donderdag 16 december 2010

Forage superstition

Helena Valero was kidnapped by Yanomami at the age of twelve. She lived with them in the Venezuelan Amazon for 24 years before returning to an unwelcoming 'civilized' world: "I though that everything would be different among the white men". It wasn't. Italian anthropologist Ettore Biocca recorded Valero's story and turned it into a narrative autobiography that was first published in Italian in 1965. It is an extraordinary account from inside the shabono and it portrays Amazonian Indian communities with an intimate and alienating detail: can we really understand these people? Superstition seems to be the glue of daily life and the abundance of it does not portray the Yanomami in a friendly way to our Western priggish sensibilities that demand fact and reason. But of course superstition is just another aspect of forage psychogeography. When your means of subsistence, no matter the amount of skill, intelligence and knowledge that is involved, depends on luck (the presence of game) all societies develop intricate systems that try to urge chance to choose your side. Sports is a good example in our society: football players are not allowed to have sex the night for a big match and they all have lucky shirts they may never be washed etc. Reichel-Dolmatoff points out that the taboos are not in themselves important but that a large set of do and don't force you to pay close attention to everything you do, even when you are not doing something special, and this prepares you for the times that heightened awareness of your surrounding is of vital importance.

Yanoama is not just a classic of anthropology, it is also a classic of ethnopoetics; here is the defining mixture of an oral Amazonian language and its narrative conventions mixed with the language of an outsider who got as far as anybody can become an insider. Valero accuracy has been often praised, memory is the birthright of the illiterate. 
Rohariwe decided to prepare curare and began to speak aloud in the shapuno, just as the priest does in his sermon: "I shall prepare mamocori; anyone who has none may now learn how to make it; if anyone has some, let him go on the track to watch out against the enemy. Let everybody listen to me; no one must go and misbehave with a woman tonight. I shall then try mamocori on a monkey; if the monkey does not die, it will mean that you have been with women during the night; in that case, the next time I shall chase you all out and make my poison myself. 
The superstition here is clear, and there is more of it:
The next morning, all the men who had come to prepare the curare had painted themselves black with coal on the face, on the body, on the legs, because they said curare is useful for war. They didn't eat that day: they said that the woman who stayed to watch must not bathe, because the poison would no longer kill animals or men. Pregnant woman must not be present because, they said, the babies whom they carried in their stomachs make water on the poison and the poison becomes weak. They do not begin preparing the poison too soon, because at that time the deer is still walking about in the wood and urinating: the deer urinates a long way off, but for them he urinates on the poison and makes it weak. Towards six o'clock in the morning Rohariwe and the others went into the forest to gather other plants, especially the plant ashukamakei, which is used to make the poison more sticky; it is a plant with long leaves. 
Most of taboos mentioned for the making of curare sound nonsensical to us, though perhaps their might be some point to the dangers of deer piss, but at the end of this quote there is made an observation, the adding of a certain plant to change the properties of pure curare, that points to a chemical knowledge that can only have been acquired through experimentation (?). Ethnobotanists like Mark Plotkin, going beyond the superstition side-show, have written about the way curare is made and have reported a great sophistication in preparation and the use of several additives to control the strength and speed of the curare's effects. The knowledge is there but can we recognize it?

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