Saturday, January 16, 2010

Tom Headland on The "Darkness in Eldorado" Affair

Because my main interest is Central Asia I have not been following the furor over Napoleon Chagnon’s work among the Yanomamo in Venezuela/ Brazil. I had thought the issue had died down but it came up again in the meetings of the American Anthropological Association in Philadelphia (December 2-6, 2009). The reason the issue interests me is that in my opinion the Association has several times behaved badly on contested issues.

It is easy for all of us to become self-righteous about what other people do, and sometimes, even before we have a full sense of the situation, we lash out. This, I think, has taken place in the history of the AAA. When the AAA has had an intense issue to handle they have done it poorly. Some notable examples:

One of the most egregious was when the AAA censured Derek Freeman for his critique of Margaret Mead’s famous “Coming of Age in Samoa.” By almost everyone’s admission, the Association took this formal action before scarcely any of its members had ever seen Freeman’s book, “Margaret Mead and Samoa.” In fact, the book was published virtually at the time of the meetings. This was a tragically unprofessional way to deal with a serious scholarly issue. In my opinion, anyone who reads Freeman’s book should be convinced of the validity of his critique. Freeman spoke Samoan with full fluency and lived in Samoa for many years; Mead waded ashore on Samoa at age 22 and lived in the fancy plantation-style house of a rich white person, and may never have slept a single night in a Samoan house, and was there just 8 months. Anyway, her last living informant said that they lied to her -- they were just pulling her leg. (Those of us who have done fieldwork know how that works; it was only many months later that I realized that some of what I had heard from my Hazara friends had been spoken in my presence essentially to tease – tongue in cheek.)

Another such event was when David Stoll in 1999 published his expose of Rigoberta Menchu. She had by that time been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but Stoll demonstrated that she and/or her ghost writer had made up her story! Stoll got it right but he got a serious drubbing by the Association. Again, it was less the established evidence and more a visceral revulsion against someone who would embarrass someone who had become an icon, at least for some.

And when Napoleon Chagnon and James Neal were accused by Patrick Tierney (*Darkness in Eldoado*) of contributing to the tragic 1968 outbreak of measles among the Yanomamo, a lot of AAA members openly attacked Chagnon. Before the November 2000 AAA meetings in which Tierney’s book would be discussed, Chagnon famously stated that the piranhas had been invited to a feast and he was the bait.

The Chagnon/Neel issue was, as I say, brought up in the recent AAA meeting, in a paper by Alice Dreger (Northwestern U Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago). And there is word that a documentary film on the “Darkness” scandal invented by Tierney will be shown at the Sundance Film Festival this month. It is produced by the prominent filmmaker Jose Padilha (Brazilian) and is titled “Secrets of the Tribe.” We expect the issue to flare up again.

One of the few people who stood up for Chagnon when he was attacked at the AAA meetings in 2000 was Thomas Headland, a friend of mine for many years and
a well known and respected anthropologist. I have been in touch with Tom over these issues and recently I asked him if he was not the first to speak up for Chagnon. Tom’s response was interesting enough to quote here [with his permission]:
Was I the first to stand up for Chagnon against Tierney's extreme accusations?

Well, maybe publicly, on September 27, 2000, when I sent my first public statement to *USA Today* (at the request of their reporter Dan Vergano), and Vergano's article citing me came out in that newspaper 5 days later on October 2, p.D7. The next day, September 28, I got calls from both AP and Reuters. By the end of that first week of October, four other media outlets contacted me asking for my statement, which I sent to them. Brief portions of my statement were quoted in numerous newspapers around the USA, Brazil, and England in the following days. (I can send you the list and what they quoted if you want.) I also posted my letter to the *USA Today* on my website that month, where it still remains today (at

However, there were three other people who were also finding documents about the same time I was in that fall of 2000 that contradicted the Tierney-Turner-Sponsel allegation regarding the measles epidemic. These were:
• 1. Mr. Robert Cox, then Curator of Manuscripts at the American Philosophical Society, who I understand posted his findings on the Internet a few days after my 4-minute public testimony at the AAA Open Forum in San Francisco on November 17, 2000. The documents he found were not the same as mine. I mention Cox by name and his role six times on my webpage titled " When Did the Measles Epidemic Begin?" that I posted on December 9, 2009.
• 2. Dr. Susan Lindee. Her findings in support of Neel and Chagnon were cited in the September 21, 2009, issue of TIME, p.78, and on the U Michigan website on September 27, 2000.
• 3. Dr. Samuel Katz found even more powerful testimony contradicting the Tierney-Turner-Sponsel thesis. I received copies of Katz's documents (as I Recall) from him on September 29, 2000.

So I think it may be safe enough to say that Cox, Lindee, Katz, and Headland were the first four to stand up, as you put it, for Chagnon.

Sources for Tom’s discussion can be found, as he says above, at And at a site produced by David Hume:

Watch for more fireworks in the near future.