Reverse Anthropology

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How Mutual Fear Can Lead to Mutual Respect

In 1977, I went to Colombia, South America, to conduct a field study among the Yebámasa Indians of the middle Rio Piraparaná. The Yebámasa were still taking their traditional hallucinogenic drugs, in particular a drug they called “cají”, which they prepared from the bark of Banisteriopsis rusbyana and Banisteriopsis caapi, two vines that grow wild in the tropical rainforest.

These plants contain psychotropic chemicals like harmine, tetrahydroharmine (THH), and harmaline, all indole alkaloids with a β-carboline structure, which have also been used in pure chemical form as psychedelic drugs in Western societies. According to the sources, the Yebámasa Indians had been consuming these drugs for thousands of years without the mental, medical, and social problems their consumption generates among their consumers in Western societies. I wanted to find out why.

By mid-April of 1977, I arrived by STOL aircraft on a piece of savanna in the middle of the tropical rain forest that was part of the Comisaría del Vaupés. From the “air strip” it was about a two-hour march through the teeming rain forest to get to the small settlement of Yebámasa Indians, I had selected as my study group. Of course, the Indians did not know that, and my sudden arrival was a surprise for them.

The place where I had arrived was called “San Miguel” by white Colombians. The Yebámasa Indians called it “Síoro jáiro” (Many swallows). The Indians lived in three palm-leaf houses, which they call “malocas”. One large house with about 18 inhabitants, and two smaller ones with three and four inhabitants respectively. Several other Yebámasa families lived within a distance of half a day by canoe. The total Yebámasa population we were able to contact was about 80 people.

I had dressed my research team in jumpsuits. Each one had a different color. White, blue, orange. I had picked up this seemingly practical idea from the Italian anthropologist Cesare Biocca and I had never considered that we might all look like escaped convicts. We found out soon that the Indians thought we were a hit squad sent by the Colombian government to investigate a murder.

“If you have come to investigate the death of Emilio, you have come in vain, because he was not murdered; he was only slain”, they explained somewhat sheepishly. After extensive discussions, we were able to convince the Indians that we were not government policemen and that we were not interested in their internal quarrels. I explained to Rufino, the Chief of the village, that we were interested in learning about their culture and that we would only stay if he permitted it. Rufino decided that we could stay.

Emilio, we learned later, had somehow contracted chickenpox, which is a deadly disease for the Indians, who are unable to develop immunity against its causing virus, the varicella zoster, a type of herpes virus. Rufino had ordered Emilio into quarantine. He was supposed to stay in a remote shelter in the forest and not approach the houses of the Síoro Jáiro Indians. Emilio showed up at one of the houses anyway and one of the local men jumped him from behind, when he was drinking, and killed him with an ax. The Indians believed they acted in self-defense and we agreed with them.

After this initial apprehension and misunderstanding we got along rather well with the Indians and they with us. The Indians understood that anthropologists want to study and understand the Indian culture and society, but they really did not know why. Usually, anthropologists are poor. They have nothing to give to or trade with the Indians but want to be fed by them. Luckily, most anthropologists behave like tourists. They stay only a short while and disappear. I had anticipated that and made sure that we had ample supplies of things the Indians would like to have and could use like knives, machetes, cloth, thread and needles, cooking pots, axes, plates, bowls, forks, spoons, etc.

I had also brought canned food, salt, honey, noodles, rice, and other non-perishable stuff. But without refrigeration even the canned food did not last longer than a few weeks in the sweltering tropical heat and humidity.

I did not want to practice the same kind of ambulant anthropology I had criticized some of my colleagues for and therefore prepared to stay as long as possible. As I had foreseen, we ran out of food after about two months and now we needed to barter our imported merchandise against food from the Indians and against the right to hunt in their hunting grounds and fish in their rivers and creeks. The Indians do not define “real property” in terms of boundaries but in terms of exclusive fishing and hunting privileges.

We had a rifle, a shotgun, and plenty of ammunition, but we had no experience and needed guidance. It is very difficult to hunt in the dense rain forest and it is even more difficult to fish in the jungle rivers. The water level of these rivers changes constantly and with it water speed, light penetration, oxygenation, and feeding conditions. Where there are fish at 8 am today, there are none at 6 pm the same day or 8 am the next day. We also had to learn about what bait to use. The Indians fish most successfully with a tree nut they call “bíti”. We used it, too, but with noticeably less success.

We also needed carbohydrates. The only source for carbs was what the Colombians call “yuca brava” (botanically: Manihot utilissima Crantz) aka “manioco” or “manioc”. The Indians knew how to grow yuca brava. We did not. Our only chance to survive in the tropical forest for an extended period of time was to learn from the Indians how to successfully hunt and fish and to trade goods or pay for Indian staple food, in particular yuca brava.

Soon, we ran into an impasse. The Indians considered us “their” exclusive source of industrial goods. They would not permit other Indians, not even other Yebámasa Indians, to engage in trade with us. They monopolized the market – so to speak – and then they jacked up the cost for their merchandise almost every day. If e.g. today a medium size fish would cost us 5 pesos or one metal spoon, the same or even a smaller fish would cost 10 pesos or two spoons. They started a self-made inflation, which would ruin us fast if we did not stop it.

I had to invent an objective trade standard by constructing a simple scale, which allowed us to tie the value of fish, meat, or yuca the Indians wanted to trade to their weight. After I had explained my construction to the Indians and after they had convinced themselves that we would not cheat them, they acknowledged that our trade calibration would allow us to stay longer and them to benefit from us longer.

