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Unintended Consequences

By David Tenenbaum MA'86
Photo Illustration: Barry Carlsen
Photo: Michael Forester Rothbart

Neil WhiteheadUW 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?

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Unintended Consequences

  • 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."

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