Born in Georgia and raised in the Tidewater area of Virginia, I became fascinated by native cultures while searching for Indian arrowheads and pot sherds on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay.  I was introduced to archeology at a young age by Bill Kelso, a family friend who excavated at Monticello and went on to discover the original 1607 fort at Jamestown.  I attended Hampton Roads Academy and went to college at Princeton University.

After high school and through my first years in college I volunteered on archeological excavations in Virginia and Europe.  But I became more interested in living cultures and languages and eventually specialized in medical anthropology and ethnobotany.  At Princeton I studied under anthropologists Kay Warren, Gananath Obeyesekere, James Fernandez and Carolyn North and tropical ecologist John Terborgh.  With university support I carried out summer research for a junior paper on folk medicine among Bedouin tribes of eastern Jordan. I also received university support and a semester of leave to carry out field research for my senior thesis on folk medicine and sorcery among Matsigenka and Piro native communities in Madre de Dios, Peru.

I graduated in 1987 and received a Labouisse Fellowship to return to Amazonian Peru to continue my research on native health and medicine. I lived and worked in remote Matsigenka communities of Manu Park for a full year.  I spent the following year, 1988-1989, in Germany on a Fulbright scholarship studying ethnographic film.

I began the doctoral program at the University of California at Berkeley in 1990, where I studied under Brent Berlin, Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Katharine Milton.  Professor  Berlin introduced me to fieldwork among the Maya peoples of Chiapas in southern Mexico.  Beginning in 1992 I  began working with mycologist David Arora, documenting local knowledge and use of wild mushrooms in Chiapas, and later Asia.  This work was documented in my first film, Grace of the Flood, and was eventually published in a special volume of Economic Botany.  During my work among the Maya I witnessed the early months of the Zapatista rebellion.  In collaboration with Thor Anderson I made the documentary film "Zapatistas: Voices on the Edge of Revolution," winner of the Society for Visual Anthropology student film festival in 1995.

In 1992-1993 I returned to Manu Park, Peru, to work with scriptwriter Kim MacQuarrie on a feature-length TV documentary for the Discovery Channel, Spirits of the Rainforest, winner of two Emmy awards including Best Cultural/Informational Film.  The Spirit Hunters, shot at the same time and narrated by James Earl Jones, aired in 1994.  

From 1995-1997 I returned to Peru to work on my doctoral dissertation with support from the Wenner Gren Foundation and the National Science Foundation.  My research focused on the sensory experiences (taste, smell, touch, etc.) and emotions underlying traditional herbal medicine and shamanism among two neighboring, but culturally very different groups, the Matsigenka and Nahua (Yora).  My paper on Matsigenka grief, emotions and nightmares, "Three Days for Weeping" won the W.H.R. Rivers Prize from the American Anthropological Association.  I completed my doctorate in Medical Anthropology at Berkeley in 1999.  I married Brazilian biologist Maria Nazareth da Silva and we were blessed with three healthy, bright-eyed children.  

I moved to Brazil in 2000, where I did postdoctoral research at the National Institute of Amazonian Research (INPA) in Manaus.   In collaboration with ecologist Douglas Yu and remote sensing specialist Bruce Nelson from INPA, I studied native forest classification among the Matsigenka, and later the Baniwa of Brazil, and showed how indigenous knowledge could be used in the "ground truthing" of satellite images.  Yu and I also published a study in Nature on variable indigenous concepts of beauty and sexual attraction that was widely cited, including by The Economist (Nov 26 1998) and even by Playboy (55[3] March 2008: 98-101,127).

I worked with INPA geneticists Rogerio Gribel and Maristerra Lemes studying the origins of Brazil nut groves (Bertholletia excelsa) in ancient Amazonia, and the results were recently published in Economic Botany. In collaboration with Instituto Socioambiental and a group of INPA resarchers, I did research on the ethnobotany and commercial viability of native crafts made from arumã (Ischnosiphon) fibers.
From 2004-2007 I held a fellowship from the Leverhulme Trust in collaboration with colleagues at the University of East Anglia to study Matsigenka beliefs and practices surrounding hunting and their impact on game animal populations in Manu Park, Peru.  After spending a year (2008-2009) as a research fellow with Eduardo Neves at the Museum of Archeology and Ethnology in São Paulo, I was hired in 2009 as ethnology curator at the Goeldi Museum in Belém at the mouth of the Amazon, where I now reside. 

At the Goeldi Museum I developed a research project in Ethno-Museology in dialog with indigenous groups whose cultural heritage is preserved in the museum collections. The project also grew into a collaborative indigenous media program, training native film-makers and documenting their unique cultural aesthetics.  I have also been active in supporting the Peruvian government in its development of strategies for protecting isolated in indigenous peoples of the Madre de Dios region. 

My research interests include ethnobotany, shamanism, sensory anthropology, community-based resource management and visual anthropology.  I have worked as a consultant with various organizations on applied projects in native communities involving economic development, sustainable resource use, health and sanitation, and cultural revitalization: for example the Casa Matsiguenka indigenous ecotourism lodge in Manu Park, Rainforest Flow's water and sanitation work in Peru featured by the United Nations and a PBS T.V. series, the Arte Baniwa native crafts project in Brazil and a program to revitalize Baniwa music and ceremonies.

I am currently working on a book entitled Sorcery and the Senses that explores shamanism, ecology and sensory experience among the Matsigenka and Nahua people of the Peruvian Amazon.