TO: Dr. Nancy Cantor, Provost, University of Michigan

FROM: Dr. Leslie E. Sponsel, former chair of the AAA Commission for Human Rights and subsequent Committee for Human Rights (1992-1996), and Dr. Terence Turner, chair of the former AAA Yanomami Commission (1991-1992)

SUBJECT: Provost Statement regarding allegations in Patrick Tierney's book Darkness in El Dorado in a University of Michigan News Release of November 13, 2000.


The numerous and diverse allegations in Patrick Tierney's book Darkness in El Dorado are very serious indeed. We applaud and share your concern with determining the extent to which his many allegations are true or false, and this is precisely why we appealed to the American Anthropological Association. However, your News Release of November 13, 2000, and the "careful and thorough review" on which it is based fall short of your stated concern. Moreover, we are compelled to respond because in your statement that "Below are listed some of the claims made in either the book or the email message..." you implicate us as making certain claims and you refer to our names specifically. Therefore, we offer our clarification and comments in the hope that you will seriously consider them and make the appropriate revisions and apologies instead of being among those who are responsible for spreading and perpetuating false assertions about us. Here we will limit ourselves to presenting some background and then addressing claims five, six, and seven in your News Release. Subsequently in another context Turner will address claims one through four.

The Turner-Sponsel letter summarizing Patrick Tierney's main allegations in his book Darkness in El Dorado was clearly specifically addressed only to two individuals--- President Louise Lamphere and President-elect Don Brenneis of the American Anthropological Association. One copy was also sent to each of four other individuals, the top official of the most relevant units of the AAA--- Committee on Ethics, Committee for Human Rights, Society for Latin American Anthropology, and Association of Latina and Latino Anthropologists. We never intended or anticipated that our letter would go any further than these six individuals. Our letter was not addressed "To Whom It May Concern" or as an "Open Letter." If we had intended our letter for public reading, then obviously it would have been written differently. Our letter was clearly sensitive and confidential.

As the authors we can also affirm that our letter had only one purpose--- to alert the above six officials of the AAA to the gravity of Tierney's book by summarizing in sufficient detail some of his main allegations. We wanted to urge these six individuals to read the book for themselves as soon as possible, judge it for themselves, and then take appropriate actions. We did not intend in our letter to make any allegations or claims ourselves, but, to repeat--- only to summarize some of Tierney's main allegations. We were convinced that his book would still open a Pandora's box, regardless of whether it would be found either totally or partially accurate after the inevitable extensive scrutiny by various individuals and groups. We predicted that a scandalous controversy was imminent, and that relevant AAA officials would be faced with floods of inquiries from the membership, media, and public. Our prediction was later proven correct, unfortunately.

We never intended or anticipated that one or more of the six officials to whom we sent our letter would circulate it to others, or that some unknown and irresponsible individual(s) would eventually leak our letter into cyberspace. Whoever leaked it into cyberspace was more likely malicious than simply naive, given the obviously sensitive and confidential contents of the letter. We never participated in circulating our letter into cyberspace and the media. When several individuals had the professional responsibility and courtesy to first ask our permission before circulating our letter elsewhere we both consistently declined, and that is a matter of record which can be readily documented. The circulation of our letter beyond the six individuals it was addressed to violates at least half of the Ten Commandments of Computer Ethics and several well-established basic principles of internet etiquette. Leaking the letter into cyberspace is also a breach of trust, the theft of intellectual property, and a violation of copyright (see Harris 1999:97-98, 117-133). We find the leak and its aftermath most regrettable and appalling. However, as far as we are concerned, our letter can only be judged fairly in its initial context and for its original purpose as just explained. Once someone leaked our letter into cyberspace it was quickly out of control and many of those commenting on it in listservs were out of control as well. That second context is not our responsibility. Furthermore, so far we have resisted the temptation to join in listserv discussions such as that of evolutionary psychology even though they have specifically named us and targeted at us a great deal of misinformation and disinformation some of which is libelous. We have also refrained from establishing a one-sided website on this controversy. (For a website that has become a clearing house for information on this controversy and is becoming relatively balanced see: http://members.aol.com/archaeodog/index.htm).

