A Savage Fascination (Part Two)

In the first part of this special we talked about cannibals, but also more generally about the concept of the Savage, object of contempt and fascination in the 19th century.
We analyzed a fictional tale and pointed out how the indigenous people were often used as pure literary devices to titillate the reader’s voyeurism. The tone of superiority is akin to the one that can be found in many reports of authentic expeditions of that time.

If this approach has disappeared today, at least from the most evident narratives, the presumption of some kind of Western supremacy over the supposed backwardness of traditional societies remains, at least in part. No luck in trying to “dispel the myth that in ‘primitive societies’ there is a subsistence economy that can hardly guarantee the minimum necessary to the survival of society(1)The quote comes from this interesting article (in Italian) by Andrea Staid on so-called ‘primitive’ societies, taken from his book Contro la gerarchia e il dominio. Potere, economia e debito nelle società senza Stato (Meltemi 2018).; another common idea about these communities is that they live in a more ‘natural’ way.
The use of this adjective may seem positive, even a form of admiration or appreciation, but we know that opposing Nature to Culture — one of the tenets of Western thought — often conceptually serves the purpose of distancing (our own) civilization from (other people’s) barbarism.

As we said, those tribes which harbor traditional elements are still the object of enormous curiosity. I myself have spoken extensively about them over the years, although I have tried to describe their customs in a detailed and detached way.
One thing not many are aware of, however, is that today many tours are organized in remote areas of the globe, for those who can afford them; they offer to discover (I quote from a brochure) the “world’s last intact systems of tribes, clans and rituals“.

It is perhaps one of the few chills left in the great machine of global tourism, the extreme frontier of exoticism. Exclusive trips with a more or less marked ethnological background, whose participants, however, are not anthropologists but tourists: to a cynical observer, it would seem the appeal lies in taking selfies with the natives, or in those traditional dances staged by tribe members for the benefit of white men’s cameras.

But one should not make the mistake of judging (or worse, being outraged) on the basis of some photos found on the internet. What are these tours really like, how are they organized, what activities do they offer? What is their underlying philosophy? Who takes part in these expeditions, and why?

Marco is a long-time reader of Bizzarro Bazar, and he happened to try one of these organized tours just this year. After following with interest the report of his adventure trip on social media, I asked him to tell us its implications in more depth. The interview he gave me is therefore a unique opportunity to find an answer to these questions.
(Note: from this point on, all the beautiful photos you will see were taken by him.)

Can you tell us in a few words what kind of person you are, what do you do, what are your interests?

My name is Marco Mottura, I’m thirty six years old and I’m from Busto Arsizio. In everyday life I am a graphic designer, and as a second job (or you could call it a paid hobby) I am a videogame journalist. Video games have obviously always been one of my greatest passions, along with board games, horror movies, crossover music and my beloved Juventus.

I am fascinated by all that is strange, dark and macabre. I am a convinced atheist. I always wear black or gray. Cannibal Holocaust is my all-time favorite movie. I am obsessed with Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights.

How did you find out about the possibility of this trip?

Actually the fault is indirectly yours, dear Mr. Cenzi. Thanks to Bizzarro Bazar a few years ago I discovered The Last Tuesday Society in London, and after visiting Viktor Wynd’s wunderkammer during one of my trips to the City I could not help but follow the eccentric millionaire on Instagram. A year ago I saw some of the pics he posted while he was in Papua New Guinea to attend the passing ceremony in which the young people of the Sepik River tribes turn into Crocodile-Men. I asked him some questions about such an unusual and bloody ritual, and at the end of our chat Wynd’s reply was: “In 2019, however, I will be returning over here, if you want you can come with me.” He was serious about it, I was too… and so I really left.

What were the travel options?

You had to choose between two different trips, eleven days each, or purchase the complete package (which was far beyond my budget). The first part was focused on nature, with birdwatching and floral-themed excursions, while the second half was undoubtedly more extreme, and culminated with a visit to the very remote mummies of Aseki. No need to specify which of the two I opted for.

What did you expect from this experience? What motivation led you to embark on this adventure?

I found myself in a particular phase of my life, in a moment of deep personal crisis after a period of depression and many other hardships. Following my girlfriend’s advice, I decided to do something for myself and myself only: seeking that extreme exoticism that fascinates me so much (all those Mondo movies I’d seen during adolescence must have left their mark), I decided to go for an adventurous and potentially risky trip. Even in the worst-case scenario, dying in a real-life B-movie plot looked like the perfect ending for the type of existence I’ve always tried to live.

The prospect of escaping from my everyday life, the idea of staring into an unknown and distant universe and experiencing a cultural shock fascinated me. Before this experience I had never even been camping!

Tell us briefly how the journey took place.

The expedition was open to ten people from all over the world, plus the two leaders. The first group leader was the aforementioned Viktor Wynd, the eccentric English dandy and artist (2) I dedicated a chapter of my guide London Mirabilia to Viktor Wynd and his London wunderkammer. president of the Last Tuesday Society, while the other one was Stewart McPherson, a naturalist among the world’s foremost experts on carnivorous plants: an authority in his field, with 35 species discovered and 25 books published on the subject.

Eight of the participants were men, four women: a total of eight British, two Americans, one South African and myself to represent Italy. The youngest was twenty-eight, the oldest forty-five.

We met at the airport of the capital, Port Moresby, and from there we immediately left for the Trobriand Islands. We spent three nights there, then we moved to Lae, then we went by jeep to the region where the mummies are (stopping at Bulolo, an isolated city of miners, and spending one night in a village lost in the mountains). Then we went back to Lae again and then straight to Madang, where the journey ended. All in all we traveled many, many miles — often on almost impassable roads—, took four internal air flights and encountered many different landscapes and cultures along the way, for this nation has the greatest biodiversity on Earth.

