Thomas N. Headland
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When Did the Measles Epidemic Begin among the Yanomami?

Thomas N. Headland


Thomas Headland's letter to USA Today reporter


Background: On September 27, USA Today newspaper reporter Dan Vergano phoned me asking for a statement on Darkness in El Dorado. I wrote the statement below and sent it email to him that day. He quoted me briefly in his article on October 2 (p. D7). Over the next seven days four other media outlets contacted me asking the same question (including Reuters and AP). I sent my statement below to all of those. I did not send it unsolicited to any media people or outlets. It circulated and brief portions were quoted in numerous newspapers around the USA.


from Thomas Headland, written and emailed to USA Today on September 27, 2000, with a few additions in square brackets added on October 3, 2000:

Here is my own perspective on the matter, which is independent of the AAA's view and may not necessarily agree with the AAA: I know it may not be career-enhancing to be a member of the "tribe of the Undecided" (See the "Comment" by L. Morrow on page 22 in the new September 25 issue of Time magazine), but I remain for the moment close to the Wishy-Washy 50-yard line of public opinion on Tierney's controversial book. I, at least, have read the book [in August], including the 1,599 endnotes in the back (in tiny 6-point type!).

The main question I have been asked is, what do I make of the allegations in this book, which is so harshly damning of Chagnon, Neel, and Lizot?

I can say this much: Author Tierney is unrelenting in his attempt to go through the garbage. So at least people should approach the book with that in mind. It sees nothing redeeming about Chagnon or Neel. My AAA colleagues I hope will be skeptical of the book for that reason alone.

There is no love lost between Chagnon and me. Chagnon has criticized me in print, and I him. But I don't believe, after reading Tierney's book, that Chagnon is guilty of genocide, or that he purposely [or even accidentally] helped introduce and spread measles into the Yanomami population. [Evidence continues to slowly accumulate over recent days that fails to support journalist Tierney's forthcoming book against Chagnon and Neel. One of the most helpful emails I have seen was written by a Susan Lindee on September 21. She brought some sanity to this controversy. (Lindee is cited on this in the new October 2 issue of TIME, p. 78.) Another email written by Dr. Samuel Katz provides even more powerful testimony against Tierney's thesis, which I received on September 29. Like many of my anthropologist friends, I am neither for nor against Tierney or Chagnon (or Neel). I am just trying to get to the truth.]

I don't believe that Chagnon "demanded that villagers bring him girls for sex," as Turner and Sponsel stated [in their September letter to the AAA president]. Tierney's book does not have "passing references" (plural) to this. It has only one reference to this, on page 31 ("Uncorrected Proof" copy), and Tierney has no documentation reference for it except to say that author Mark Ritchie [author of the book "Spirit of the Rainforest"] told him that Kaobawa [Chagnon's main Yanomami assistant in past years] told Ritchie that Chagnon "wanted to buy a wife from a distant village" (p.31). The best Tierney can say here is to quote Ritchie saying that "Apparently, Chagnon wanted a Yanomami wife" (emphasis added). In fact, this was the first clue for me that Tierney may be doing some yellow journalism here, the first sign I found that made me lose confidence in Tierney's credibility. Chagnon's grad students [when he taught] at Penn State will I believe tell you that he had the reputation there of being aggressively monogamist. [That is, Chagnon does not have a reputation among anthropologists I know as being a womanizer.]

Tierney also lost me when he described Chagnon in derogatory caricatures: "Thinning white hair and beer belly" (xxvi); and where he referred disparagingly to Chagnon because his father was a mortician (40), and that he was a draft dodger (p.42, but this was after Korea and well before Vietnam-he was born in 1938). [This is deleted from the published version of the book.] The worst caricature is on page 180 where Tierney disparages Chagnon because "his childhood [was] in rural Michigan," and because he was anti-Marxist "when Joe McCarthy was king.... Tailgunner Joe [McCarthy] was still firing away ... blessed with a wealth of offspring, one of whom, a poor boy from Port Arthur, had received a full portion of his [McCarthy's] spirit" (p.180).

Some of Tierney's accusations may be true. [I am referring here to some of the non-criminal accusations such as that Chagnon might have faked some of the films, or exaggerated the fierceness of the Yanomami, or maybe put his research over the personal needs of some of his Yanomami helpers.] Most Amazonianist anthropologists may accept much of what Tierney says about the French anthropologist Lizot, which is not new news. (I first heard these rumors about Lizot in 1980.) And Chagnon is a renegade. He offends people easily [in my view], including many of his fellow anthropologists. Some of the evidence Tierney provides leads me to believe that some of the accusations may be true. But I have no first-hand knowledge. I know little about the recently deceased James Neel, except that he is respected in the scientific community and well regarded by his colleagues. Neel, unlike Chagnon, was not a "renegade," nor, I am told, offensive to his peers. [There is growing evidence in the last few days to suggest that Neel did good research and that he is not guilty of Tierney's charges. Examples are the Lindee letter and the Katz letter, as well as other documents posted in the last 4 or 5 days on the Internet.]

As to the Atomic Energy Commission, it may have a lot to answer for. I can imagine there may be a lot of active paper shredding taking place right now in the AEC. But I rather guess that there may be none in Chagnon's office. (Chagnon would only shred paper if he was guilty, and I'm not sure that he is-not of the worst accusations, at least, such as genocide.)

I'm not trying to defend anthropology here. Like the AMA [American Medical Association] and the ABA [American Bar Association], the AAA, too, has a few rotten apples. And anthropology is not being accused, anyway. Rather, an anthropologist is. Why should, say, the AMA be called on the carpet just because one of their member physicians poisoned one of her patients? If any of the scientists accused in Tierney's book did commit a crime, does this reflect on me or my other anthropological colleagues? Ninety percent of AAA members do fine work. The AAA should not be discredited because one of their members committed a crime, unless the AAA voted or lobbied for that member to be acquitted.

[One journalist asked, "What is the status in the anthropological community on the debate on ethical research?" The AAA is very much concerned about both indigenous human rights and the ethics of research. Indeed, the AAA has a formal Committee on Human Rights, and has had for at least a quarter century a Committee on Ethics. Also the AAA is promising action on this front at their upcoming 5-day annual meeting next month in San Francisco, California. There will be a special forum at this AAA meeting, organized by the Committee on Human Rights, to discuss the implications of Tierney's book. The AAA has invited both Tierney and Chagnon to attend this special forum. On this, click on the AAA webpage at http://www.aaanet.org/press/eldorado.htm.]

Thomas N. Headland, Ph.D.
SIL Int'l Anthropology Consultant, and
Adjunct Professor, University of Texas at Arlington
WebPage: http://www.sil.org/~headlandt/