December 30, 2011

Bittersweet: An excerpt from the forthcoming book "Sorcery of the Senses"

Every time I eat watermelon I remember that day.  It was the dry season, when the rust-red floodwaters of Quebrada Fierro or “Iron Creek” subside to a lazy trickle, exposing wide, meandering beaches near its mouth on the upper Manu River in southern Peru.  I was with a group of Matsigenka men and boys, we had spent the past few hours under a feverish noon sun portaging boat, motor and gear to circumvent a stubborn Dipteryx trunk, impervious as tempered glass, that blocked dry season passage along the creek.  

It was the summer of 1995 and I was taking Hiram, a dear Matsigenka friend who called me “brother,” to meet up with a film crew camped out at the research station of Cocha Cashu down river.  I was helping Hiram’s community negotiate for an upcoming shoot.  Cheronto, who came from a rival community nearer the station, was the best boat pilot in the region.  He was taking us down the river to close the negotiations.

Sweaty, thirsty, and famished, we trudged across the searing sand when someone up ahead cried out, “Watermelons!”  Senegui, an affable widower who lived nearby, seeded the beaches with watermelons every summer, and this year was a bumper crop.

“There are more over here,” called someone else.  “And are they ripe!”

Click HERE to read the full text published in "Dispatches" for December 14 on The Common.

November 22, 2011

The Ant, the Shaman and the Scientist: Shamanic lore spurs scientific discovery in the Amazon

When he pointed to the tree trunk and said the scars were from fires set by invisible forest spirits, I had no idea this supernatural observation would lead to a new discovery for natural science.  Mariano, the eldest shaman (who has since passed away) of the Matsigenka village of Yomibato in Manu National Park, Peru, had first showed me the curious clearings in the forest that form around clumps of Cordia nodosa, a bristly tropical shrub related to borage (Borago officinalis).  Both the Matsigenka people and tropical ecologists recognize the special relationship that exists between Cordia and ants of the genus Myrmelachista: the Matsigenka word for the plant is matiagiroki, which means “ant shrub.”

Maximo Vicente, Mariano's grandson, standing by a 
swollen, scarred trunk near a Cordia patch.
For scientists, the clearings in the forest understory around patches of Cordia are caused by a mutualistic relationship with the ants.  Cordia plants provide the ant colony with hollow branch nodes for nesting and bristly corridors along twigs and leaves for protection, while the ants use their strong mandibles and acidic secretions to clear away competing vegetation.  Local Quechua-speaking colonists refer to the clearings as “Devil’s gardens” (supay chacra).  For the Matsigenka, these clearings are the work of spirits known as Sangariite, which means ‘Pure’ or ‘Invisible Ones’.  Matsigenka shamans like Mariano come to these spirit clearings and consume powerful narcotics and hallucinogens such as tobacco paste, ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis), or the Datura-like toé (Brugmansia).[1]

October 13, 2011

Wizard of the Upper Silicon: The Steve Jobs legacy in Amazonia

Moises da Silva, a Baniwa film maker, reviews the day's footage on his MacBook;
Aiary River, Upper Rio Negro, October 2010.

Whatever your opinion about his business model, labor policies, or global media empire, one thing is for sure:  Steve Jobs forever changed the way we all use digital technology.  From Silicon valley to the upper Amazon, words like "mouse," "click," "drag," "notebook," and "iTunes" have become household -- even thatched hut -- vocabulary in all conceivable languages. Not merely portable but downright personable computers have transformed and revolutionized the way we work, play, communicate with one another and project our individual and collective selves to the world. 

Far from being overrun by modern technology, indigenous groups of the Amazon like the BaniwaKayapó, and many others have found ways to use digital tools to engage with the international public and reinforce their own traditions and values. The Baniwa video documentation project pictured here has received support from Brazil's Ministry of Culture. Baniwa high school students at the remote Pamaali community use a satellite internet link powered by solar panels to surf the web, exchange email with family and friends in distant cities like São Gabriel and Manaus, and post a regular web log of their own.

Moises prepares to film as a ceremonial
longhouse is being constructed
Baniwa children warm up at a bonfire by the
longhouse after the ritual is done
A Baniwa shaman supervises
the ceremony and filming

We cannot attribute the entire digital revolution to one man, but Jobs made a singular contribution by taking the "tech" out of "high-tech," developing elegantly intuitive, deceptively effortless, and widely imitated designs for interfacing between devices of all types and humans of all ages, professions and cultures. This posting is dedicated to his legacy.

