Sponsel’s letter, moralistic phrases such as "sheer criminality and corruption ... unparalleled in the history of anthropology" leave no doubt as to which side of the debate they occupy. However, their individual agendas are somewhat different.

[References: Robert Benfer (1996) AAA Newsletter; Roy D’Andrade (1995) Moral Models in Anthropology. Current Anthropology 36(3):399-408; Nancy Scheper-Hughes (1995) The Primacy of the Ethical: Propositions for a Militant Anthropology. Current Anthropology 36 (3): 409-420.]

2. Leslie Sponsel’s Agenda

Two recent essays by Sponsel (1996, 1998) reveal the source of his antipathy toward Chagnon. Sponsel is committed to what he calls "the anthropology of peace," and his agenda seems to be the promotion of a "more nonviolent and peaceful world," a world he believes is "latent in human nature" (Sponsel 1996:115). He opposes what he calls the "Darwinian emphasis on violence and competition" (1996:99), and remains convinced that "nonviolence and peace were likely the norm throughout most of human prehistory and that intrahuman killing was probably rare" (1996:103). In both essays, Sponsel reveals his anti-science position by referring to any kind of quantification or statistics as "magic."

Sponsel was taken aback when Chagnon published a study showing that Yanomami men who had killed enemies in raids tended to have more wives and children than men who had not (Chagnon 1988). He had to be especially troubled by Chagnon’s neo-Darwinian suggestion that by becoming a warrior who had killed, a man might have increased his genetic fitness. Even more disturbing was Chagnon’s conclusion that violence was so potent a factor in human society that it "may be the principal driving force behind the evolution of culture" (Chagnon 1988:985).

It is the "political incorrectness" of Chagnon’s position that seems to bother Sponsel the most; by raising the possibility that violence is part of human nature rather than a pathology, Chagnon undermines the moral activists’ efforts to promote a less violent world. Sponsel (1998:114) also admits that much of the criticism of Chagnon results from biophobia, which he defines as "an almost automatic reaction against any biological explanation of human behavior, the possibility of biological reductionism, and the associated political implications." Clearly it is the "political implications" that most annoy those with a moralizing agenda. To borrow D’Andrade’s terminology, Chagnon’s ideas are "bad" and he deserves to be "punished."

Such punishment begins with efforts to blame Chagnon’s book for unflattering descriptions of the Yanomami in the Brazilian press, and ultimately to blame him for the destruction being committed by tens of thousands of gold prospectors now flooding Yanomami country (Sponsel 1998:105). When we look for the written sources of Sponsel’s allegations, however, we see that they come from two less than unbiased sources: the Salesian missionaries with whom Chagnon is feuding (see below), and an earlier version of Tierney’s book which Viking Press decided not to publish even though production had proceeded so far that in 1995 it had been assigned the ISBN number 067083372X.

A more even-handed view than that presented by Tierney or Sponsel would admit that Chagnon does not portray the Yanomami as living in a state of unrelenting war, i.e. they conduct only periodic raiding. Nor are Chagnon’s data showing that men who have killed tend to have more wives and children "simply not true," as Turner and Sponsel claim; a similar correlation has recently been found among the Waorani of Ecuador by Clayton and Carole Robarchek of Wichita State University (Robarchek and Robarchek 1998). The Robarcheks acknowledge this correlation, but present an alternative (and non-Darwinian) explanation for the phenomenon. In presenting an alternative hypothesis, the Robarcheks take a more reasonable approach than simply defaming Chagnon. Ironically, if Chagnon’s 1988 comment had read simply, "violence may be one of several variables involved in the evolution of culture," hundreds of anthropologists would probably have accepted it without biophobia. It is worth noting that a 1996 book by Lawrence Keeley of the University of Illinois at Chicago (War before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage) disputes Sponsel’s notion that nonviolence was the norm in prehistory, a view Keeley calls "the pacification of the past."