What were the experiences and details you found most striking?

It is difficult to summarize such an adventure in a few words: what’s really striking is the powerful sensation of being out of regular time and space. The absolute darkness of night in the forest, the starry sky so bright and breathtaking that it doesn’t even seem like your own sky, the sunset colors, those peculiar huts that can be seen here and there. But also the moments of pure horror — the fishing and quartering of a sea turtle we witnessed as soon as we lay foot on the pier in Trobriand (over there they live on a subsistence economy, what is captured is eaten and used to make crafts), or the giant spider that sneaked into my room on the very first evening — these things immediately threw me into the atmosphere I expected from Papua New Guinea.

One of the most magical moments was seeing the “shark callers” of the village of Kaibola, who within five minutes with a coconut rattle literally drew the sharks to themselves, and then caught them using a simple line with their bare hands. Only a few dozen people in the world are still able to perform that strange and very effective ritual, entering into full communion with the sea to charm their prey. Returning to the shore we were surrounded by a herd of playful dolphins, we ate the freshly caught shark, and then explored an underground cave until we reached a source of fresh water. All within a couple of hours.

Of course, mummies were also an unforgettable sight, as well as the aforementioned night spent in a village in the Aseki region, inside a hut without electricity, without running water or anything else (but with a lot of booze brought along by our English companions!) .

Was there a cultural difference that stood out and surprised you more than the rest?

Definitely seeing the effects of the Betel nut on the people’s mouth condition. Anyone from 6 to 99 years old is accustomed to chewing the kernel of this green fruit, the size of an apricot, mixing it with a mustard plant and with a powder made from burnt shells they call lime. The combination of these three elements determines a strongly alkaline chemical reaction, which stains their teeth and gums with a very intense blood red color… in addition to corroding the entire inside of the mouth, often with carcinogenic results. Despite this, they continue to take Betel nut for its energizing effects: I did try this awful-tasting kernel, and the result was halfway between alcohol and amphetamines.

Another peculiarity lies in the different customs, namely the way of approaching others. An example: for many remote villagers, brushing their teeth is an unusual and incomprehensible practice. While I had a toothbrush in my mouth, I found myself surrounded by some twenty people, all gathered a few meters away to observe my strange ritual: at that moment I felt like an animal in a zoo.

Was there any unpleasant episode during the trip?

Absolutely none. Indeed, the kindness of these people was touching and even sort of unsettling. People literally have NOTHING yet never skimp on a smile, a courtesy, a gesture of good heart. They act out of a pure sense of hospitality, without expecting anything in return: they just seem happy to meet someone different, odd-looking, coming from who knows where, so they welcome strangers in their homes very naturally. People will get in a line just to shake your hand; I’ve seen folks of all ages stop any activity they were doing to chase our van for a few meters.

These are situations that make you reconsider the way you look at the world — and that’s true even for a convinced nihilist like me, who seldom sees any hope for the present and the future: the context here is so different from what we are used to in our ‘civilized’ society.

What was the relationship between your party and the indigenous people you met? What was their attitude towards you? Have you ever felt uncomfortable?

Papua New Guinea is a vast country, in which 850 languages are spoken, and it’s inhabited by many microscopic communities with extremely limited means, but in general it is not as savage as perhaps one could imagine. Even in the mountains of Aseki, in the middle of the jungle, several hours by car from the city, you may come across some solitary hut displaying Coca-Cola billboards or ads for Digicel, the local telecom provider.

Of course, there are still some particularly inaccessible areas, and populations that may have remained somewhat isolated, but it was certainly not our intention to venture in such areas (it would have been dumb, disrespectful and irresponsible). Having said that, it still made us smile to hear the Trobriand inhabitants talk about the ‘2019 explosion of tourism’ as they were referring to a total of seventy people (including us!) who have come from those parts since the beginning of the year.

I was amazed to see how little the locals were interested in our technology: everyone knows what a smartphone or a camera is, and while getting a picture taken still arouses a minimum of interest, no one seemed impressed by our hi-tech gadgets. Ironically, my famous toothbrush interested them far more than a smartwatch.

The only moment in which I felt I was not in control of the situation, happened on our arrival in the Trobriand Islands: we found ourselves on the main pier and all the locals were obviously curious, and ran towards us to see the dimdim (foreigners) up close. All of a sudden we saw ourselves surrounded by a few hundred people who were trying to attract our attention to sell us food and artifacts. I did not actually feel threatened, of course, but I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t at least a little bit scared that it could degenerate at any moment. In fact, I think the only tension was in our minds, given the truly exquisite ways of the inhabitants of that province.

Let’s get to the critical part. We talked about it, and you know that I have some issues with this type of organized travels. They seem to be a late-capitalist version of 19th/20th century colonialism: we no longer use muskets and whips, of course, but it is difficult to lift the suspicion that we are still taking advantage of these poor areas, cloaking this exploitation under exotic narratives and selling the “thrilling adventure” package to bored Western tourists. What do you think about it?

Let’s not fool ourselves: extreme exoticism, the element of risk, a fascination for lost paradises (without forgetting the collective image of these places created by horror movies) are all undeniable parts of the equation. I would be lying if I said an alternative destination would have been just as exciting: the peculiar cult of the dead of the Aseki region, the mummies, the idea of getting so close as to touch them, these are all factors that drew me towards this journey. So yes, there is a nuance of dark tourism, no sense in trying to deny it.