-- The digital culture projects mentioned here are featured at the Goeldi Museum's  current "Amazonidas" exhibit. The Goeldi Linguistics department has a large documentation program for indigenous languages.

September 30, 2011

The Hunter in the Rye: Ergot, Sedges and Hunting Magic in the Peruvian Amazon

Abanti draws the string of a palm wood bow all the way to his ear, aiming the razor-sharp bamboo tip of an arrow straight up into the rain forest canopy. Eighty feet above, a large spider monkey eats Pouteria fruits, unaware of the human predator below. Then the black silhouette flinches, a fruit drops, and the monkey leaps to another branch.  “Wary. May have heard us,” he whispers to his brother-in-law as he releases the tension on the bow in a smooth snap.

"The muscles across his back stand out in relief as he draws and aims the taut bow."
He steps quietly, bending back a few spindly palms that block his view, never taking his eyes off the monkey high overhead. Once again he takes up his stance, but this time he removes a small cluster of plant bulbs from a net bag slung across his back. The bulbs are the roots of an alkaloid-rich sedge variety used for the specific purpose of hunting spider monkey. Snapping off a piece, he chews the bitter, aromatic quid, then rubs the masticated root onto his bow and arrow. Still watching the monkey, he spits a fine, turpentine-smelling spray upward. “Straight up, straight to the heart, no branches, fly straight and fast,” he mumbles to the bow, to the arrow, to the monkey, to himself.

August 20, 2011

The Challenge of Life Hill: Magical landmark in the Brazilian Amazon metes out destiny like the Fates

For two hours we watched storm clouds gather as our speedboat cut through coffee-colored waves on the Içana River. We beached at the base of a sandy cliff called Paitsidzapani in the Baniwa language, named for a kind of edible frog. Brazilian Portuguese has no word for such herpetological minutiae, so the Baniwa also call the place Serra do Desafio da Vida, or “Challenge of Life Hill.” Baniwa Indians stop here to partake of its dual enchantments: some stay at the base to gather coal shards endowed with a miraculous capacity to promulgate the eponymous (and by all accounts delectable) frogs. The brave, however, look towards the top, fix their eyes on dry twigs lining the precipice, and climb the steep embankment.

The sandy cliffs of Life Hill reflected in the river
In this landscape of dwarf forests, swamps and sand dunes along the Brazil-Colombia border, the hill metes out destiny like the Fates: those who top out with a steady stride and plant a tree branch along the ledge will be blessed by a long and healthy life; those who break stride and pause to rest are doomed to die young.   
Life Hill is less arbitrary than unbending Atropos, since cardiovascular capacity certainly correlates with longevity. Yet this is no light-hearted athletic feat: Abel, my Baniwa companion, said that his sister collapsed halfway up and was dead within a few years.
As most of our party ascended, I considered from below. Although not foolhardy, I enjoy a reasonable physical challenge. But as an ethnobotanist—half scientist, half mystic—I maintain a cautious respect for taboo and superstition, which have an uncanny penchant for truth. Yet the hill couldn’t have been higher than fifty yards.  It was steep, but I’m in pretty good shape. My only worry was a nagging knee. 
I began at a brisk jog, almost a sprint. I covered the first fifteen yards easily. Abel shouted from the top, “Don’t wear yourself out!” I reverted to a lunging stride, already breathing sharply and regretting the initial exertion as the path got steeper.
The hill, like life, is deceptive. The sand looked soft and inviting, but as I climbed it became deep and white and treacherous as a snowdrift. As the slope increased, the ground seemed to suck energy through the bottom of my feet. There is a mechanical explanation: the yielding sand absorbs impact and impulse, stealing the drive out of each forward lunge. But for the superstitious soul, there is a spiking sense of desperation, “What if I don’t make it?!”