[References: Napoleon Chagnon, 1988, Life histories, blood revenge, and warfare in a tribal population. Science 239:985-992; Lawrence Keeley, 1996, War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage. New York, Oxford Univ. Press; Leslie E. Sponsel, 1996, The natural history of peace: the positive view of human nature and its potential. In A Natural History of Peace, edited by Thomas Gregor, pp. 95-125. Nashville, Vanderbilt Univ; Leslie Sponsel, 1998, Yanomami: An arena of conflict and aggression in the Amazon. Aggressive Behavior 24:97-122; Clayton and Carole Robarchek, 1998, Waorani: The Contexts of Violence and War, New York, Harcourt Brace]




3. Chagnon’s "Turf War" with the Salesian Missionaries

The Salesians of Don Bosco are a Catholic missionary order who, according to their own website, arrived in Venezuela in 1894. In 1933 the Holy See entrusted them with a Vicariate in the Upper Orinoco wherein live the Yanomami.

The Yanomami have traditionally been shifting cultivators, moving their villages periodically when the surrounding lands need to lie fallow until their fertility has been restored. The stated policy of the Salesians, however, is to encourage the Yanomami to settle around the mission (Cappelletti 1994). This policy led to angry exchanges between Chagnon and some of the missionaries, each claiming that he had the best interests of the Yanomami at heart.

This "turf war" has been investigated by anthropologist Frank A. Salamone of Iona College (Salamone 1996, 1997). While his trip to Venezuela was paid for by the Salesians, Salamone tried his best to be an impartial observer. The issues are so complex and the situation so byzantine that the University of Michigan investigative team can only present a very simplified version in this short report. In essence, Chagnon was able to document that those Yanomami concentrated in permanent villages near the Salesian missions had a higher death rate than those in more distant and widely spaced shifting settlements; he attributed this to (1) the fact that the missions were portals for Western diseases, and (2) the likelihood that game was depleted by overhunting near permanent settlements, leading to protein shortage. Chagnon was also convinced that the missionaries were providing the Yanomami with firearms which, although intended for hunting, were eventually used against rival villagers. Chagnon reported as early as 1966 that the Salesians were luring Yanomami to their mission at Mavaca by providing them with shotguns. It is also clear that someone has been providing the Yanomami with rifles; Salamone (1997:8) believes that the rifles were obtained indirectly, as follows:

"The Yanomami cooperative SUYAO had sold rifles which they obtained from the missionaries, the total was either five or six depending on the person relating the tale. All agree that the Salesians put a stop to the practice, anticipating that the rifles might be used for warfare."

Disputes between Chagnon and the Salesians escalated during 1993 when 16 or 17 Yanomami were massacred by illegal Brazilian gold miners (Salamone 1997:1). Chagnon was named to a Venezuelan Presidential Commission to investigate the massacre, but soon encountered opposition from the Salesians and their supporters. One of the problems was that the commission included the Venezuelan naturalist Charles Brewer-Carias. Because Brewer-Carias apparently had mining interests elsewhere in Amazonia, he was deemed to have a conflict of interest; Venezuelan journalists even accused Brewer-Carias of using botanical field trips as a front for gold prospecting. A new Presidential Commission was named and one of its members, the Bishop of Amazonas, ordered Chagnon and Brewer-Carias out of the region.

It should be noted that Chagnon himself has never been shown to have any interest whatsoever in gold mining. The basis of Tierney’s allegation that (in Turner and Sponsel’s words) Chagnon and Neel colluded with "sinister Venezuelan politicians" to gain control of Yanomami land for "illegal gold mining concessions" consists solely of guilt by association with Brewer-Carias. We have found no evidence that Chagnon owns a mine in the Orinoco or anywhere.

Later in 1993, supporters of the Salesian missionaries began anonymously to mail out packets of material intended to defame Chagnon. Many such packets were mailed to anthropologists and funding agencies, timed to arrive just before the 1993 meetings of the American Anthropological Association in Washington D.C. It is clear that anthropologists sympathetic to the Salesians (or angry with Chagnon) had supplied the addresses, some of which were the home addresses of anthropologists. These are the anonymous packets which (in Part 2 of this report) were denounced by Eric Wolf as an attempt to "demonize" anthropologists.