To my surprise, the Indians were just as interested in learning about the culture and technology of the white people as we were in understanding theirs. For learning how to hunt and fish successfully in a tropical environment, how to make a tree canoe, a blow gun, a basket, pottery, a fireplace, or, as for that, how to make the hallucinogenic potion cají, I had to explain to them, how glass bottle are made, plastic containers, steel, and gasoline, how a combustion engine works, why airplanes can fly, and what that thing is, which they could see moving across the nightly sky – a satellite – and how it got there. No easy task, when the class does not know basic math, physics, or chemistry.

We got along with each other just fine, when suddenly, after several months, the Indians began to experience a food shortage. The yuca harvest had not been that great. Fishing and hunting had not been that successful. “Before we can feed you anthropologists” Rufino told me, ”we first need to feed our children and ourselves.” We could hardly argue with that.

I therefore decided to try my luck with chickens. I had heard that one of the missionaries on the upper Piraparaná, a nun by the name of Doña Berta Díaz, kept a large number of chickens. I decided to visit her and ask her to sell me some of her hens and one rooster, so we could start our own chicken farm to help our own nutrition and that of the Indians.

Before we left, we built a chicken coop from vines and sticks. Quite a number of “our” Indians wanted to come along and visit their relatives, who, they said, would be having a dance feast, a “wéwo basá”. “wéwo” is the pan flute, which is played by the Indians throughout the rainforest and the Andes.

We travelled upriver in my 16 ft tree canoe fitted with a Johnson 25 HP outboard motor for almost 10 hours. The trip turned out to be difficult and dangerous. I had to navigate the river rapids near the Sonañá creek without any prior knowledge about them. There were too many people in the canoe with only 3-4 inches of the canoe’s side wall above the agitated water. At one point we almost capsized but in the end, we arrived at Doña Berta’s place all in one piece.

The wéwo basá had already begun and there were about 60 Indians at Dona Berta’s mission station. My passengers quickly disappeared among the dancers and I was left alone with Berta, who had not expected me. Remember, this was before cell phones. I asked her straight away about the chickens and she agreed graciously to let me have eight hens and two roosters for very little money. While some of the Indians were busy making primitive cages to carry the chickens, I sat with Berta on the front porch of the mission house drinking tea.

Berta opened the conversation with a somewhat shocking question:

“So, you are studying these cutthroats?”

I gasped for air. “I get along with them just fine. Why do you call the Yebámasa “cutthroats”? I asked back.

“Uhu”, she countered, “so you don’t know.”

“Don’t know what?” I asked again.

Doña Berta fired a broadside.

“There has been a lot of trouble with these Indians. The Yebámasa have become known by the name ‘Janéra’, which means ‘throat cutters’. They have this name because they used to be mercenaries. Other tribes and clans hired them to do the killing for them. They were also cannibals not too long ago. So be careful. Watch your back. Lest you become the solution to the current food shortage. I am amazed that you get along with them so well. The Apostolic Mission tried to missionize them and failed. They became quite hostile and violent and threw the missionaries out. Good luck in your further dealings with them.”

Wow! Doña Berta was obviously a down-to-earth no-nonsense person and I sensed that she was serious about the Yebámasa. I could not possibly ignore her advice. I packed the chicken cages into the canoe, collected my passengers and went on my merry way back to Síoro Jáiro – only that from now on I viewed every word the Indians said and every move they made I a different light. I was on permanent alert and careful not to provoke or offend them.

Yet, nothing seemed to change in our relationship. The Yebámasa continued to treat us well and in a cooperative manner just as we continued to treat them politely and with respect.

After having lived with my hosts for seven months I felt it was time for me to check my bank account and my health in Bogotá. The day when the STOL plane of the “Institute of Linguistics” was to pick us up on the savanna strip where I had arrived, most of the Indians accompanied us through the forest to wave goodbye. But the plane was late. So, we all sat in the shade and engaged in one last round of friendly conversation. I could not help but tell Chief Rufino about what Dona Berta had told me about the ‘Janéra’.

“We were outright afraid of you.” I said. “Is this throat-cutting story true?”

“It’s true but it was a long time ago.” said Rufino. “However, we were also afraid of you.”

“Afraid of me? Why that?” I wondered.

“Oh, you told us that you are German, and we had heard from one of the missionaries that the Germans killed and ate thousands of Jews during the last big war in Europe. Was that not so?”

I explained what really happened. We stared at each other for a brief moment and then we had a laughing fit.

We had both been afraid of each other. Each group had feared the other one as a bunch of killers and cannibals. Mutual fear had created mutual caution and respect. Which is why we got along so well with each other.

Fear-motivated peace and cooperation. I wonder if this recipe would work elsewhere in the world.


You may wonder, how the chicken farming worked out. It didn’t. Firstly, the bats got into the coop we had built. They sat down at the chicken’s feet, licked their skin with their anesthetic mucous and then sucked their blood out. The bloodless chickens fell into their own poop, which spoiled their taste. The Indians flat out refused to pick up chicken farming or eat chicken meat or eggs. “That would be like eating family!” they argued. A serious argument from former cannibals.

You may also wonder what I found out about the drug use of the Indians. Well, it’s a fairy tale that the Indians do not have any problems with these drugs. They do have problems but admittedly, not as many or serious ones as we do with chemically identical substances in our industrialized societies. This is because they socialize the drug consumption. Children learn step by step how to responsibly take the drug just like our children (mostly) learn how to drink alcohol in a socially acceptable and responsible way.

Once you take the Indian drug out of its cultural context and allow a person with a totally different cultural background to consume it uncontrolled, you are headed into an accident. Conversely, if you were to give a Ferrari to a tropical rainforest Indian and show him only how to start the engine without teaching him how to drive the vehicle and with no streets around, the Indian would likely wreck the car in a hurry and hurt himself in the process. If you transplant an integral element of one culture into another culture out of context, expect problems.

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