Having said that, rather than a squalid revision of some colonialist enterprises, I believe this has more to do with the incurable nature of the thrill-seeker: no indigenous person has been ‘exploited’, on the contrary, I believe that in some cases it was us westerners who got a little ripped off! In order to access the mummy site in the village of Angapena, after exhausting negotiations we had to pay: $3,000 in cash, one power generator, two Samsung Galaxy phones, plus a whole lot of food supplies. In short, the locals are certainly not naive people eager to be exploited, and indeed they seem to have understood very well how to do business.

Well, honestly, it seems to me that exchanging smartphones for the mummies of ancestors is the perfect example of that logic — Mark Fisher called it ‘capitalist realism’(3)”The power of capitalist realism derives in part from the way that capitalism subsumes and consumes all of previous history: one effect of its ‘system of equivalence’ which can assign all cultural objects, whether they are religious iconography, pornography, or Das Kapital, a monetary value. Walk around the British Museum, where you see objects torn from their lifeworlds and assembled as if on the deck of some Predator spacecraft, and you have a powerful image of this process at work. In the conversion of practices and rituals into merely aesthetic objects, the beliefs of previous cultures are objectively ironized, transformed into artifacts.” (Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, 2009) in which everything becomes monetizable and even the sacred is turned into a simple product. On the other hand this is not surprising if, as you pointed out, Coca-Cola advertising is present even in the thick of the jungle.
Regarding your presence there, what was the organizers’ approach?

I can assure you their approach was one of rigorous respect for local populations, cultures, flora and fauna (McPherson, a naturalist, was extremely attentive and diligent regarding all environmental aspects): the infamous cannibalism was never mentioned, not even once, and the word ‘cannibal’ was never brought up by anyone. Because it is alright to seek strong emotions, or to be charmed by macabre or bloody traditions; but the reality of Papua New Guinea certainly does not require further fabrications. To give you an example, the killing of a poor pig by smashing sticks on its head was an almost unbearable sight, impossible for us to understand. There was no need to add cannibalism lore to it.

Judging from what you wrote on social media, before leaving you were convinced that the trip could be very dangerous. You even made a will! In retrospect, was there really an element of danger or was the journey safer than you expected?

Flying over those lands is objectively much more dangerous than elsewhere, due to climatic conditions. All in all it was a tough experience, and sometimes physically stressful (although never really impossible); it is certainly not as hard as climbing Mount Everest, but if you opt for a similar destination it means you’re willing to test your limits. As far as I was concerned, I had taken into account every possibility, and was ready to accept even a tragic outcome with great serenity. The excitement in not being sure of coming back was a reflection of some self-destructive tendencies that I won’t deny.

Having returned home safely, I can say that the journey turned out to be infinitely less dangerous than I expected. But then again, Stewart McPherson and his organization never presented the trip as a one-way ticket for would-be suicides. If anything the only true psychological terrorism, fueling false myths, came from much more official sources such as the site of the Farnesina Crisis Unit: Papua New Guinea might be poor and have plenty of problems, but it’s unfair to describe it (like they do) as an ‘all-round dangerous country’, and to advise against any type of unnecessary travel. The reality I have seen with my own eyes is quite different.

What is the most beautiful thing or feeling you came away with?

Such an experience is quite hard to explain to those who have not lived it. I wanted to take a leap into the dark, but in the end I came back with a wealth of emotions, memories, sensations that really turned my life upside down. Certain situations make you come to terms with your limits, kicking you out of your comfort zone, and you immediately bond with those close to you: it is unsettling to find yourself in a universe that is still your own, but is not your own. You cannot come back from such a journey exactly as you were before leaving: some things are bound to get under your skin and affect you. And in the end these feelings are so powerful that you might find you never have enough, a bit like the Betel nut.

I believe this chat provides interesting food for thought: in a globalized world, nothing really remains ‘intact’. Does it make sense to worry about it, or is it part of an unstoppable process of change? Do these tours bring our sensitivity closer to that of distant peoples, thus reducing prejudices, biases and misinformation — or do they perpetuate an essentially ethnocentrist Western vision?

I’ll leave you readers with the task of forming your own idea. For my part I thank Marco again for his kindness and helpfulness (you can follow him on Twitter and Instagram).

Note   [ + ]

1. The quote comes from this interesting article (in Italian) by Andrea Staid on so-called ‘primitive’ societies, taken from his book Contro la gerarchia e il dominio. Potere, economia e debito nelle società senza Stato (Meltemi 2018).
2. I dedicated a chapter of my guide London Mirabilia to Viktor Wynd and his London wunderkammer.
3. ”The power of capitalist realism derives in part from the way that capitalism subsumes and consumes all of previous history: one effect of its ‘system of equivalence’ which can assign all cultural objects, whether they are religious iconography, pornography, or Das Kapital, a monetary value. Walk around the British Museum, where you see objects torn from their lifeworlds and assembled as if on the deck of some Predator spacecraft, and you have a powerful image of this process at work. In the conversion of practices and rituals into merely aesthetic objects, the beliefs of previous cultures are objectively ironized, transformed into artifacts.” (Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, 2009)

The Colonized Corpse: Story of Tasmania’s Last Man

∼  King Billy 

William Lanne, considered Tasmania’s last “full-blood” Aboriginal, was born in Coal River around 1835. At the age of seven, he and his family were transferred to Flinders Island‘s Aboriginal settlement; when he was twelve, the surviving Aboriginal people (a group of about 40) were moved to Oyster Cove, 56 kilometers south of Hobart. Here, in 1847, William entered Queen’s Orphan Asylum. It is precisely at Oyster Cove that, apart from his journeys at sea, Lanne spent all of her life.

William Lanne with his wife Truganini (left).