According to Salamone (1997:17), the Salesians also placed packets of these defamatory materials on a table where "free literature" was distributed at the 1993 AAA meetings in Washington. When Salamone spoke to Father Edward Cappelletti, director of the missions, about this, he found there was "no argument [Salamone] could put forth that moved [Cappelletti] to consider how repugnant anonymous accusations were to American academics" (1997:17). With difficulty, Salamone persuaded Cappelletti not to "hire a psychologist to do a profile on Chagnon," a study for which "Cappelletti ranted that he would spend $20,000" (Salamone 1997: Endnote 13).

Such animosity escalated to the point where, in March of 1994, anthropologist Dr. Kim Hill (University of New Mexico) announced that he had personally witnessed Salesians "coaching" Yanomami to defame Chagnon (Hill 1994). In the same letter, Hill reports that he saw the Salesians rehearsing missionized Yanomami whom they had chosen to serve as puppet "leaders" for their people. In a case of supreme irony, Hill reports, "Yanomamo whose lives were saved in the 1968 measles epidemic" thanks to Neel and Chagnon’s vaccination program were being coached to denounce Chagnon "because he sometimes assists medical personnel."

Finally, in an effort to make peace, Chagnon and Father Jose Bortoli of the Salesian missions agreed to meet at the 1994 American Anthropological Association meetings in Atlanta (Salamone 1997:1). The two were old friends, and after each had spoken at a session on Anthropology and Theology arranged by Salamone, they shook hands and declared a truce. "At root the Salesian-Chagnon dispute was a fraternal struggle," reports Salamone (1997:27), with one branch of the family seeking truth through empirical methods, the other through a metaphysical method. All agreed that in the future the Yanomami should speak for themselves.

Had all observers similarly agreed to disagree, the defamatory attacks on Chagnon might have ended in 1994. However, recall Roy D’Andrade’s (1995) observation that in the case of "militant, morally engaged" anthropologists, debate is not closed until those with "bad" ideas have been punished, literally excluded from the community of scholars. Some of Chagnon’s detractors were not satisfied by his truce with Father Bortoli because it left Chagnon insufficiently punished; among them, evidently, were Terence Turner and Patrick Tierney (see below).

[References: Frank A. Salamone (guest editor) (1996) Yanomami. Studies in Third World Societies 57. Williamsburg, VA; Frank Salamone (1997) The Yanomami and their Interpreters. New York, University Press of America; Kim Hill (1994) Response to Cardozo and Lizot (e-mail letter posted on Atarraya Network); Rev. E. J. Cappelletti (1994) Fighting the Common Enemy in the Amazon. Newsletter of the American Anthropological Association for May 1994]

4. Terence Turner’s Agenda

Every expert witness we have consulted considers Terence Turner to be Chagnon’s most passionate adversary. He is perhaps the prototypic "militant, morally engaged" anthropologist, with especially ferocious dedication to the rights of threatened indigenous people. His belief that he is on the moral high ground has been at least twice reinforced: (1) by being named head of the American Anthropological Association’s Special Commission to Investigate the Brazilian Yanomami in 1990-1991, and (2) by serving with Sponsel on the AAA Committee for Human Rights later in the 1990s. (The importance of these posts to Turner and Sponsel is reflected in the fact that they still list them in their famous e-mail even though their terms have expired.)

Turner appears from his writings to believe virtually every bad thing he has heard about Chagnon, whether from the Salesian missionaries, the missionized and "coached" Yanomami described in Hill’s letter, a disgruntled former student of Chagnon’s, or Chagnon’s professional rivals. Because Turner has co-authored a statement in the periodical Cultural Survival with Davi Kopinawa – an acculturated Brazilian Yanomami whom he regards as "the most effective spokesman for many of the general interests of the Yanomami to the outside world" – he feels qualified to denounce Chagnon on behalf of the Yanomami. Many of Turner’s earlier charges are repeated in his e-mail with Sponsel, and center on his belief that Chagnon’s published portrayal of the Yanomami as fierce and violent has actually endangered them.

