By David Tenenbaum MA'86
Photo Illustration: Barry Carlsen
Photo: Michael Forester Rothbart
anthropologist Neil Whitehead never intended to study the shamans
who poison and attack people in South America. But all that changed
when they came after him.
It was during his interviews with dark sorcerers in South America
that UW-Madison anthropologist Neil Whitehead finally reached a
line he would not cross. At the sorcerers' insistence, he'd paid
for the interviews. Although that's something that anthropologists
are loath to do, the payments, as it turned out, were the least
of his difficulties.
The men who stood before Whitehead claimed to be kanaimàs,
dark sorcerers of the Guyana highlands who mutilate and poison their
victims as part of gruesome and highly ritualized murders. Whitehead,
an expert on violence among South and Central American tribes, had
read about kanaimà (which refers to both the people who perform
the killings and the practice itself), but he assumed the lurid
descriptions were exaggerations that colonists told each other to
justify subjugating native peoples. Were these men telling the truth,
or were they just trying to hustle a fast buck by impressing the
big-time professor from the United States? It was hard to know —
but this also wasn't Whitehead's biggest problem.
In the early 1990s, when Whitehead first traveled to Guyana, he
had no interest in hearing about such stomach-turning practices.
He had landed in the country, located on the north coast of South
America, to catalogue artifacts and sites of anthropological interest.
But within an hour of arriving in a highland village, he found himself
talking to a nurse who told him that she had treated the men's victims.
On average, she told him, kanaimàs killed one victim in that
region every year.
The bizarre practice, like much else about the Guyana highlands,
had remained hidden from the world because the government "had
neither the resources nor the knowledge to do anything," Whitehead
says. But he soon came to believe it was still taking place —
and his belief was based on personal experience. On the first days
of that research trip, Whitehead unknowingly triggered the ire of
one or more kanaimàs. That, he believes, incited them to
poison him, ultimately pushing him to understand what had happened.
And so, a few years later, Whitehead sat surrounded by men who
presented him with a dilemma — one we might call an "invitation
problem." As a rule, anthropologists try to immerse themselves
in the cultures they study, and living among — even working
with — research subjects is a hallowed tradition. But as Whitehead
pressed for details in his hurried interviews with the men, they
responded with an invitation. If he was so fascinated by the practice,
they said, perhaps he'd like to attend a murder. Then, after the
body had putrefied for a few days, he could return and sample the
pineapple-scented fluid of decay, which, they explained, was a key
goal of the entire ritual.
Whitehead obviously had certain powers, and a compelling interest
in kanaimà, the men noted. Wasn't he interested in becoming
a dark sorcerer?
1, 2, 3
On Wisconsin Home
- David Tenenbaum has written about cannibalism
for UW-Madison's science Web site, The Why Files.
- Mel Gibson portrayed Scotland's William
Wallace in the 1995 movie Braveheart. Wallace's struggle
to free Scotland from English rule at the end of the thirteenth
century resulted in his barbaric death and later reputation as
one of Scotland's greatest national heroes.
- Robert Louis Stevenson examined cannibalism in his 1890 book,
In the South Seas. Read his thoughts on the practice in Chapter
IX, titled "Long-Pig
— A Cannibal High Place."
Fall 2003 Features