The Aboriginals were often employed aboard whaling boats, assigned to the mast because of their excellent sight. William Lanne, on the account of a cheerful spirit, became popular among fellow sailors as “King Billy” and despite this royal nickname, he led an anonymous existence, divided between the hard days at sea and drinking at the pub with his friends.
In February 1869, after a long trip aboard the Runnymede, William returned unhealthy. He spent his last wages in beer and rum at the local tavern, a hangout for prostitutes and whalers, and after a week he fell ill with choleric diarrhea. On March 3rd he died while getting dressed for the hospital.

His body was brought to the General Hospital by order of Dr. Crowther. And here the trouble began, because to many people William Lanne’s body looked incredibly tempting.

  The Object of Desire

In the 19th century, comparative anatomy was among the hottest themes within the scientific community. The study of the shape of the skull, in particular, was of paramount importance not so much on a medical level as in the broader context of the theory of races.

Through craniometric and phrenological measurements, and by comparing various physical characteristics, racial classifications were compiled: for example, it was claimed that one race was equipped with a heavier brain than the other, an irrefutable proof of greater intelligence; the physiognomic peculiarities of a race proved its proximity to monkeys, thus ranking it further down the racial scale; a robust constitution was deemed to increase the chances of survival, and so on. No need to wonder who occupied the peak of evolution, in these charts created by white men.
If the Europeans were the most suitable for survival, then it was all too clear that the Aboriginal Tasmanians (who were often confined to the bottom ranks of these charts) would soon be extinct just like dodos and dinosaurs. Any violence or abuse was therefore justified by the inevitable, “natural” white supremacy.

To prove these theories, ethnologists, anatomists and archaeologists were constantly looking for prime examples of skulls. Aboriginal human remains, however, were very scarce and therefore among the most requested.
This was the reason why, as soon as the last “full-blood” Tasmanian was dead, a war broke out to decide who would win his skeleton: William Lanne received more attention after his death than he ever had while he was alive.

William Crowther (1817-1885)

Right from the start two opposing factions formed around the issue of his remains.
On one side was Dr. William Crowther, the doctor who had pronounced him dead. For a long time he had been desperately searching for an Aboriginal skeleton to send to the curator of London’s Hunterian Museum. He claimed that this gift would benefit relationships betweeen Tasmania and the British Empire, but in all evidence his true intent was to curry favour with the prestigious Royal College of Surgeons.
On the opposite front, the most powerful scientific society of Tasmania, the Royal Society, claimed that the precious remains were a national heritage and should remain in the Society’s own museum.

Disguised under an alleged scientific relevance, this was actually a political struggle.
The premier Richard Dry immediately realized this, being called to decide on the delicate matter: his move was initially favorable to the Royal Society, perhaps because it had strict ties to his government, or perhaps because Dry had had some pretty rough political divergences with Crowther in the past.
Anyways, it was established that the body would remain in Tasmania; but Dry, being a fervent Christian, decided that the last Aboriginal would need, first of all, to be granted a proper funeral. Well aware of Crowther’s impatience to get his hands on the skeleton, he ordered the new head of the hospital, Dr. George Stockell, to prevent anything happening to the body.

  The Desecration, Act One: Crowther

The following day Stockell and Crowther met on the street and they immediately went into a dispute; Crowther claimed to have a right on the body, and Stockell replied he had received clear orders to protect Lanne’s corpse.
When surprisingly Crowther invited him to dinner at 8pm, Stockell must have naively thought it was an attempt to reconcile. Upon showing up at Crowther’s at the agreed time, however, he discovered that the doctor was absent: he found his wife instead, who welcomed him into their home and who seemed particularly loquacious, and “kept him talking“…

Meanwhile Crowther had to act quickly with the favor of twilight.
Assisted by his son, he entered the hospital and headed for the morgue. There he focused on the body of an elderly white gentleman: he beheaded the old man, and swiftly peeled his head to get hold of his skull. He then moved to the adjoining room, where William Lanne’s body was laying.
Crowther made an incision down the side of Lanne’s face, behind his right ear; removing the skin off the face and forcing his hands underneath, he extracted the Aboriginal’s skull and replaced it with the one he had just taken from the other corpse.
He then stitched up Lanne’s face, hoping no one would notice the difference, and disappeared into the night with his precious loot.

Stockell remained with Crowther’s wife until 9pm, when he eventually sensed something was wrong and returned to the hospital. Despite Crowther’s precautions, it did not take Stockell very long before he figured out what had just happened.

  The Desecration, Act Two: Stockell and the Royal Society

Instead of alerting the authorities, Stockell immediately notified the secretary of the Royal Society regarding the mutilations carried out on the corpse. After a brief consultation with other society members, it was deemed imperative to secure the most important parts of the body before Crowther attempted to return for more.
Therefore Lanne’s feet and hands were cut off and hidden in the Royal Society museum.

The funeral took place on the scheduled day, Saturday 6 March. An unexpectedly large crowd gathered to salute King Billy, the last true Aboriginal: there were mainly sailors, including the Captain of the Runnymede who had payed for the funeral, and several Tasmanian natives.
However, rumors began to spread of a horrific mutilation suffered by Lanne’s corpse, and Dry was asked to exhume the body for verification. The premier, waiting to open the official investigation, ordered the grave be guarded by two police agents until Monday.
But early on Sunday it was discovered that the burial place had been devastated: the coffin lay exposed on loose earth. There was blood all around, and Lanne’s body was gone. The skull of the old man, the one that had been substituted inside the corpse, had been discarded by the graverobbers and thrown next to the grave.

