The Turner-Sponsel Memo
Terry Turner 13 Nov. 2000

In late August Leslie Sponsel and I read advance galleys of a book by Patrick Tierney, Darkness in El Dorado, sent to us by the publisher, W. W. Norton, for our comments and corrections. The book was full of allegations, extensively documented, of grave misconduct by anthropologists, geneticists and others engaged in studying the Yanomami people of the Venezuelan Amazon. The most serious allegations concerned the role of an expedition, headed by the human geneticist James Neel, in either starting or exacerbating and spreading an epidemic of measles, accompanied by other medical and social disorders , that may have caused as many as a thousand deaths. The author, Patrick Tierney, presented evidence that suggested that the epidemic was deliberately caused as an experiment, although the purpose of the experiment was left unclear. While refraining from explicitly claiming that Neel and his associates, who included the anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, had deliberately caused the fatal epidemic, he strongly suggested this conclusion by quoting medical historian John Earle to the effect that "I wouldn't rule out a deliberate attempt to create an epidemic. After all, Indians in this country were used in medical experiments, like the Seneca in the syphilis studies. And down there in the jungle, who was to know?" I see that this passage has been excised from the published version of the book.

Tierney's account of the epidemic and its possible experimental source is not only directed against the leader and members of the expedition that conducted the vaccination program. In a larger sense, it is explicitly couched as a challenge to Anthropology. He quotes the chemist, Terry Collins, President of the Green Chemistry Society, as follows:
"This book should shake anthropology to its very foundations. It should cause the field to understand how the corrupt and depraved protagonists could have spread their poison for so long while they were accorded great respect throughout the Western world and generations of undergraduates received their lies as the introductory substance of anthropology. This should never be allowed to happen again."

Sponsel and I were already familiar with many of the subjects covered in the book (those concerned with the conduct and writings of Napoleon Chagnon, and his collaboration with the Venezuelan naturalist, politician, adventurer and mining impresario, Charles Brewer Carias, including their activities in the Siapa region under the patronage of Dona Cecilia Matos, the mistress of the later impeached and imprisoned president, Carlos Andres Perez). Many of Tierney's allegations about the activities of Chagnon and Brewer-Carias, and the patronage of Cecilia Matos and President Carlos Andres Perez were already common knowledge among anthropologists who have worked with the Yanomami and other Venezuelan indigenous peoples. Tierney's accounts of these activities checked out with what we knew, although Tierney provided much new data on many of them. Tierney had interviewed both of us about our knowledge, or in some cases direct participation, in some of the events he reported (e.g., those involving criticisms of Chagnon). Neither of us, however, had had any idea of the most sensational allegations of the book, those concerning the connection between the 1968 measles epidemic and the activities of the Neel expedition. These allegations comprise a relatively self-contained section of the book, and are mostly concerned with James Neel, the leader of the 1968 expedition, rather than with Chagnon. Tierney had not discussed them with either of us in the interviews and conversations he had had with us, which he acknowledges in the book.

The allegations about Neel and the epidemic seemed certain to attract the attention of the media and lead to a major scandal, directed not merely against Dr.s Neel and Chagnon but against anthropology as a whole, along lines indicated by the Collins quote cited above. Sponsel and I therefore decided that we should warn the leaders of the AAA of the imminent scandal so that they could prepare to deal with it on behalf of the profession. We suggested that they take steps to set up an investigation of the allegations, either by the standing committees on ethics and human rights, or by an ad hoc committee that might include representatives of other scientific organizations such as the AAAS. Such an investigation by an impartial body of competent scholars, it seemed to us, would be as much in the interests of those accused by name in Tierney's text as in the broader interests of the professional ethics and values of the Association, as well as the rights of the Yanomami.

We put our warning in a confidential memo to the President and President-elect of the Association and the Chair of Committee for Human Rights. At the behest of the latter, we agreed to send a second version to the Chair of the Ethics Committees and the Presidents of the member Societies of Latin American Anthropology and Latino and Latina Anthropology. All those who received the memo from us were the heads of institutional bodies of the AAA concerned with the specific issues raised by Tierney's book. The memo was not an "open letter", as it has since been described by some journalists. It was addressed specifically and exclusively to the AAA officers I have mentioned. It was never intended for general circulation. We do not know who violated this understanding and forwarded it to colleagues, list-serves, and the press. We regret that this happened. The unauthorized circulation of our memo, combined with the long delay in the publication of Tierney's book, led to precisely the sort of half-baked discussion and sensational distortion in the media that the memo was intended to help avoid, by alerting the leadership of the Association to prepare press statements and set up responsible investigations. Once taken out of its original context as a confidential message to the AAA leadership on the content and sensational implications of Tierney's allegations, the memo was widely interpreted as an expression of our own ideas and opinions. It is not. We had no opportunity to check on the allegations about the epidemic and certain other claims that were new to us before sending the memo: its purpose, after all, was simply to warn of the allegations in Tierney's text, not to pass judgement on them ourselves. The global dimensions of the scandal that has surrounded the memo and the book, the nomination of the book for the National Book Award, and the many reviews that have been appearing in leading journals, have more than born out our assessment of the book's importance and the uproar it would cause.

