Human Nature

, Volume 22, Issue 3, pp 225-246

First online:

Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.

Darkness’s Descent on the American Anthropological Association

A Cautionary Tale
  • Alice DregerAffiliated withMedical Humanities and Bioethics Program, Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University Email author 


In September 2000, the self-styled “anthropological journalist” Patrick Tierney began to make public his work claiming that the Yanomamö people of South America had been actively—indeed brutally—harmed by the sociobiological anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon and the geneticist-physician James Neel. Following a florid summary of Tierney’s claims by the anthropologists Terence Turner and Leslie Sponsel, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) saw fit to take Tierney’s claims seriously by conducting a major investigation into the matter. This paper focuses on the AAA’s problematic actions in this case but also provides previously unpublished information on Tierney’s falsehoods. The work presented is based on a year of research by a historian of medicine and science. The author intends the work to function as a cautionary tale to scholarly associations, which have the challenging duty of protecting scholarship and scholars from baseless and sensationalistic charges in the era of the Internet and twenty-four-hour news cycles.


American Anthropological Association Anthropology Darkness in El Dorado Napoleon Chagnon James Neel Patrick Tierney Yanomamö