Ancient petroglyphs along the Içana River
Halfway up, and I was in trouble. Fatigue set in just as the slope steepened wickedly. My heart pounded and my lungs ached as urgently as my burning legs. My stride became erratic as I slogged through collapsing powder, pausing longer after each footfall. About three-quarters up, my bad knee panged and I lurched to the left, almost losing my balance in calf deep-sand. I thought it was over. But I righted myself with an outstretched hand and leaned forward as far as I could, agonizing through the final steps. Human will, for all its tenacity, eventually meets the wall of physical limitation:  ten more feet and I would have collapsed. But I had reached the top. 
With a crazed heart slamming in my ears, I bent forward to breathe, but Abel urged, “Don’t stop!  Run and plant your branch!”
It was the hardest part of the trial. With leaden feet, burning thighs, racing heart, and panicky breath, I shambled toward the scrub forest and broke off a sturdy living branch with shriveled, olive-like fruits. I limped back to the cliff and planted my branch alongside a few fresh twigs and many withered ones. I looked out over the spectacular vista that swam and pulsed before my eyes: a tapestry of forest stretching to the horizon, broken only by a band of white sand and the reddish-black ribbon of the river. Tall rain clouds were moving toward us. A ferocious bolt of lightning cracked and its thunder roared over the forest like a breaking tidal wave. 
“Whenever someone climbs, the shamans of the Jaguar Clan throw thunderbolts,” said Abel. “This is where their souls enter the mountain.”
We raced down the hill, falling carefree through the crazed channels we had dredged up, and which the wind and the rain would soon smooth over. To finalize the rite and seal its augury for our party, we all dove, head first and fully clothed, into the icy black pool at the foot of the precipice.

White sand and black water under a cloudy sky
-- This piece was first published by The Common on February 23, 2011

June 29, 2011

Might at the Museum: Indigenous groups revisit their heritage at the Goeldi Museum

Visitors idling on a hot Saturday afternoon through the shady grounds of the Goeldi Museum’s Zoobotanical Park in downtown Belém, Brazil, gawked and snapped photos of the unanticipated spectacle:  more than thirty Kayapó Indians in full ceremonial regalia had just entered through the front gate. I walked alongside Mro-ô, leader of the Kayapó village of Turedjam in southern Pará state. I had invited Mro-ô and his people to participate in the inauguration of a new exhibit[1] celebrating the Goeldi Museum’s 145 years at the forefront of research into the cultural diversity and human history of the Amazon basin. The exhibit, running from June through September, includes ethnographic artifacts collected among the Kayapó by different researchers from the early 1900s through the present.

A Kayapó family poses in the Goeldi's Zoobotanical Park beside a life-size photograph of a Kayapó who visited the museum in 1903

Ethnographic collections have typically been regarded as “graveyards of objects”[2] belonging to cultures that are already extinct or in a process of extinction. However in recent decades, indigenous peoples of the Amazon have conquered new forms of political engagement and developed unique interfaces with modernity. Such changes demand a new approach to museum science and ethnographic collections. The Goeldi Museum has pioneered a kind of museum science that puts indigenous peoples into dialog with their own cultural heritage, an approach we call “ethnomuseology.” According to Lucia van Velthem, curator of the Goeldi collections for many years, “ethnographic objects possess a relationship of continuity with their cultures of origin.”[3]

Kayapó villagers from Turedjam visit the new exhibit at the Goeldi Museum

The visit of the Kayapó to the museum in late June represents the culmination of an ongoing research project that is built around this philosophy.

May 3, 2011

The Mark and Olly Follies: Reality TV series misrepresents tribal people

Reality TV reached new depths of irresponsibility in Mark & Olly: Living with the Machigenga [sic]. Aired on the Travel Channel in 2009 and on BBC in 2010, the show features Mark Anstice and Oliver Steeds, swashbuckling adventurers who travel to remote locales to “get accepted” by exotic tribes. Mark Anstice, a former British Army officer who now spends much of the year “wearing little more than a vegetable,”[1] briefly returned to military life during the Iraq War. Oliver Steeds is a self-styled “21st century Indiana Jones.”[2] Their first hit show, Living with the Kombai, was made in New Guinea. A Papua-based pilot posted this review on “I met some people that work with the Kombai and they told me about how the show was made…[Mark and Olly] requested for the people to act ‘native’ to fit there [sic] plot. It is filmed to make you believe that it’s just these two guys trying to adapt but in reality the whole thing is staged.”[3]

"The program is rife with egregious mistranslations and outright falsifications."

“Chili up the Arse”
Mark and Olly then ventured to Amazonian Peru. As I describe in the May 2008 issue of Anthropology News[4], I happened to be in the same Matsigenka community when a scouting team from Cicada Films visited Manu Park in October 2007. The cameraman, Matt Currington, found the people there too “Westernized.” As he remarked to me at the time: “the shorts, the guys playing soccer, the school house, that just won’t cut it with Mark and Olly.” In violation of park permits and against my warnings, the crew sought out isolated groups further upriver. As reported in Peruvian Health Ministry documents and the international press[5], their visit apparently unleashed a cold epidemic: four Matsigenka died of respiratory infections and dozens became seriously ill. The crew was banned from returning to Manu by the Park administration. The regional indigenous association, FENAMAD, carried out an investigation and mounted an international media campaign. The Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK registered a formal complaint with the British broadcast regulator, OFCOM.