We wrote the letter simply because of our obligation as anthropologists who have been involved with the Yanomami and as long-standing and active members of the AAA. We were following well-established AAA concerns for professional ethics and human rights (see http://www.aaanet.org). Under the same circumstances we would be obligated and not hesitate in the least to write a letter again.

That obligation also stems from our well-known background, experience, and expertise. Sponsel held various positions in the Department of Anthropology at the Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Investigations in Caracas on several occasions between 1974-1981. He conducted fieldwork with Yanomami in Venezuela during 1974-75 as part of his research for the dissertation at Cornell University. Since then, and even though developing other topical and regional interests, for more than 25 years he has continued to follow the literature and situation of the Yanomami as closely as possible, and several of his numerous publications are on the Yanomami (e.g., Sponsel 1994, 1995, 1997). From 1992-96 Sponsel was chair of the AAA Commission for Human Rights and the subsequent Committee for Human Rights. Turner was also a founding member of these two committees. Both of us are now emeritus members, but on occasion we are still contacted by the Committee for Human Rights and involved in some of its activities. Furthermore, Turner chaired the special Yanomami Commission of the AAA during 1991-1992. (See the committee report under the Committee for Human Rights section on the website: http://www.aaanet.org). Also we are both recognized as specialists on indigenous peoples of the Amazon with numerous publications. Accordingly, our letter must also be understood in relation to our long-term involvement with the Amazon, indigenous peoples including the Yanomami, human rights, and the AAA.

It should also be clear that we ourselves did not first investigate all of the numerous and diverse allegations made by Tierney before writing our letter to the AAA simply because this is beyond the resources of two individuals which is precisely why we appealed to the AAA. Also we were already known as critics of Chagnon and we recognized that an impartial investigative committee of the AAA would be received best by the profession. However, we were confident that there was truth to at least some of the allegations made by Tierney because they had been repeatedly made before by numerous and diverse individuals and organizations for over three decades. We also knew that Tierney's publisher, the respected company of W.W. Norton, had employed fact-checkers and lawyers to screen Tierney's book, as the respected magazine The New Yorker did as well when it published a summary by Tierney last October 9th. At the same time we never claimed that Tierney's book was 100% accurate and now realize that some, but certainly not all, of his points are problematic as he himself has admitted. We trust that he will correct these and amplify on other points in a second edition which should be inevitable.

With this background in mind, we now turn directly to some of the more relevant statements in your News Release.

The fifth claim you cite is that "Chagnon himself is directly or indirectly responsible for endemic warfare among the Yanomami." This is a spurious straw man argument that confuses Yanomami "warfare" in general with specific tensions, conflicts, and violence in the particular areas at the time Napoleon Chagnon was conducting fieldwork in them. Contrary to your statement, as far as we know no one has ever argued that there was never any warfare or other violence among Yanomami until Chagnon arrived. However, in chapter 13 of his meticulously researched book on Yanomami Warfare: A Political History, R. Brian Ferguson (1995:278) states:

"In this chapter, I attempt to demonstrate that the wars and other conflicts of the middle 1960s--- those made famous in Yanomamo: The Fierce People--- are directly connected to change since the Western presence around Boca Mavaca, including the arrival of Chagnon himself."

This is just one example of many that could be given, and quite independently of Tierney, where informed anthropologists have had the professional responsibility to raised serious questions and criticisms regarding Chagnon's work. However, obviously few others paid much attention until Tierney's book. The Yanomami and anthropologists are now greatly indebted to him for successfully providing a wake-up call to the AAA and profession as well as for stimulating various investigations in the United States, Brazil, and Venezuela that will eventually yield truth and justice.

