Late last year, W.W. Norton & Co. published the book
Darkness in El Dorado, by Patrick Tierney, which contained serious
allegations regarding the 1960s research of the late geneticist
James V. Neel, M.D., Ph.D., and anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon
(Ph.D. 1966) among the Yanomami, an indigenous people of the
Amazon River basin. Following is a statement, edited slightly
for length, by University of Michigan Provost Nancy Cantor regarding
the allegations and the findings of scholars who investigated
those allegations. Supporting research was conducted by the
offices of the Executive Vice President for Medical Affairs,
the Vice President for Research, the General Counsel, and by
faculty in the Medical School and the Department of Anthropology
in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts. Complete
text of Provost Cantors statement can be found at:
The University of Michigan takes allegations of impropriety
in research very seriously. When we first learned of the claims
made in the book Darkness in El Dorado, we immediately convened
a team of senior administrators, research staff and scholars
to begin an internal inquiry. These individuals spent hundreds
of hours over the course of several weeks conducting a careful
and thorough review. Their efforts included interviews with
individuals who had firsthand knowledge of the work of James
Neel and Napoleon Chagnon, as well as medical experts on measles
vaccination; review of James Neels research logs and other
published and unpublished writings; and research into other
relevant literature and published materials.
The evidence uncovered by our review supports the conclusion
that the claims are false. We are satisfied that James Neel
and Napoleon Chagnon, both among the most distinguished scientists
in their respective fields, acted with integrity in conducting
their research, and that their medical care of the Yanomami
and their attempts to halt the spread of a pre-existing measles
epidemic through vaccination were humane, compassionate and
We believe that Tierney did not consult 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. The serious factual errors we have
found call into question the accuracy of the entire book as
well as the interpretations of its author.
The allegations were circulated widely throughout the academic
community in September 2000 in an e-mail message from two reviewers,
Terry Turner of Cornell University and Leslie Sponsel of the
University of Hawaii. The e-mail message implied that the two
had just learned of these allegations, but in fact they were
interviewed for the book as early as 1995 and are credited in
the Acknowledgments section.
Below are listed some of the claims made in either the book
or the e-mail message, and a description of our findings.
Nancy Cantor, Ph.D.
U-M Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs
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 Neel left for Venezuela, so Neel could not have been
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, Neel initiated requests to pharmaceutical
companies and obtained 2,000 doses of Edmonston B vaccine plus
gamma globulin. He also consulted with a Centers for Disease
Control expert on measles on the best way to administer the
Upon hearing of the outbreak, Neel acted quickly and responsibly
to stop the spread of the disease. The records show 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 Neel initiated
an extensive program of immunization throughout the region.
One thousand doses were administered by 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. 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. 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 exceedingly rare in any population.
CLAIM: Refusal of medical care so that Neel could observe
OUR FINDINGS: William Oliver, professor emeritus and
chair 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. Neels basic philosophy
was to treat all illnesses before any scientific observations.
Each day he would treat any new illnesses before starting the
days planned studies. Any medicines not used would be
left with resident missionaries with detailed instructions for
In the case of the measles outbreak, the facts are clear. The
predicted death rate from untreated measles is 30 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,
Neel stopped his research work so that he could provide medical
care to the population.
CLAIM: Secret radiation experiments were conducted.
OUR FINDINGS: 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).
Radioiodine was then and remains today a commonly used diagnostic
tool to measure pathological conditions including thyroid function.
Neel was well known for his extensive study on the aftereffects
of atomic radiation on survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and
their children. A review of Neels field journal and daily
logs makes it clear that he never conducted any "secret
CLAIM: Neel held extreme eugenic theories.
OUR FINDINGS: Neels published works show that
he was a critic of eugenics from his graduate student days in
the late 1930s. Far from holding "eugenics" positions,
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.
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.
CLAIM: Chagnon himself is directly or indirectly responsible
for endemic warfare among the Yanomami.
OUR FINDINGS: 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 also was
reported by the Spanish conquerors of the sixteenth century
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).
These and many other accounts make the claim that Yanomami violence
began with Chagnons arrival obviously false.
CLAIM: Chagnons characterization of the Yanomami as
"fierce people" encouraged 40,000 invading gold miners
to use violence against them between 1980-1987.
OUR FINDINGS: 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
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 convincing. Published accounts of Yanomami
violence had preceded Chagnons 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
CLAIM: Turner and Sponsel learned of this "impending
scandal" from reading the galley proofs of Tierneys
OUR FINDINGS: While the e-mail letter to the American
Anthropological Association 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. The first piece of evidence, according
to sources who have seen uncorrected page proofs of the book,
is that both Turner and Sponsel are thanked in the Acknowledgments
section of Tierneys book, which indicates that they read
it long before the galley stage. A second piece of evidence
is that Tierneys book cites a 1995 interview with Terence
Evidence leads us to believe that the accusations against Chagnon
in Tierneys 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