Mark Anstice in New Guinea "wearing little more than a vegetable." Photo source Mark and Olly Blog (accessed Feb. 2009; later removed).

Yet despite this outcry, Mark and Olly persisted, ultimately filming with Matsigenka villages outside the park in a different region. In the program blog, Anstice described their host and village chief, Jacinto, as a “deranged lunatic” who threatens to “ram a red hot chili up my arse.”[6]

April 12, 2011

The Return of the Secret Shaman: An Amazonian healer resists persecution

Baltazar laughs, his laughter ringing as always halfway between a guffaw and a cackle.  His eyes are almost imperceptibly crossed, as if drawn by the magnetic pull of his fine aquiline nose.  His face is deeply ridged and brown but somehow ageless, his hair black and wiry and disheveled.  His grin, wide and irresistible, subsides quickly.
I have known Baltazar for twenty years:  in fact, he was the first Matsigenka native I ever met on my first trip to the Peruvian Amazon.  But I had never spent much time with him, since I usually only stop off in his village for a few days on my way to more remote settlements in the headwaters.  Still, no matter how short my stay, he always comes to visit me soon after my arrival. I often reciprocate by paying him a visit to bring him salt, flashlight batteries, and fresh coca leaves.  
He usually insists on starting conversations in broken Spanish, as if to remind me that he still remembers the day when I was just learning to speak the Matsigenka language.  He often reflects (with a remarkable, almost photographic memory) on my comings and goings, and reminisces about those who have died since my last visit.  Sometimes I tell him about my research: whom have I interviewed, what plants they have taught me, what insights into folklore, myth, and shamanism I have gleaned.  He responds, as always, with his pidgin Spanish, his aloof curiosity, his trademark cackle.
But today, as I pay him my habitual visit in the early afternoon, he asks me with an uncommon earnestness to sit beside him on a crisp cane mat.  He sits alone and speaks to me in his native tongue.
“Do you remember that story you told me about the shaman whose soul was burned by the missionary’s flashlight?”

March 14, 2011

Chronicle of a Death Foreclosed: Mysterious disappearance of an Amazonian shamaness

After publishing, in May 2002, a confessional article on Matsigenka grief and mourning based on a disturbing field experience in Peru,[1] then being summoned two months later from fieldwork in Brazil to my mother’s entirely unexpected funeral, I decided never again to read, write or research on the topics of death, grieving, or funerary customs.  It is far too depressing, being an uncomfortable reminder of one’s own mortality, besides cutting too close to home for me personally.  It might even be bad luck. 

Then something happened:  Angelica vanished.

February 23, 2011

Sacred Flutes Redux: Cultural revival among the Baniwa of the Upper Rio Negro

Laureano, dignified with a parrot-feather crown and thick horn-rimmed glasses, paddles from the bow of the canoe while his skinny younger brother Oliver, in sweat pants and a baseball cap, rows aft.  Moacir, Laureano’s son, and I are filming from a second aluminum speed boat.  Funded by the Brazilian Ministry of Culture to document his people’s revitalization of ancient rituals banned by Christian missionaries, Moacir’s professional high-definition video camera is much more impressive and expensive than my own humble palm-corder.  We are paddling up this narrow tributary of the Ayari River, reddish-black but translucent like Coca Cola, to the place where Laureano concealed the sacred flutes nearly three decades ago in the icy depths of the creek.  The spot is marked like buried treasure with cryptic scars on a half-submerged tree trunk that only their maker can decipher.  Moacir, himself over thirty, was the last of his village to be initiated in the grueling ceremony of fasting and ritual privations that culminated in the playing of the flutes.  The same flutes that initiated Moacir also initiated his father, and his father’s father.  Nearly a hundred years old, these flutes lie hidden under three fathoms of cold black water directly below the rickety carcass of Laureano’s canoe.
Japurutu, Baniwa instruments not subject
to the restrictions surrounding sacred flutes.
They have come to show me where the flutes are buried, but they will not dive to retrieve them until I have left. Women, children and non-initiates like myself are banned from seeing the flutes, an offense punishable by banishment or even death.  The three of them, all initiated, will return later to recover the flutes, clean, tune and decorate them, and play them tonight for the first time in twenty-five years.