The sixth claim you cite is that "Chagnon's characterization of the Yanomami as "fierce people" encouraged 40,000 invading gold miners to use violence against them between 1980-87." To our knowledge no one has ever claimed that Chagnon was the first to describe the Yanomami as violent, contrary to your statement in this section of the News Release, another straw man argument. However, among the more than 60 books published by about five dozen anthropologists and others who have lived and worked with the Yanomami for varying lengths of time since 1800, Chagnon is unique as the only author who has focused on violence to the point of exaggeration and distortion, a criticism made by several anthropologists who have lived with the Yanomami for many years, including Bruce Albert, Jesus Cardozo, Gale Goodwin Gomez, Kenneth R. Good, Jacques Lizot, and Alcida Rita Ramos. (For example, see Good 1991: 13, 55-56, 73, 174-175). Even Timothy Asch (1991:35, 38), Chagnon's collaborator in filming the Yanomami, repeatedly criticized him on this point in his own writings in later years.

It can not be denied that in Chagnon's own publications for some three decades he has persistently characterized the Yanomami in effect as essentially "Hobbesian savages," as noted recently by Maybury-Lewis among others (see below). For example, Chagnon repeatedly labels the Yanomami as primitive in his 1997 case study (pp. 5, 10, 11, 19, 31, 76, 79, 139, 144, 145, 211, 247, 248), whereas in anthropology as far back as the 1960s the term was rejected as unscientific and pejorative unless carefully and appropriately defined and qualified. Chagnon translated the Yanomami word waitiri into English as simply fierce, whereas linguist Ernst Migliazza (1972:421-422) who lived with Yanomami for many years states: "The term waitiri has a semantic range from brave, courageous, daring, fearless to savage, furious, wild, aggressive, and fierce, depending mainly on the context and situation." This is just one example of the inadequate attention to the rich details and nuances of sociocultural context and of the bias exhibited in much of Chagnon's work and writings according to the publications of numerous critics including Bruce Albert, Kenneth R. Good, and Jacques Lizot who have each conducted fieldwork with Yanomami far longer than Chagnon.

Twice presidents of the Brazilian Anthropological Association expressed serious concern about the harm to the Yanomami caused by Chagnon's characterization of them as fierce--- Manuela Carneiro da Cuna (1989) in a letter to the AAA, and Rubin George Oliven in a prepared statement he read at the last AAA convention. Others have also repeatedly expressed serious concern about this through three decades--- Shelton Davis of the Anthropology Resource Center (1976:23), Bruce Albert and Alcida Ramos (1989) of the Pro-Yanomami Commission, Nelly Arvelo-Jimenez of the Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Investigations (1995), David Maybury-Lewis of Cultural Survival (2000), Linda Rabben of Amnesty International and the Rainforest Foundation (1998:34-37, 2000), and Fiona Watson of Survival International (2001), to name a few among many others. (For most of these and other statements see the website http://www.anth.uconn.edu/gradstudents/dhume/

These and other critics can not be dismissed by the name-calling and other labels that Chagnon and his partisans commonly use together with sarcasm as a tact to attempt to trivialize and summarily dismiss issues raised by colleagues--- left wingers, Marxists, McCarthyites, ayatollahs, failed- anthropologists, anti-American, anti-science, anti-sociobiology, political correctness, self-righteous, moralists, professional jealousy, witch-hunt, and so on. Such ad hominem attacks rely on smear tactics or character assassination rather than a refutation of an opponent's evidence and arguments. Name-calling, rather than serious debate and progressive revision and refinement of ideas, is not a scientific or scholarly way to deal with legitimate differences regarding data, interpretation, and explanation. Many even consider such name-calling and related behavior to be not only unprofessional but also unethical. Critical inquiry and debate are at the very heart of science and scholarship. There are solid scientific, academic, and ethical reasons why numerous and diverse individuals, not just Turner and Sponsel, have questioned and criticized aspects of Chagnon's work for over three decades. Not one of the some five dozen anthropologists and others who have studied the Yanomami have ever attracted so much criticism and been surrounded by so much controversy as Chagnon, and not just once, but numerous times over three decades (see Sponsel 1998). This controversy is not a matter of Hobbesian versus Rousseauian viewpoints, science versus postmodernism, sociobiology versus cultural anthropology, or the various other simplistic and false dualisms that partisans have raised as smoke screens.

