“I will discuss the case of Pascual, an old friend who described to me in horror how his use of Brunfelsia as a youth began turning him into a jaguar in his old age, and explore the concept of jaguar transformation more generally among the Matsigenka.”
May 24, 2022 10:35 am
Glenn H. Shepard Jr. was born in Georgia and raised in the Tidewater area of Virginia. He attended Princeton University and received his doctorate in Medical Anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley. As an ethnobotanist, medical anthropologist, and filmmaker, he has carried out fieldwork for over thirty years among diverse indigenous peoples around the world, particularly in Amazonia. He has published over a hundred research articles on topics including shamanism and traditional medicine, community-based resource management, the rights of isolated peoples and indigenous appropriations of digital media. He has participated in the production of several films, including the Emmy Award-winning documentary, Spirits of the Rainforest. His research, photography and writing has gained visibility in magazines like National Geographic, The New Yorker, Financial Times and The New York Review of Books. He is a currently a staff researcher in the Human Sciences Division at the Goeldi Museum in Belém, Brazil, and a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where he helped curate a recent online exhibit about Kayapó filmmakers (https://archaeology.columbia.edu/kayapovideowarriors/).
The harpy's gift and the jaguar's curse: Hunting medicines among the Matsigenka
Fully one fourth of the pharmacopeia of the Matsigenka people from the Peruvian Amazon consists of plants with the specific purpose of improving hunting ability. Not mere charms or “sympathetic magic,” many of these plants appear to contain powerful bioactive compounds, including emetics, purgatives and psychoactive substances that are given to hunters as well as their dogs. According to Matsigenka mythology, the harpy eagle long ago walked the earth in human form and taught shamans its own hunting secrets: the knowledge of special toxic plants to sharpen vision, cleanse the body and purify the soul. However, the jaguar also tempted the Matsigenka with a particular species of Brunfelsia, a psychoactive plant in the Solanaceae, that makes men such good hunters that they begin turning into jaguars and eating their own kin. I will discuss five main kinds of hunting medicine used by the Matsigenka: 1) Cultivated sedges that are infected with a systemic fungal endophyte related to ergot, known for its powerful bioactive alkaloids; 2) Eye drops that appear to contain psychoactive components to improve vision and heighten the other senses; 3) Purgatives and emetics to flush impurities from the body; 4) Complex mixtures of animal body parts and plants, including the powerfully psychoactive Solanaceae liana Juanulloa, given to dogs to imprint game animal scents on their senses; and 5) Hallucinogens and narcotics to transport the soul to other dimensions where the hunters communes with the harpy eagle and other spirit beings. I will discuss the case of Pascual, an old friend who described to me in horror how his use of Brunfelsia as a youth began turning him into a jaguar in his old age, and explore the concept of jaguar transformation more generally among the Matsigenka.