Meanwhile, an increasingly furious Crowther was far from giving up, especially now that he’d seen the missing parts of “his” Aboriginal stolen that way.
On Monday afternoon he broke into the hospital with a group of supporters. When Stockell commanded him to leave, Crowther responded by hammering in a panel of one of the wards and forcing the morgue door.
Inside the scene was gruesome: on the dissecting table there were pieces of meat and bloody fat masses. Lanne had been deboned.
Not finding the coveted skeleton, Crowther and his mob left the hospital.

  When All Are Guilty, No One Is

The investigation led to an unfavorable result especially for Crowther, who was suspended from the medical profession, while his son saw his permission to study at the hospital revoked. As for the Royal Society, although Stockell admitted he had cut the hands and feet off the corpse, it was felt that there was not sufficient evidence for a conviction.

Even if nothing came out of the investigation, this terrible episode shook the public opinion for more than one reason.

On the one hand, events had uncovered the rotten reality of scientific and state institutions.
William Lanne’s body had been profaned – likewise, that of a white man had been desecrated.
The doctors had been proven to be abject and unscrupulous – and so had the cops, who were evidently bribed into leaving their post guarding the grave.
Hospital security measures had proved to be laughable – the same was true of St. David’s, the largest urban cemetery in the city.
The government’s actions had been far from impartial or decisive – but the behavior of the Royal Society had been equally obscure and reprehensible.
As a newspaper summed it up, the incident had shown that “the common people have a better appreciation of decency and propriety than such of the so-called upper classes and men of education“.

John Glover, Mount Wellington and Hobart Town from Kangaroo Point (1834)

But the second reason for indignation was that the last Aboriginal had been treated as meat in a slaughterhouse.
A horrendous act, but sadly in line with the decimation of Tasmanian natives in what has been called a full-on genocide: in little more than seventy years since the first settlers arrived, virtually the entire population of the island had been wiped out. Just like his land and his people before him, William Lanne had been avidly divided among whites – who were seeking to demonstrate his racial inferiority.
Even with all the racist rhetoric of the time, it was hard not to feel guilty. When someone proposed to erect a memorial for Lanne, shame prevailed and no memorial was built.

  Epilogue: Much Horror About Nothing

The one who eventually earned himself an impressive statue, however, was William Crowther.
The doctor entered politics shortly after the bloody events, and a successful career led him to be elected prime minister of Tasmania in 1878.
No wonder he had so many supporters, because nothing is ever just black or white: despite the murky episode, Crowther was well-liked because as a doctor he had always provided medical care for the poor and the natives. He remained in politics until his death in 1885; he declared he never lost a night’s sleep over “King Billy’s head”, as he always claimed the whole affair had been a set-up to discredit him.

Statue of William Crowther, Franklin Square, Hobart.

Stockell, for his part, was not reappointed house surgeon at the hospital at the end of his probationary period, and moved to Campbell Town where he died in 1878.
The Lanne scandal had at least one positive consequence: in the wake of the controversy, Tasmania promulgated its first Anatomy Bill in August 1869, regulating the practice of dissections.

What about the bones of William Lanne?
His skeleton was almost certainly hidden among the properties of the Royal Society museum. We ignore what happened to it.
The same goes for his skull, as no one ever heard of it anymore. Yet strangely, Crowther was appointed a gold medal from the Royal College of Surgeons in 1874 for his “valuable and numerous contributions” to the Hunterian museum. What exactly these contributions were, we do not know exactly; but it is natural to suspect that the honorary fellowship had something to do with the infamous Lanne skull, maybe shipped to London in secret.
However, there is not enough evidence to prove beyond doubt that the skull ever got to England, and the Royal College of Surgeons’ collection of human crania was destroyed during the Nazi bombings.

Royal College of Surgeons, early 20th century.

What is certain is that Crowther risked everything he had, his reputation and his profession, for that one skull. And here is the bitter irony: in 1881, the Hunterian curator himself publicly questioned the validity of craniology in determining the alleged races.
Today it is clear that this axious cataloguing and classifying was “a futile effort“, since “the concept of race in the human species has not obtained any consensus from the scientific point of view, and it is probably destined not to find it” (from The History and Geography of Human Genes, 2000).

Regardless of where they were kept hidden, neither the skull nor the skeleton of William Lanne were ever scientifically studied, and they did not appear in any research.
After all that was done to expropriate them, conquer them and annex them to one collection or another, and despite their supposedly fundamental relevance to the understanding of evolution, those human remains were forgotten in some crate or closet.
The important thing was to have them colonized.

 

The main source for this article is Stefan Petrow, The Last Man: The Mutilation of William Lanne in 1869 and Its Aftermath (1997), PDF available online.
Also interesting is the story of Truganini, William Lanne’s wife and the last “full-blood” Aboriginal woman, who suffered a less dramatic but somewhat similar post-mortem calvary.
The procedure used by Crowther to replace a skull without disfiguring the corpse has its own fascinating story, as told by Frances Larson in
Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found (2014) – a book I can never praise enough.

The primitive seduction: two unusual “savages”

In 1929, New York’s Knopf publishing house issued the book Lobagola: An Africa Savage’s Own Story. This remarkable autobiography, written by Bata Kindai Amgoza ibn LoBagola, told the adventurous and bizarre life of a “stranger in the XX Century“.
Bata LoBagola was born in West Africa, in a region of Dahomey (now Benin) so remote that it had not been yet reached by white men. Bata had his first encounter with Europeans in the last years of XIX Century when, together with some other members of his tribe, he ventured to the coast and saw a ship getting ready to set sail. When they got to the ship in a canoe, the “savages” were welcomed aboard by merchants, who for an hour or so toured them across the boat; but when the ship left the bank without warning, Bata’s friends, scared, jumped in the water and were devoured by sharks. Bata, who had been delayed under the deck, escaped that fate but had to leave for a different continent’s unknown lands. He was only seven years old.

