1987 – Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man is Published
The Australian anthropologist Michael Taussig ventured to the Colombian Amazon along the Putumayo River in the 1970s where he examined, among other things, the healing work of shaman José García. Taussig went on to become one of the most original voices in anthropology by bringing together an analysis of the colonial, social, and economic worlds of indigenous Colombian peoples.
The book includes a focus on the brutal effects of the nineteenth century Rubber Tapping industries that helped make European barons rich while destroying the lives, culture, and dignity of many indigenous Amazonians. It was a period of great suffering for locals, and thus it is no surprise that the shamanic healing brew ayahuasca spread throughout indigenous groups during the Rubber Boom.
In his tome Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study of Terror and Healing, Taussig pushed against popular explanations in anthropology about shamanism. He claims that shamanism is not always aimed at trying to impose mythic order upon the mental chaos of disease and suffering but that it can be expressive of the chaos and suffering of culture itself.
Certain ceremonies and types of yagé (ayahuasca) use in the Putumayo region of Upper Amazonia, he claimed, can be seen as an expression of the disorderly brutality of colonialism and capitalist exploitation. For example, Indigenous healers attracted urban laborers who were curious about the “wild Indian” methods of dealing with the intensity of their own lives. Taussig was particularly interested in how indigenous peoples embodied and appropriated the perceptions of the “wild Indian” that were projected onto them by colonists, capitalists, and urban laborers. In this manipulation of the perception of others, indigenous healing, he argued, drew upon well-established notions of the “primitive” in European culture. He said:
“So it has been through the sweep of colonial history where the colonizers provided the colonized with the left-handed gift of the image of the wild man—a gift whose powers the colonizers would be blind to, were it not for the reciprocation of the colonized, bringing together in the dialogical imagination of colonization an image that wrests from civilization its demonic power” (467).
His book is not the easiest to read, unless you are relatively proficient in the thinking of Walter Benjamin and Karl Marx or are a serious intellectual. But the challenge of reading his book goes beyond the issue of intellectual ability. With many different stories, myths, histories, rituals, and perceptions of ayahuasca that weave back and forth through the book’s sections “terror” to “healing,” the text reads as a literary shamanic journey. On some levels, it pulls the reader into a murky and unpredictable state of consciousness that shares some similarities with drinking ayahuasca.
Taussig’s genre-bending book can be situated at the pioneering margins of anthropology and among other writings on ayahuasca culture and history. This would include the German explorer Theodor Koch-Grünberg’s efforts to records indigenous myths and belief systems surrounding ayahuasca use in 1903, the French anthropologist P. Reinburg’s experiments with ayahuasca in 1931, Richard Evans Schultes’s research on ayahuasca ethnobotany in the 1940s and 50s, Reichel-Dolmatoff’s ethnographies of Tukano shamanism in the 1960s and 70s, Marlene Dobkin de Rios’s analysis of urban ayahuasca healers in the 1970s, and Luis Eduardo Luna’s research on ayahuasca “plant teachers” and visions in the 1980s, just to name a few.
Taussig, M. (1987). Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study of Terror and Healing. Chicago, Chicago University Press