To our knowledge no one has stated that Chagnon should not conduct research on violence and publish his findings. However, many are of the opinion that Chagnon should have been far more sensitive and concerned about the impact of his "fierce people" characterization on the Yanomami. Of course, few if any miners would ever read Chagnon's actual publications or any other anthropological literature. However, Chagnon's ideas have been widely disseminated in the Brazilian press including from his own personal interviews. It is certain that some leaders in the government, military, and mining read the press and have thereby been influenced by Chagnon's characterization of the Yanomami as "the fierce people" to the extent of using his ideas to help rationalize policies and programs which amount to the genocide and ethnocide of the Yanomami. This has been documented. Accordingly, on this particular point what Chagnon is most criticized for by fellow anthropologists and others is his failure to respond publicly in opposition to the ways in which his work has been used against the Yanomami in Brazil. Indeed, if Chagnon had devoted even a faction of the resources that he has apparently devoted to the present controversy to countering the harm done to the Yanomami by his characterization of them as "the fierce people," then there would have been much less worry about his work and perhaps we would not even have to be bothered with it now. In short, the real issue is, as clearly stated by the Brazilian Anthropological Association at the last 2000 annual meeting of the AAA:

"The ABA recognizes the right and the responsibility of a researcher to report his or her results, regardless of their political acceptability; however, if those results are taken up and used by others for political or social purposes inconsistent with the original intent of the researcher, it is his or her ethical responsibility to speak out against such misuses. Professor Chagnon has never publicly objected to the use of his statements by forces attempting to justify the invasion and dismemberment of Yanomami territory in Brazil.

The most distinguished Amazonianist, David Maybury-Lewis, Professor of Anthropology at Harvard University and founder of Cultural Survival, goes further:

"The ways in which anthropologists portray the societies they study have consequences, sometimes serious consequences in the real world. Indigenous societies have all too often been maligned in the past, denigrated as savages and marginalized at the edges of the modern world and the modern societies in it. It is not therefore a trivial matter to insist on the fierceness of a people or to maintain that they represent an especially primitive stage in human evolution. Chagnon has not done this inadvertently to the Yanomami. On the contrary, he has done so deliberately, systematically, and over a long period of time, in spite of the remonstrances of his fellow anthropologists. We at Cultural Survival consider this to be not only bad science but also a bad example of harmful writing about an indigenous people.

(For complete statements see the website previously mentioned).

The seventh claim which you cite and question is that "Turner and Sponsel learned of this `impending scandal' from reading the galley proofs of Tierney's book." We have known since 1995 that Tierney was working on a book, but we did not know all of its contents until last July. He had sent to each of us a couple of chapters, one called "The Napoleonic Wars." As a result of reading these chapters in 1995, Sponsel, then Chair of the Commission for Human Rights, warned its members that they and the AAA would eventually be faced with a scandalous controversy over the book. However, the two chapters we read did not deal with James Neel and the measles epidemic. Neither of us ever saw the entire book in any form or stage of production until the middle of last July when Bob Weil, Tierney's editor at W.W. Norton, sent to each of us a bound copy of the galleys. The AAA could not take any substantial action until after the book was published.

When we finally read the entire book in the form of the bound galley copy last July we were very disappointed that Tierney had not maintained the original focus of the book on the impact of gold mining on indigenous peoples in the Amazon, but instead concentrated on James Neel, Chagnon, and related matters. Tierney's book as published last November has proven to be very important considering the kinds and volume of reactions it has received. Nevertheless, the impact of mining on humans and the environments in the Amazon is immensely more important and that is the main reason we have been interested in Tierney's book since first learning about it in 1995. (Sponsel is editor of a book in preparation on oil and gold mining impacts on indigenes and environments in the Amazon in which Turner is one among 15 contributing authors).

