Darkness in El Dorado

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Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon
Darkness in El Dorado.jpg
AuthorPatrick Tierney
SubjectsJames Neel, Napoleon Chagnon
Media typePrint

Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon (2000) is a polemical book by author Patrick Tierney, in which the author accuses geneticist James Neel and anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon of conducting human research without regard for their subjects' well-being while conducting long-term ethnographic field work among the indigenous Yanomamö, in the Amazon Basin between Venezuela and Brazil. He also wrote that the researchers had exacerbated a measles epidemic among the Native Americans.[1] Tierney also claims that Jacques Lizot and Kenneth Good committed acts of sexual impropriety with Yanomamö.

While the book was positively reviewed and well received at first, later investigations by multiple independent organizations found Tierney's main allegations to be false and libelous.[2]

Major claims and evaluations of these claims[edit]

Claims made in Darkness in El Dorado included the following:

  • Napoleon Chagnon and James Neel directly and indirectly caused a genocide in the region through the introduction of a live measles vaccine that was insufficiently attenuated. This claim has been refuted.[3][4][5]
  • The Yanomami project was an outgrowth and continuation of the Atomic Energy Commission's secret program of experiments on human subjects. This claim has been refuted.[5]
  • Chagnon's account of the Yanomami are based on false, non-existent or misinterpreted data, and Chagnon incited violence among them. Related claims and ethical issues have been the subject of much academic debate.
  • French researcher Jacques Lizot, a protégé of Claude Lévi-Strauss, traded various uncustomary homosexual favors from Yanomamo boys after introducing shotguns and other foreign commodities into the community in what Tierney called "shotgun-driven prostitution".[6] Despite receiving critical support during a subsequent inquiry,[7] these allegations attracted relatively little academic attention.[8][incomplete short citation]
  • The American researcher Kenneth Good married a Yanomami girl who was barely entering her teens. Good's autobiographical accounts describe a complex personal relationship that developed in the context of Yanomamo (as well as American) cultural norms, he recounts that, in keeping with local customs and community wishes, he was betrothed to his future wife when she was still a child. They consummated the marriage when she was aged about 15 or 16.[9]


In 2000, Tierney published Darkness in El Dorado, which accused geneticist James Neel and anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon of exacerbating a measles epidemic among the Yanomamo people, among other damning allegations; this work initially received good reviews and was nominated for a National Book Award. Many of Tierney's accusations against Chagnon were accepted as fact in a New York Times book review by science journalist John Horgan;[10][11] the resulting political controversy resulted in Chagnon's early retirement.[12] Anthropologist John Tooby of Slate, thought the book was internally inconsistent and suggested that it should have been identified as fiction.[4]

Several inquiries related to Tierney's allegations against the researchers were conducted by the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and outside evaluators. Tierney's book was condemned by a number of academic researchers and professional associations, including the National Academy of Sciences,[13] and the American Society of Human Genetics;[3] the conclusion was that Tierney had fraudulently presented his allegations.

Tierney's charges against Neel and Chagnon were initially investigated by the Peacock Commission, later known as the El Dorado Task Force, formed by the AAA, it supported Tierney and questioned the conduct of Neel and Chagnon; its findings were accepted by the AAA board in May 2002.[5]

Because of dissension within the organization, the AAA subsequently requested an outside investigative team, it said in its preliminary report that the "book appears to be deliberately fraudulent", and that "Patrick Tierney has misconstrued or misrepresented his primary sources to a considerable degree in an effort to support his allegations."[14] The investigators concluded it was not Chagnon who committed any wrongdoing, but Tierney, who fraudulently altered evidence to support a story he either at best imagined or at worst manufactured.[14]

In 2004 Thomas A. Gregor and Daniel R. Gross published their investigation of the AAA's reviews.[15] In 2005 they called for the membership of the AAA to rescind the organization's support of the book; this resolution passed overwhelmingly, 846 to 338.[16]

A detailed investigation of Tierney's charges by a panel set up by the University of Michigan found the most serious charges to have no foundation and others to have been exaggerated; the Provost's office of the University of Michigan in November 2000 refuted almost all of Tierney's claims.[17] Sponsel and Turner, the two scientists who originally touted the book's claims, admitted that their charge against Neel "remains an inference in the present state of our knowledge: there is no 'smoking gun' in the form of a written text or recorded speech by Neel."[5]

Alice Dreger, an historian of medicine and science, and an outsider to the debate, concluded after a year of research that Tierney's claims about Chagnon and Neel were false, she wrote that the AAA was complicit and irresponsible in helping spread these falsehoods and not protecting "scholars from baseless and sensationalistic charges".[5]