He landed in Scotland, where he spent his adolescence under the protection of a generous benefactor, and was educated in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Almost by chance, he found out he could earn a little money in the entertainment world, simply telling about his country of origin and his people. So he started to perform in vaudevilles and small traveling shows, answering the audience’s questions and performing traditional dances. Being well-learned, intelligent and an excellent speaker, he soon became more than a simple sideshow attraction, and began being invited to speak before ethnologists and anthropologists. Traveling back and forth between Europe and the United States, LoBagola lectured at the University of Pennsylvania and at Oxford, becoming some kind of “cultural ambassador” for West Africa and of his people’s uses and customs.

Lobagola1

To understand why audiences were so fascinated with this “savage”, we have to think about the mentality of that time. In the second half of XIX Century, intensifying colonialism had brought to the discovery of several primitive people, and simultaneously the new modern anthropology was born. On a popular level, adventure novels focusing on the exploration of virgin lands were among the most successful publications. And the insatiable desire for exotism mixed with a widespread and open racism, with the curiosity of seeing the backward primitive man with one’s own eyes; so much so that when he was invited to Philadelphia in 1911, LoBagola earned the definition of “best exhibit in the entire Museum“. As his promotional pamphlet put it, he really seemed “too refined for the primitive crudities of his tribe and too wild for sophisticated society“.

Bata Lobagola was by now a sort of celebrity, constantly touring as a cultural informant in schools and universities, but unfortunately his life took a turn for the worse. Bata had problems with alcohol and a tendency to be involved in small brawls, but the actual sword of Damocles hanging over his head was his homosexuality. Arrested several times for sodomy and minor misdemeanor, he ended up in prison for good in 1931 for petty theft and sexual crimes. The following year the Bureau of Naturalization, whose officials evidently thought something was wrong, began pressing LoBagola, eventually forcing him to confess a truth no one suspected until then.
Bata Kindai Amgoza ibn LoBagola’s real name was Joseph Howard Lee, and he was born in Baltimore, Maryland.

Not everything, in his book, was made up: Joseph Lee had probably been in Glasgow in his youth, as his pages show a certain knowledge of the town, and according to several accounts he had a slight scottish accent. But for sure his childhood had not been spent among lions and elephants — much as it was certain that lions and elephants did not “team up”, as he had written in a creative page of his book, to hunt down humans.
If some readers, who were familiar with West Africa, had realized by the time his false autobiography appeared that his descriptions were pure fantasy, University professors never started to doubt his version. All the most curious if we consider that in the same book the idea is candidly suggested that one could tell anything about Africa to white men, and they would believe it.
Racial discrimination can be considered one of the factors behind LoBagola’s false identity: since 1907, pretending to be a savage ensured him certain privileges that paradoxically he wouldn’t had been able to attain as an afroamerican. He died in 1947 in Attica maximum security prison, where the most dangerous criminals of the time were detained.

But his strange fraud had an excellent predecessor.

George Psalmanazar appeared in London in 1703, declaring to be native of Formosa (Taiwan), at the time a faraway island of which very little was known. Psalmanazar had astonishing habits: he only ate raw, cardamom-spiced meat, he slept sitting upright in a chair, performed complex every-day rituals to honor the Sun and Moon, and followed an unknown calendar. And his tales of his native land were fabulous and cruel — particularly his descriptions of the annual ritual sacrifices of 18.000 young boys, culminating in cannibalism.
George Psalmanazar was invited to talk about Formosan culture in the most important intellectual clubs, and even lectured before the Royal Society.
In 1704 he published An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, an Island subject to the Emperor of Japan, a book which immediately had enormous success and several reprints. Everywhere Formosa was the talk of the day: readers and intellectuals were fascinated by the accounts of these savages who only wore a golden plate to cover their genitals, who dwelled in underground homes feeding on snakes, and occasionally eating human flesh. Besides reporting on Formosa’s customs and traditions, Psalmanazar also detailed language and alphabet, so convincingly that many german grammars went on including this information even decades after the hoax had been confessed.

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In 1706, facing growing skepticism and the accounts of those travelers who had actually been to Formosa, Psalmanazar had to drop the mask: he actually was born in France, was educated by Jesuits, and his only talents were a huge knowledge and an uncommon attitude for languages. So much so that he succeded in constructing one from scratch, to support his lies and reach fame.
Before dying in 1763, he wrote a second book of memoirs, published posthumously, where he uncovered some details about the creation of his hoax. But not even in this last autobiography did he reveal his true name, which today still remains a mystery.

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In spite of his last years’ religious convertion and his remorse for the scam, Psalmanazar’s work is now regarded as a small masterpiece of ingenuity. Besides a functioning language, the author gave his fantastic island a history, cults and traditions, even several different coins and over precise ceremonial outfits, and today his fresco seems to anticipate, on the account of its obsessive care for detail, some modern literary constructions (think of Tolkien’s appendices about his imaginary Middle Earth’s genealogy, linguistics, botany, etc.).
But there’s more, as historian Benjamin Breen writes:

As I devoured the immense creativity on display in Description of Formosa, it occurred to me that Psalmanazar was also telling us something fundamental about the origins of modernity. The world of seafarers, merchants, slaves, and transported criminals that created Europe’s overseas empires was built upon elaborate fictions, from Prester John to Jonathan Swift. Although the scale and singularity of his deception made him unique, Psalmanazar was also representative: while he was inventing tales of Formosan cannibalism, his peers were writing falsified histories of pirate utopias, parodic accounts of islands populated by super-intelligent horses, and sincere descriptions of demonic sacrifices.
These works raised profound questions about the nature of truth and fiction. Is the act of travel also an act of authorship, of inventing a reality that we each filter through our individual preconceptions? How do we understand worlds that differ so fundamentally from our own that they almost seem to be other planets?