After sending the memo, we set out to check for ourselves on the most sensational(and to us, the most unfamiliar) of Tierney's allegations (that the vaccination campaign, through the vaccine it used, had actually started the measles epidemic).Experts we consulted confirmed that the consensus of medical opinion was that a vaccine could not cause contagious cases of the disease against which it immunizes. This appeared to contradict the possibility that Dr. Neel could have caused the epidemic through the vaccinations, either deliberately or accidentally. With Sponsel's agreement, I therefore wrote an open letter to Dr. Samuel Katz, the developer of the vaccine used by the expedition, publicly stating our recognition that the vaccine, in and of itself, could not have caused the epidemic. Both Sponsel and I have made a point, in our contacts with journalists and the media, of repudiating irresponsible media reports of "genocide", or any intention to cause death as part of an experimental plan, by Dr. Neel or anyone else connected with the expedition. This was effective and appears to have become generally recognized by journalists covering the story, to judge by the report in the Sunday New York Times of October 8 (for which neither Sponsel nor I were interviewed) that I had "withdrawn the charge of genocide". Of course neither I nor Sponsel had ever made such a "charge." The Times report must rather be understood as a reference to our repeated rebuttals of media claims to this effect.

Meanwhile, certain defenders of Chagnon and Neel have attempted to build a case against Sponsel and myself, alleging that we knew all along about the allegations in Tierney's book and dissimulated "what we knew and when we knew it" to create a fictitious pretext for sending our memo. This is nonsense, but even if true would be irrelevant. The allegations in Tierney's book were as we said they were; it was the imminent publication of the book, not the state of our personal knowledge, about which we warned in our memo. Tierney's book has gone through a series of changes involving major shifts of focus over some fifteen years. Half a dozen years or so ago we each saw parts of an earlier manuscript dealing with mining operations on the Venezuelan-Guyana frontier, and their effects on the environment and indigenous peoples (it was called Tribes of El Dorado). Tierney consulted us about this work because both of us were writing on aspects of mining and timber extractivism in the Amazon (Sponsel is the editor and I am the author of a chapter in the forthcoming book, Mining, Oil, Environment, People and Rights in the Amazon; I have also published several papers on the Kayapo struggle with various forms of extractivism). It was in researching this earlier, and never published, version of the book that Tierney came across Charles Brewer-Carias's extensive mining activities, which in turn led him to Dr. Chagnon (as an associate of Brewer, not as someone directly involved in mining himself). There is only partial overlap between the earlier ms. and the present book. Most of the data on mining, the main focus of the earlier work, are not carried over (to our disappointment, if I may say) into Darkness in El Dorado. Both Sponsel's and my input into Tierney's research, in interviews and (in my case) informal conversations with Tierney, dealt more with extractivism than with Chagnon's and Neel's actions (as my comment on the cover of the book still suggests).
The Provost of the University of Michigan has seen fit to devote several paragraphs in a statement defending Dr.s Neel and Chagnon to disputing the claim that we (Turner and Sponsel) "learned of this 'impending scandal' from reading the galley proofs of Tierney's book". Why she puts "impending scandal" in quotation marks is puzzling: it has certainly been a scandal and it certainly was impending when we sent our memo. She cites Tierney's acknowledgement of our help in the galley proofs of the book as evidence that we had read "it" "long before the galley stage". What we had read were chunks of earlier stages of the ms., some of which dealt with mining and never made it to the final galley proofs and some of which dealt with Chagnon. The chapter dealing with the epidemic only arrived in August as part of the complete galley version. She says, "While the 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". Well of course we knew about many of them long before; long before either of us ever met Tierney, in fact, since many of them have been common knowledge among Amazonian anthropologists for years. There are a great many allegations in the book; they do not comprise a single, indivisible package. Some of them, specifically including those involving Dr. Neel and the 1968 epidemic, were new, as they are derived directly from Tierney's personal research, and Tierney seems to have kept them under authorial wraps for as long as possible--he certainly never discussed them with either of us. The Provost's statement continues, "Some allegations had already been made in print by Turner as far back as 1994" This is indeed evidence that I knew of some of the allegations against Chagnon, having made and published them myself. So what? Is this supposed to invalidate them, or the rest of the allegations Tierney puts in his book and we repeated in our memo? None of the "published evidence" about our conversations with Tierney says anything about Tierney's section on the epidemic, for the good reason that Tierney never discussed it with us--like many a journalist, he kept that, his most senastional "hook" under wraps until putting it into the galleys. The Provost, in short, has no "evidence" for what she claims, and her claims are false. I might add that neither she nor those who created this rumor ever attempted to contact us and simply ask us if the story were true. The Provost continues, "The accusations are part of a long-standing academic feud...". What "feud"? Chagnon has been slandering indigenous leaders as "parrots" of NGOs, and accusing NGOs of using the Yanomami to collect money for themselves rather than doing anything for the Yanomami, and misrepresenting his own activities in connection with the Haximu massacre and other Yanomami tragedies, for a long time, and I have been denouncing these statements as he has made them, over the same period. Calling this a "feud" is an attempt to trivialize the issues involved as merely expressions of some personal conflict. The issues, however, are real, and I invite anyone concerned to read my published statements on the matter and make up their own mind (see "The Yanomami: Truth and Consequences." Anthropology Newsletter May 1994:46,48.).

Menu of Resources    |   Doctoral Program in Anthropology and History