The AAA rescinded its support of the book and acknowledged fraudulent, improper and unethical conduct by Tierney; the association admitted that "in the course of its investigation, in its publications, in the venues of its national meetings and its web site, [the AAA] condoned a culture of accusation and allowed serious but unevaluated charges to be posted on its website and expressed in its newsletter and annual meetings" and that its "report has damaged the reputations of its targets, distracted public attention from the real sources of the Yanomami tragedy and misleadingly suggested that anthropologists are responsible for Yanomami suffering".[16]

The accusations of medical improprieties[vague] contained in Tierney's book were investigated by the Medical Team of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and found to be false.[18]

Since the controversy over Darkness in El Dorado, Tierney has kept a low profile, he has rarely appeared in public to defend his work.[19]

Both Dreger and Chagnon state that the "dossier" of accusations made against Chagnon by Tierney were attributed to Leda Martins, a Venezuelan anthropologist, Martins had informed Dreger that she had not actually written the dossier, but merely translated it into Portuguese, at which point it was attributed to her as if she were the author.[20][21]


  1. ^ Silva, Stacey (1988-01-20). "Meeting The Fierce People" (PDF). The Daily Nexus. Retrieved 2008-10-23.
  2. ^ Greg, Laden (2013-05-02). "Are Anthropologists a Dangerous Tribe?". Slate Magazine. Retrieved 2014-09-08.
  3. ^ a b American Society of Human Genetics (January 2002). "Response to Allegations against James V. Neel in Darkness in El Dorado, by Patrick Tierney". The American Journal of Human Genetics. 70 (1): 1–10. doi:10.1086/338147. PMC 384880. PMID 11715114.
  4. ^ a b John Tooby, "Jungle Fever: Did two US scientists start a genocidal epidemic in the Amazon or was The New Yorker duped?", Slate, 24 October 2000
  5. ^ a b c d e Dreger, Alice (16 February 2011). "Darkness's Descent on the American Anthropological Association". Human Nature. 22 (3): 225–246. doi:10.1007/s12110-011-9103-y. PMC 3178026. PMID 21966181.
  6. ^ Borofsky, p. 10
  7. ^ Hill, Jane H. (2002). "Allegations of inappropriate sexual relationships with Yanomami by anthropologists" (PDF). American Anthropological Association El Dorado Task Force Papers Volume II. American Anthropological Association. pp. 101–103.
  8. ^ Pels, p. 77
  9. ^ [Audio broadcast about Good, his Yanomamo wife and his son
  10. ^ Horgan, John (November 12, 2000). "Hearts of Darkness". The New York Times. Retrieved 14 March 2013.
  11. ^ Chagnon, Napolean (2013). Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes – The Yanomamö and the Anthropologists. New York: Simon and Schuster. ISBN 9780684855110.
  12. ^ "Fight Clubs: On Napoleon Chagnon". The Nation. Retrieved 15 June 2016.
  13. ^ Alberts, Bruce (9 November 2000). "Setting the Record Straight Regarding Darkness in El Dorado - A Statement from Bruce Alberts, President of the National Academy of Sciences". Anthropological Niche of Douglas W. Hume. Retrieved 17 March 2013.
  14. ^ a b "Preliminary report: The major allegations against Napoleon Chagnon and James Neel presented in Darkness in El Dorado by Patrick Tierney appear to be deliberately fraudulent" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on September 21, 2012.
  15. ^ Gregor, Thomas A.; Daniel R. Gross (1 December 2004). "Guilt by Association: The Culture of Accusation and the American Anthropological Association's Investigation of Darkness in El Dorado" (PDF). American Anthropologist. 106 (4): 687–698. doi:10.1525/aa.2004.106.4.687.
  16. ^ a b "AAA Rescinds Acceptance of the El Dorado Report". American Anthropological Association. 2005. Archived from the original on 4 July 2015. Retrieved 30 August 2013.
  17. ^ "Statement from University of Michigan Provost Nancy Cantor on the book Darkness in El Dorado".
  18. ^ Report of the Medical Team of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro on Accusations Contained in Patrick Tierney's Darkness in El Dorado, University of Michigan website
  19. ^ David Glenn; Thomas Bartlett (December 3, 2009). "Rebuttal of Decade-Old Accusations Against Researchers Roils Anthropology Meeting Anew". The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved 14 March 2013.
  20. ^ Chagnon, Napoleon (2013). Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes – The Yanomamö and the Anthropologists. New York: Simon and Schuster. pp. 496. ISBN 978-0684855110.
  21. ^ Dreger, Alice (2016). Galileo's Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and One Scholar's Search for Justice. Penguin Publishing Group. pp. 160. ISBN 978-0143108115.


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