For years Tierney repeatedly delayed publication to conduct further research. This is why Sponsel cited as forthcoming or in press the various working titles of the book in some of his publications on the Yanomami. Sponsel realized that the book would eventually be published and become important. The quotations on the back cover of the book are drawn from among the detailed comments Sponsel and Turner sent to Tierney in 1995. In retrospect, Sponsel's quote is mild compared to what he would write now after what has transpired since September 2000, including unfounded and vicious assertions, hate mail, and threats that have nothing whatsoever to do with science or scholarship. More than ever Sponsel stands by his comments published on the back cover of Tierney's book. Indeed, developments since September have repeatedly validated those comments.

Sponsel is not some kind of co-conspirator with Tierney. Tierney cites Sponsel and Turner among some 100 people he interviewed. Sponsel was interviewed by phone twice as cited by Tierney. They have since talked by phone on three other occasions. Sponsel never met Tierney personally until the last AAA meetings. In 1995 Sponsel provided Tierney with an extensive bibliography and some reprints on the Yanomami, and later with new reprints. He was never employed or paid in any way for his assistance by Tierney or any of his publishers. Sponsel simply provided relevant information in the same manner that he has to numerous scholars, authors, and editors as a matter of professional practice and courtesy. Accordingly, Sponsel is mentioned in the acknowledgements by Tierney among numerous other individuals including several anthropologists. He is referred to only twice in the book (Tierney 2000, pp. 11, 138). Sponsel has been asked to comment on the entire manuscripts of four other books on the Yanomami, but only on a couple chapters of Tierney's book back in 1995 until the bound galley copy last July. Tierney's book is the third of these where a portion of Sponsel's comments have been quoted on the back cover (Early and Peters 2000, Peters 1998). This has been the extent of his involvement with Tierney so far. However, Sponsel and Turner actually regret that Tierney did not collaborate closely with them and many others after the present book was drafted, because that would have helped avoid at least some of the problems in his book.

As a scientist (B.A. in geology and graduate work in biology as well as M.A. and Ph.D. in anthropology), scholar, and student of the Yanomami, and as a matter of professional, ethical, and moral responsibility, for years Sponsel has been critical of some aspects of Chagnon's work, albeit mostly indirectly, until a 1998 article. These criticisms are based on Sponsel's knowledge of the extensive literature on the Yanomami, his expertise on the Amazon and on the anthropology of war and peace. Anyone can read his publications and judge for themselves, the record is readily available and quite clear. Sponsel is not involved in any personal vendetta, revenge, feud, or animosity against Chagnon who has never done anything to him until recent name-calling. However, Sponsel is deeply concerned with the Yanomami and any harm that may have been done to them, if any of the relevant allegations in Tierney's book hold true. There is certainly solid reason to believe that many allegations do hold true, because they have been made many times before by different combinations of numerous and diverse individuals over the last three decades. However, there is far more in Tierney's book than had been revealed previously, otherwise it would be redundant and a waste for him to invest more than a decade in research and writing, including 15 months visiting more than 30 communities of the Yanomami.

Whatever the problems with Tierney's book and the ultimate consensus that may emerge about it months if not years from now, one thing is undeniable--- none of the other more than 60 books on the Yanomami have every attracted the attention of the AAA, media, and public the way this book has. It has already greatly increased awareness, concern, and action regarding professional ethics, human rights, the Yanomami, and the plight of other indigenous and ethnic groups. Just one concrete example of this is a statement made by AAA President Lamphere (2001:13) regarding the main concern of the Executive Board: "We want not only to assess the allegations but to move foreword to examining the ways that anthropological research and practice can support the improved health and economic status of the Yanomami and other indigenous populations in South America and throughout the world." Thus, despite all the negativity and ugliness in the Pandora's box opened by the publication of Tierney's book, in the long-term the net result may be very positive and constructive for anthropology, anthropologists, and the people with whom they live and study.

