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Saturday, 23 September, 2000, 14:05 GMT 15:05 UK
Amazon geneticist 'killed hundreds'
Yanomami Indians fight fire in forest
The Yanomami face serious threats to their survival
By Environment correspondent Alex Kirby

A US geneticist who died earlier this year has been accused of deliberately infecting thousands of Yanomami Indians with measles, killing hundreds of them.

The geneticist, James Neel, worked in the Yanomami homeland in Brazil and Venezuela in the mid-1960s.

A book to be published on 1 October says Neel vaccinated the Yanomami as an experiment to test the effects of natural selection on primitive societies.


The AAA is extremely concerned about these allegations

American Anthropological Association
And it says his work was funded by the US Atomic Energy Commission, which wanted to research the consequences for communities of the mass deaths caused by a nuclear war.

The book, Darkness in El Dorado, has been written by Patrick Tierney, a journalist.

The London Guardian newspaper says Professor Terry Turner of Cornell University, US, who has read the proofs, has told the American Anthropological Association that the book reveals a "nightmarish story - a real anthropological heart of darkness".

The AAA says it is "extremely concerned about these allegations. The AAA has been acutely aware of the harm suffered by the Yanomami at the hands of gold miners and timber interests, who have brought disease and pollution.

"Until there is a full and impartial review and discussion of the issues raised in the book, it would be unfair to express a judgement about the specific allegations against individuals that are contained in it."

The AAA is planning an open forum during its annual meeting for its members to discuss the book.

Dying 'were refused help'

The book says Neel used a virulent measles vaccine to spark off an epidemic which killed at least hundreds and probably thousands of the Yanomami.

Yanomami woman
About 21,000 Yanomami live in the Amazon rainforests
It says he ordered his researchers to refuse help to those who were sick and dying, insisting that they were present only to observe and record what was happening.

Professor Turner says in his letter to the AAA that Neel used a vaccine called Edmonson B, which produced symptoms virtually indistinguishable from those of measles.

He did so without telling the Venezuelan Government that he was planning a vaccination campaign, as he was legally required to do.

Professor Turner says there is evidence that the vaccine either caused or, at the least, greatly exacerbated the epidemic.


The political implication of this fascistic eugenics is clearly that society should be reorganised into small breeding isolates in which genetically superior males could emerge into dominance

Professor Terry Turner
He says Neel believed that "primitive" societies like the Yanomami were genetically isolated, and that this enabled males possessing dominant "leadership" genes to breed more often, leading in theory to a continual upgrading of the society's genetic stock.

He also believed that in modern societies "superior leadership genes would be swamped by mass genetic mediocrity".

Experiments

But apart from apparently wanting to test his own theories on the unwitting Yanomami, Neel was also closely involved in the work of the Atomic Energy Commission.

He researched the effects of radiation on humans, and led the team that investigated the effects of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs on survivors and their children.

Hiroshima
Neel also studied effects of Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs on survivors
Professor Turner says Neel's group had been involved in experiments in the US which included injecting people with plutonium without their knowledge.

He says Tierney's book will put the entire discipline of anthropology on trial.

Although Neel himself is dead, many of his associates from the experiment are still alive.

There are thought to be about 21,000 Yanomami in the Amazon rainforests, who face grave threats to their survival.

They are sometimes involved in direct clashes with miners and other groups intent on exploiting their lands, which are supposed to enjoy legal protection.

But environmental damage is making it harder for them to fish and hunt in their traditional ways.

And malaria, spread by mosquitoes which breed in stagnant pools left by the mining operations, is now estimated to be killing about 13% of the Yanomami every year.

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See also:

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