In fairness to Turner, his fears are shared by many anthropologists who are concerned with the survival and welfare of the Yanomami. What sets Turner apart from Chagnon’s other critics is the intensity of his anger, which eyewitnesses say included interrupting Chagnon with a tirade during the 1994 "truce" session with Father Bortoli. Salamone (1997:14-15) reports that Turner has accused Chagnon of "unconscionable slandering of those helping the Yanomami" and has labeled Chagnon "a sociopath" and "a liar whose lies damage the Yanomami." This clearly goes beyond normal professional disagreement; it suggests that phrases in the Turner-Sponsel letter like "sheer criminality and corruption ... unparalleled in the history of Anthropology" probably originated with Turner rather than Tierney. Tierney’s galley proofs also reveal that Turner had disliked Neel’s research since 1963, attributing to Neel a "leadership gene" theory which Tierney admits can be found nowhere in Neel’s own writings.

Salamone (1997:15) points out that contrary to Turner’s allegations, Chagnon himself has repudiated the misuse of his Yanomami data by others; he did so in the 1983 version of his book Yanomamo: the Fierce People. It appears, however, that nothing will satisfy Turner short of punishment for Chagnon.

In an earlier statement, our investigative team noted three interesting facts: (1) Turner was one of the anthropologists to receive an anonymous packet of defamatory material from the supporters of the Salesians in 1993; (2) many of the allegations in the packet are repeated in Tierney’s book; and (3) it was during the period that Turner and Sponsel were "encouraging" him that the subtitle of Tierney’s book changed from an attack on "gold miners" to an attack on "scientists." We leave it to the reader to decide whether supplying Tierney with defamatory material on Chagnon was part of Turner’s effort to punish Chagnon.

5. Patrick Tierney’s Agenda

Tierney’s earlier book, The Highest Altar (Viking, 1989) established a pattern of sensationalizing anthropological themes; anthropologists working in the Andes of southern Peru dispute his claim that late 20th century Aymara villagers are still practicing prehispanic-style human sacrifices.

While Tierney is usually described as a journalist, he took Anthropology at UCLA and is presumably familiar with the "militant, morally engaged" anti-science agenda. Indeed, on page XXIV of the galleys for Darkness in El Dorado he states that while among the Yanomami, "I gradually changed from being an observer to being an advocate ... traditional, objective journalism was no longer an option for me."

We would agree, since an examination of Tierney’s Acknowledgment section does not suggest that the goal of his book was balanced or objective journalism. Almost without exception his informants were detractors of Chagnon, who seems to be the main target of his volume and is seen as having few redeeming qualities. Had Tierney kept to his original plan of exposing the detrimental effect of 40,000 gold miners on the Yanomami, Darkness in El Dorado might well have been a contribution. When he overextends himself to blame Chagnon not only for the gold miners but also for measles epidemics and Venezuelan government corruption, he strains credulity. At that point his book becomes, to borrow D’Andrade’s phrase, "moralistic pamphleteering" like that of the most extreme anti-science anthropologists.

The galley proofs of Tierney’s book are now being analyzed on web sites at major universities. Scholars have already pointed to several disturbing aspects of the book. One is a series of ad hominem comments on Chagnon’s personal appearance and his impoverished childhood in rural Michigan. A second disturbing trend is Tierney’s repeating of third-hand malicious gossip. He claims that Mark Andrew Ritchie, a novelist and traveler to the Orinoco, told him that a Yanomami told Ritchie that Chagnon once wanted to buy a Yanomami wife. Chagnon has never had a Yanomami wife, and those who know him best describe him as "devotedly monogamous" (confusion may result from the fact that one of Chagnon’s former students did once have a Yanomami wife). As an example of how such unsubstantiated gossip can become embellished, the Turner-Sponsel letter escalates this comment by Tierney into "passing references to Chagnon himself demanding that the villagers bring him girls for sex."

Third, there are efforts to prove that Chagnon "cooked" his data -- efforts which suggest that statistics may be as "magical" for Tierney as Sponsel describes them. A case in point is Tierney’s "reanalysis" of Chagnon’s figures showing that men who killed tended to have more wives. Scholars in possession of the galley proofs have rushed to point out that Tierney missed a crucial point: it is the number of wives a warrior has over the entire course of his lifetime, including dead and divorced wives, that is relevant. By including only surviving wives in his "renanalysis," it was Tierney who did the cooking. Here it is clear that part of Tierney’s agenda is to disprove Chagnon’s potential correlation between killing and genetic fitness, a clear case of biophobia in Sponsel’s terms.