(B. Breen, Made in Taiwan?: An Eighteenth-Century Frenchman’s Fictional Formosa)

For LoBagola’s story, the main source is a wonderful podcast on Futility Closet. LoBagola’s autobiography can be found on Amazon. George Psalmanazar’s story is splendidly told in Banvard’s Folly, and Description of Formosa is available on the Internet Archive.

Smoked mummies

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The Morobe Province, in Papua New Guinea, is home to the Anga people.
Once fearsome warriors, leading terrible raids in nearby peaceful villages, today the Anga have learned how to profit from a peculiar kind of tourism. Anthropologists, adventurers and curious travelers come to the isolated villages of Morobe Highlands just to see their famous smoked mummies.

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It’s not clear when the practice first started, but it could be at least 200 years old. It was officially prohibited in 1975, when Papua New Guinea became independent; therefore the most recent mummies date back to the years following the Second World War.

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This treatment of honor was usually reserved for the most valiant warriors: as soon as they died, they were bled dry, disemboweled and put over a fire to cure. The smoking could last even more than a month. At last, when the body was completely dry, all corporal cavities were sewn shut and the whole corpse was smeared with mud and red clay to further preserve the flesh from deteriorating, and to form a protective layer against insects and scavengers.
Many sources report that the fat deriving from the smoking process was saved and later used as cooking oil, but this detail might be a fantasy of the first explorers (for instance Charles Higgingon, who was the first to report about the mummies in 1907): whenever Westeners came in contact with remote and “primitive” tribes, they often wanted to see cannibalism even in rituals that did not involve any.

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The smoked bodies were then brought, after a ritual ceremony, on mountain slopes overlooking the village. Here they were secured to the steep rock face using bamboo structures, so they could act as a lookout, protecting the abodes in the underlying valley. This way, they maintained their warrior status even after their death.

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The bodies are still worshipped today, and sometimes brought back to the village to be restored: the dead man’s descendants change the bush rope bandages, and secure the bones to the sticks, before placing the ancestor back to his lookout post.

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Despite the mummies being mainly those of village warriors, as mentioned, among them are sometimes found the remains of some woman who held a particularly important position within the tribe. The one in the following picture is still holding a baby to her breast.

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This method for preserving the bodies, as peculiar as it looks, closely resembles both the Toraja funeral rites of Indonesia (I talked about them in this post) and the much more ancient “fire mummies” which can be found in Kabayan, in northern Philippines. Here the corpse was also placed over a fire to dry, curled in fetal position; tobacco smoke was blown into the dead man’s mouth to further parch internal organs. The prepared bodies were then put in pinewood coffins and layed down in natural caves or in niches especially dug inside the mountains. The ancestor spirit’s integrity was thus guaranteed, so he could keep on protecting the village and assuring its prosperity.

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In The Eternal Vigil I have written about how, until recent times, the Palermo Catacombs allowed a contact with the afterlife, so much so that young boys could learn their family history before the mummies, and ask for their help and benevolence. Death was not really the end of existence, and did not present itself as an irreparable separation, because between the two spheres an ongoing interchange took place.
In much the same way, on the other side of the world, ritual mummification guaranteed communication between the dead and the living, defining a clear but not impenetrable threshold between the two worlds. Death was a change of state, so to speak, but did not erase the personality of the deceased, nor his role within the community, which became if possible even more relevant.

Even today, when asked by a local guide escorting the tourists to see the mummies, an Anga man can point to one of the corpses hanging from the rock, and present him with these words: “That’s my grandpa“.

(Thanks, batisfera!)

“Savage” heads

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Enclosed in their display cases, unperturbed behind the glass, the heads attract yet another group of visitors.
They are watched, scrutinized, inspected in every smallest detail by a multitude of wide-open eyes. The children are in the front row, as usual, their noses pressed against the glass, their small faces suspended between a grimace of disgust and an excited, amazed look.
As for the adults, their wonder is somehow tarnished by judgment or, better, prejudice. “You have to understad that for these indigenous people it was a sacred practice”, sentences a nice gentleman, eager to prove his broad cultural views. “Still, it’s a horrible thing”, replies his wife, a little disgusted.
The scene repeats itself each and every day, for the heads sitting under the glass.
And few of the visitors understand they’re not actually looking at real objects from an ancient, distant culture. They are admiring a fantasy, the idea of that culture that Westerners have created and built.

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The two basic kinds of heads presented in anthropological sections of museums all around the world are tsantsas and mokomokai.

The most famous tsantsas are the ones hailing from South America and created by the Jivaro peoples; among these tribes, the most prolific in fabricating such trophies were undoubtedly the Shuar and the Achuar, who lived between Ecuador and Peru.

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The Shuar technique for shrinking heads was complex: an incision was made from the nape to the top of the head; once completely skinned, after paying specific attention as to keep all the hair intact, the skull was discarded. The facial skin was then boiled. Any trace of soft tissue had to be eliminated by rolling red-hot pebbles inside the skin, which was then further scraped with hot sand, roasted on flat stones, and so on. It was a delicate and meticulous procedure, until eventually the head was reduced to one fourth of the original size.