This is not simply an academic feud or in-house squabble. If it were no more than that, then it would not surface in the media to the extent that it has, nor would unprecedented investigations be launched in the United States, Venezuela, and Brazil. Many consider this controversy to be the biggest and ugliest scandal in the entire history of anthropology which extends back more than 150 years. First and foremost, however, this controversy is about the harm that may have been done to the Yanomami through violations of professional ethics and abuses of their human rights, if any of the relevant allegations in Tierney's book hold true. In our opinion it is reprehensible that an institution of the stature of the University of Michigan as well as most others discussing Tierney's book have neglected if not totally ignored the Yanomami themselves. If any of the relevant allegations in Tierney's book are sustained by the various investigations, then appropriate assistance and reparations to the Yanomami are certainly due and perhaps also some form of legal action on their behalf.

Tierney was candid in naming those individuals he interviewed and other sources for his book. As a matter of professional propriety and courtesy, may we ask you to identify the specific names of your team of senior administrators, research staff and scholars who undertook the inquiry on which your News Release is based?

You state that "We are satisfied that Dr. Neel and Dr. Chagnon... acted with integrity in conducting their research...."
Does this mean that you actually condone the following examples of behavior by Chagnon during his fieldwork as revealed in his own book? Chagnon (1997) repeatedly violated the customs of the host community (e.g., p. 20); facilitated a raid by providing boat transportation for raiders for a portion of their route (p. 201); repeatedly landed helicopters in or near villages terrorizing residents [and with resulting damage to homes and injury to persons in some instances] (pp. 254-257); included a British commando knife and electric stun gun in field equipment (p. 47, 191)[Good (1991:33-34) also mentions cans of chemical mace]; collaborated for decades with Charles Brewer-Carias who is widely known in Venezuela for his gold mining interests (pp. 81, 254); and undermined Yanomami leader Davi Kopenawa and NGOs working on behalf of Yanomami rights (pp. 252-254). (Also see Salamone 1996:36-37, 49-50).

Also, from the above comments it should be evident that your investigation is far from a "careful and thorough review" because it only addresses a small portion of the numerous and diverse allegations made by Tierney. In his book there is far more than your News Release even begins to cover regarding individuals associated with the University of Michigan at one time or another. It would appear to be in your interest as well as that of science and the public in general to follow through with an investigation that is actually careful and thorough of all the allegations in Tierney's book regarding anyone who has ever been associated with the University of Michigan. While some allegations by Tierney may have been challenged or discredited by your previous review and that of various others, this in itself does not automatically invalidate all the remaining allegations. This matter can be viewed in the most negative of terms and partisans can react defensively as a vocal minority has been doing, principally the sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists most of whom are not anthropologists. Alternatively, this matter can be treated positively and constructively as an opportunity to not only scrutinize the reputation of the accused by ascertaining their guilt or innocence on all of the specific points in Tierney's book, but to advance truth and justice for the greater good of all concerned, and most of all, for the Yanomami themselves. We sincerely hope and trust that in the long-term the net result of the Pandora's box that Tierney opened will be positive and constructive. We sincerely hope and trust that the University of Michigan will continue to pursue truth and justice in this matter in a way befitting of its stature as a scientific and scholarly institution. The AAA just launched its own investigation of the allegations in Tierney's book so this controversy is far from settled.


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Sponsel, Leslie E., ed., 1995, Indigenous Peoples and the Future of Amazonia: An Ecological Anthropology of an Endangered World, Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press.

Sponsel, Leslie E., 1997, "The Master Thief: Gold Mining and Mercury Contamination in the Amazon," in Life and Death Matters: Human Rights and the Environment at the End of the Millennium, Barbara Rose Johnston, ed., Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, pp. 119-161.

Sponsel, Leslie E., 1998, "Yanomami: An Arena of Conflict and Aggression in the Amazon," Aggressive Behavior 24(2):97-122.

Tierney, Patrick, 2000, Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon, New York, NY: W.W. Norton.