November 19, 2013

The Eye of the Needle: On jaguars and transformation

The path was too dangerous: she might encounter the enemy. She crawled through a maze of roots and vines and branches that clawed and grappled from her blind side like an invisible foe. She turned her head from side to side, seeking a way with her good eye. Her nostrils flared and she found the familiar odor: she was close now. 

She trailed the scent towards a faint glow and emerged at the edge of a circle of huts. The moon raked low over the ragged shadows of treetops. She found meat smoking in a small hut and devoured it, barely chewing with what remained of her rotten teeth. She emerged from the smokehouse calling to her daughters to strain fresh masato to quench her thirst. But instead the men burst from the huts clutching bows and arrows, looked at her with panic and called her that horrible name.

“Kinsmen, what has come over you? Why do you greet me so rudely? It’s me! I was lost all night in the forest. I’m hungry. Now I have found my way home!”

She spoke to them but they didn’t understand. Their voices too were fearsome, wild, incomprehensible. Bowstrings cracked and arrows began to whistle past her ears and pelt the mud around her. She heard a grim metallic creaking as one of them loaded an old rifle. 

She fled into the black tangle as the voices dwindled behind her and were lost to the giddy buzzing of the forest. Forgetting fatigue and her barely sated hunger, she raced far and deep into the shadows until she splashed into a small clearing where the moon reflected off the surface of a shallow rainwater pond. The panicky, concentric halos of light and shadow subsided and she looked down. A multitude of quivering yellow crescents resolved into a single glowing feline eye.

She should be afraid, and yet she wanted to laugh: the jaguar seemed to be winking at her. She stared, fascinated by the incongruous gaze as the jaguar crouched closer. It reached towards her with a huge paw, and by no will of her own she extended her hand towards it. She looked down from the bewitching eye and saw her forearm disappearing into the dark mirror of the pond. 

The two limbs, human and beast, were joined at an obtuse angle across the shuddering membrane. She looked up and the creature stared back with its single eye into her own. Panic filled her again. She turned to run, to wrench herself from the transmogrifying clutch and fly across the rippling black surface to some safe place. But the grip on her arm tightened and a talon punctured her flesh. The yellow eye swam again before her and she fell into the refractive darkness.

Read another excerpt from The Eye of the Needle

 Published by Anthropology and Humanism

Download the full story at and ResearchGate

Read more about jaguar transformation in the Amazon and beyond in:
"Old and in the Way: Jaguar Transformation in Matsigenka"

This is a pre-publication excerpt from my short story, "The Eye of the Needle," which was awarded Honorable Mention in the Society for Humanistic Anthropology's 2013 Ethnographic Fiction Contest. The tale dramatizes indigenous Amazonian beliefs about human-jaguar transformation, using the were-jaguar as a metaphor for the fraught and treacherous nature of relationships across boundaries between different cultures, beings and layers of the cosmos.

The awards ceremony was held on November 22 at the annual American Anthropological Association meetings in Chicago. The full story was published in the June 2014 issue of Anthropology and Humanism.

Image: Edo-period tiger scroll by Watanabe Shuseki from the Kobe Municipal Museum

November 13, 2013

Too-Close Encounters: The Mashco-Piro and the dilemmas of isolation and contact

In late August a Peruvian indigenous federation circulated remarkable video footage showing about a hundred isolated (so-called “uncontacted”) Mashco-Piro Indians just across the river from a Piro indigenous village along the Rio de las Piedras in Peru. They  appeared to be asking for food and trade goods like rope and metal tools. The Piro and Mashco-Piro languages are close enough to allow communication. Hoping to avoid direct contact and the possibility of disease contagion, forest rangers at Monte Salvado floated a canoe laden with bananas across the river. 

Mascho-Piro in grainy footage released by FENAMAD in August
Image source: BBC

After a tense three-day standoff, the Mashco-Piro eventually disappeared back into the forest. No one is quite sure why the Mashco-Piro — who have so steadfastly avoided such contact until recently — suddenly showed up. Many suspect that illegal loggers active throughout the region have disrupted their usual migration routes.

In late 2011, a different group of Mashco-Piro living near the border of Manu National Park shot and killed Shaco Flores, an old Matsigenka friend of mine, with an arrow. Having lived among the Piro for many years and learned the Piro language, Shaco had been patiently communicating and trading with the Mashco-Piro for over twenty years, always maintaing a safe distance but slowly drawing them closer with his gifts, food and conversation. But something happened on that fateful day in late November: perhaps the Mashco-Piro were spooked by Shaco’s appearance with several relatives at the manioc garden on a small river island where he had been allowing the Mashco-Piro to harvest his crops; perhaps there was internal disagreement among the Mashco-Piro whether or not to accept Shaco’s long-standing offer to bring them into permanent contact. We may never know.