What was the purpose of such dedication?
The tsantsas were part of solemn celebrations which lasted several years, and were meant to capture the extraordinary power of the victim’s soul. They were not actually war trophies, in spite of what you can sometimes read, because the Shuar and Achuar usually lived quite peacefully: the occasional raids organized by the various tribes to hunt for tsantsas were a form of socially accepted violence, as there was no purpose in it other than obtaining these very powerful objects.
Great feasts welcomed the return of the headhunters, and these celebrations were the most important in the whole year. The intrinsic power the tsantsas was transferred to the women, assuring wealth and plenty of food to the families. After seven years of rituals, the shrunken heads lost their force. For the Shuar, at this point, the tsantsas had no pratical value: some kept the heads as a keepsake, but others got rid of them without giving it a second thought. The focus was not the material object in itself, but its spiritual power.

That was not at all the case with Western merchants. To them, a shrunken head perfectly summarized the idea of a “savage culture”. These indigenous people, in the collective imaginary of the Nineteenth Century, were still depicted as brutal and animal-like: there was a will to think them as “stuck in time”, as if they had been lingering in a prehistoric underdeveloped stage, without ever undergoing evolutions or social transformations.
Therefore, what object could be a clearer symbol of these tribes’ barbarity than a macabre and grotesque souvenir like tsantsas?

If at the beginning of European settlements, in the Andes region and the Amazon River basin, the colonists had traded various tipes of goods with the indigenous people, as time went by they became ever more autonomous. As they did not need the pig or deer meat any more, which until then the Shuar had bartered with clothes, knives and guns, the settlers began to request only two things in exchange for the precious firearms: the indios’ labor force, and their infamous shrunken heads.
Soon enough, the only way a Shuar could get hold of a rifle was to sell a head.

That’s when the situation got worse, along with the exponential growth of Western fascination with tsantsas. The shrunken heads became a must-have curiosity for collectors and museums alike. The need for arms pushed the Shuar people to hunt heads for purposes which were not ritual any more, but rather exclusively commercial, in an attempt to satisfy the European request. A tsantsa for a gun, was the usual bargain: that gun would then be used to hunt more heads, exchanged for new arms… the vicious cycle ended up in a massacre, carried out to comply with foreigners’ tastes in exoticism.
As Frances Larson writes, “when visitors come to see the shrunken heads at the Pitt Rivers Museum, what they are really seeing is a story of the white man’s gun“.

The tsantsas lost their spiritual value, which had always been connected with the circulation of power inside the tribe, and became a tool for accumulating riches. Ironically, the settlers contributed to the creation of those cruel and unscrupulous headhunters they always expected to find.

The Shuar by then were killing indiscriminately, and without any ritual support, just to obtain new heads. They began making fake tsantsas, using the remains of women, children, even Westerners – confident that someone would surely fall for the scam.
In the second half of the ‘800, the commerce of tsantsas flourished so much that even peoples who had nothing to do with Jivaros and their traditions, began fabricating their own shrunken heads: in Colombia and Panama unclaimed bodies were stolen from the morgue, their heads given to helpful taxidermists. In other cases the heads of monkeys or sloths, and other animal skins, were used to produce convincing fakes.
Today nearly 80% of the tsantsas held in museums worldwide is estimated to be fake.

The history of New Zealand’s mokomokai followed an almost identical script.
Unlike tsantsas, for the Maori people these heads were actually war trophies, captured during inter-tribal battles. The heads were not shrunk, but preserved with their skull still inside. Brain, eyes and tongue were gouged, nostrils and orifices sealed with fibers and gum; then the heads were buried in hot stones, in order to steam-cook them and dry them out. The mokomokai were meant to be exposed around the chief’s house.

In the second half of ‘700, naturalist Joseph Banks, sailing with James Cook, was the first European to acquire a similar head, after convincing an elderly man at a village to part from it – thanks to his eloquence, and to a musket pointed at the old man’s face. In all the following trips, Cook’s company spotted only a pair of mokomokai, a clue suggesting that these objects were in fact pretty uncommon.

Yet, after just fifty years, the commerce of heads in New Zealand had reached such intensity that many believed the Maori would be totally annihilated. Here too, the heads were traded for guns, in a spiral of violence that seriously threatened the indigenous population, particularly during the so-called Musket Wars.

Collectors were mainly attracted by the intricate tā moko (carved tattoos) which adorned the chiefs’ faces with elegant and sinuous spirals. So, Maori chiefs began tattooing their slaves just before beheading them – in some cases giving the Western buyer the option to choose a favorite head, while the unlucky owner was still alive; they tattoed heads that had already been cut, just to raise their price. The tā moko, a decorative art form of ancient origin, ended up been emptied of all meaning related to courage, honor or social status.
In New Zealand, even Europeans began to get killed, to have their heads tattoed and sold to their unsuspecting fellow countrymen: a fraud not devoid of a certain amount of  black humor.

Trading mokomokai was outlawed in 1831; the import of tsantas from South America was only banned from 1940.

So, in displays of ethnic artifacts in museums around the globe, in those darkened exotic heads, one is able to contemplate not only an ancient ritual object, packed with symbols and meanings: it is almost possible to glimpse at the very moment in which those meanings and symbols vanished forever.

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Tsantsas and mokomokai are difficult, controversial, problematic objects.
Among the visitors, it is easy to find someone who feels outraged by an indigenous practice which by today’s standards seems cruel; after reading this article, maybe some reader will be disgusted by the hypocrisy of Westerners, who were condemning the savage headhunters while coveting the heads, and looking forward to put them on display in their homes.
Either way, one feels indignant: as if this peculiar fascination did not really affect us… as if our entire western culture did not come from a very long tradition of heads cut off and exposed on poles, on city walls and in public places.
But the beheadings never stopped existing, just as the human head never ceased to be a very powerful and magnetic symbol, both shocking and irresistibly hypnotizing.

Most of the information in this article, as well as the inspiration for it, comes from the brilliant Severed by Frances Larson, a book on the cultural and antrhopological significance of severed heads.