Fourth, much of Tierney’s evidence seems to come from Latin Amercan newspaper articles and personal communications from Chagnon’s long-term detractors.

6. Preliminary Conclusions

The work of the University of Michigan fact-finding team has not ended. We will be investigating every allegation in the galleys concerning Drs. Neel and Chagnon. However, this seems an appropriate time to offer some tentative and preliminary conclusions.

We began this study assuming that, in Turner and Sponsel’s words, we would be investigating "an impending scandal" concerning flagrant wrongdoing by two celebrated scholars. Almost immediately, however, we discovered published evidence that the most serious allegations were false. Neel was not a eugenicist, did not cause the 1968 measles epidemic, and did not run nefarious experiments on unsuspecting human subjects. What he did was what any responsible physician would have done: vaccinate as many people as he could in a circle around the mission where the epidemic began. That these facts were available in the medical literature 30 years ago (Neel et al. 1970) made us wonder why Tierney had so badly distorted the facts. Today we realize that it was because he had become an "advocate" rather than an objective journalist.

As our work progressed, the major allegations against Chagnon also began to crumble. None of Timothy Asch’s films had been staged, nor were any of them designed by Chagnon to teach the Yanomami how to be violent. Records of Yanomami violence go back long before Chagnon’s birth, and resemble similar records among the Jivaro and Waorani. Chagnon is aware that his data on Yanomami violence have been misused by others for their own ends, and he repudiated this misuse in 1983. While it is certainly legitimate to offer alternatives to Chagnon’s neo-Darwinian theoretical framework, it is hardly fair to hold him responsible for a Brazilian gold rush or Venezuelan government corruption. By the time we had checked into these allegations, we realized that we might actually be dealing with a hoax, or with the literary equivalent of a professional "hit."

We began with the assumption that Turner and Sponsel had just discovered a scandal. The more we read, the less the affair looked like a scandal, and the more it looked like a professional vendetta that had been going on for years. The anonymous packets of defamatory material supplied by supporters of the Salesians played into the hands of any anthropologist seeking to demonize Chagnon. But why would anyone want to demonize a fellow anthropologist? Clues in the writings of Turner, Sponsel, and others led us directly to the rift between scientific and morally engaged Anthropology described by D’Andrade and Scheper-Hughes. According to Paul Rabinow (1995:432) of UC-Berkeley,

"... sociobiologists such as Napoleon Chagnon are attacked at meetings of the AAA simply because of their beliefs. These political attacks are motivated by a desire to keep people who have "bad" ideas and who write "bad" things from doing research."

Certainly there is room in Anthropology for all kinds of paradigms – neo-Darwinian, Marxist, structuralist, postmodern, politically engaged, and whatever may come next. And all those kinds of anthropologists, in the spirit of Chagnon and Father Bortoli, should be able to shake hands and cordially agree to disagree. The problem comes when extreme moralists believe that debate can only end when their opponents are denounced, demonized, and driven from the community into silence. While we reserve final judgment, it appears to us that this is what Darkness in El Dorado sets out to do. Its targets are science, genetics, and neo-Darwinian theory, as exemplified by Neel and Chagnon.

Let us briefly put a human face on the damage done by Turner and Sponsel’s widely circulated e-mail. James Neel died in February, leaving a wife and children who now have to read newspaper headlines accusing him of genocide. Scholars of various universities have received e-mail from developing countries, asking whether it is safe to vaccinate their children against measles. Someone should ultimately be held responsible for this "collateral damage."

[Reference: James V. Neel, Willard R. Centerwall, Napoleon A. Chagnon, and Helen L. Casey (1970) Notes on the Effect of Measles and Measles Vaccine in a Virgin-Soil Population of South American Indians. American Journal of Epidemiology 91(4):418-429; Paul Rabinow (1995) Comment on Objectivity and Militancy: A Debate. Current Anthropology 36(3):430-433.]




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