Last Word on El Dorado

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Science  19 Jul 2002:
Vol. 297, Issue 5580, pp. 333
DOI: 10.1126/science.297.5580.333b

The American Anthropological Association (AAA) has completed an 18-month investigation into the conduct of famed anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, clearing him of the most serious charges levied by journalist Patrick Tierney—but accepting enough of them that Tierney claims his argument is vindicated.

In November 2000 Tierney published Darkness in El Dorado, a 400-page indictment of the treatment of Venezuela's Yanomami Indians by Chagnon, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the late James V. Neel, a prominent geneticist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (Science, 19 January 2001, p. 416). The book's most alarming claim was that the two had performed unethical research on the Yanomami—and possibly spread a fatal epidemic of measles.

On 2 July, a five-member AAA task force released its report, which concludes that Chagnon and Neel actually saved Yanomami lives by prompt vaccination. But it says Neel failed to obtain proper consent for his blood-collection research. The report also criticizes Chagnon for using “highly suspect means to gain access to the Yanomami”—especially by cozying up to a group that was apparently seeking to set up a private fiefdom in mineral-rich Yanomami territory.

“The main charges of the book have been vindicated, however grudgingly,” says Tierney, who views it overall as a “repudiation of Chagnon's lifework.” Chagnon says that his information-gathering techniques were nothing unusual—rather, “I was honest enough to identify the characteristics of my informants.” He dismisses the report as a “hostile” attack “by a bunch of politically correct anthropologists who use moral self-righteousness as a political tool.”

Chagnon's most serious quarrel with the report is its presentation of an interview by panel member Janet Chernela with a Yanomamo who claimed to recall Chagnon offering tribe members cooking pots for killing people. Chagnon denies doing so and says the man would have been 10 years old at the time.

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