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)

A Savage Fascination (Part One)

Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.
(Rudyard Kipling, The White Man’s Burden, 1899)

Let’s go back to a topic we discussed several times on these pages: the relationship of the Western world with  “primitive” tribes.
This will be a double post. In this first part we shall examine a 19th-century tale, and in the second an exotic journey that took place this very year.
Two perspectives very much apart in time and nonetheless marked by an element of continuity: Western obsession for the “savages” and for cannibalism.

I must start by saying that both articles owe a great deal to two followers and friends of Bizzarro Bazar: in the first case I have to thank Giulio, of Mala Tempora Studio, who passed on to me the story we will examine in this post; in the second case, my thanks go to Marco, the crazy guy who made that exotic journey.

So let’s begin with the extraordinary gem discovered by Giulio.
The #28 issue of Giornale Illustrato dei Viaggi (1923, published by Sonzogno) boasts one of the most incredible covers ever. It’s got it all: shipwrecks, cannibals, fetuses in formaldehyde and anatomical preparations.

The gruesome episode is described in detail in the magazine. This is the ending of the short story:

What is left for me to add, gentlemen — continued Dr. Stephenson — goes beyond the limits of the unlikely. The three huge chests, containing the anatomical pieces, were opened in the blink of an eye, and the contents appeared in the eyes of the marauders, who certainly did not expect such a spectacle. They believed it to be our own food supply, and that we, sharing their taste for human flesh, had jealously hidden this treasure.
You know that anatomical pieces are prepared to produce a complete illusion.
What followed was more than a plunder, it was a true cannibalistic orgy. They furiously tore apart those pieces, which were dry like papier-mâché and no longer having the appearance of flesh. Eager to satisfy their monstrous tastes as soon as possible, they lit half a dozen braziers, on which they soon placed the whole pieces, staring at them with a mix of jealousy and admiration for the skillful butcher who had prepared them.
Under the influence of heat, this unusual roast softened somehow, but the injected fluids melted down and dripped into some large mother-of-pearl shells that those skilled and far-sighted cooks had placed underneath.
I shall leave it to your imagination, to think what that sauce could taste like!
To top it all off, Ben’s corpse, which we had buried at the foot of a myrtle shrub, was brutally exhumed, and cut into pieces in a few minutes with stone knives and with rare skill.
We also owned half a dozen brains, and a complete set of fetuses, stored in 75° alcohol. A new discovery, which was accompanied by gorilla-like contortions. With great caution, almost religiously, they opened the enormous jars that contained them, and they drank the conservative liqueur with an incomparable gluttony. That infernal liquid, which must have burned their stomachs, brought their drunkenness to the highest level, and they swallowed like brandied oranges those unfortunate leftovers, which science alone has the right to study and mutilate without commiting profanation.
Happy and drunk, those abominable savages staggered, shouted loudly and beat their bellies in a deep state of bliss.
Finally they fell asleep like seals.
The next day, in the perfumed hour, when the morning sun rises from the greenery shaking his golden hair above the giant forest, the chirping of parrots woke those brutes. They stretched their limbs like satisfied dinner guests awaking from a peaceful sleep, and rose fresh and happy, scampering around like young kangaroos. If not for the presence of some macabre bones scattered across the place, no one would have suspected such a horrible feast had happened the previous day.
What a wonderful organ the Australian stomach must be! …
Faithful to their commitment, despite our fault, they led us to Ballaratre, where we arrived completely empty-handed.
The last words we heard from those unworthy children of nature were to warmly solicit a new shipment of “small whites in firewater”.
We did not deemed it appropriate to respond.
Three days later we were in Melbourne!

Now, a little background. The Giornale Illustrato dei Viaggi e delle Avventure di Terra e di Mare (‘Illustrated Journal of Travels and Adventures on Land and Sea’) was a weekly magazine founded by Edoardo Sonzogno and published in Italy since 1878. The magazine was clearly mimicking the Journal des Voyages et des Aventures de Terre et de Mer, founded the year before in Paris by Charles-Lucien Huard, as it also reproduced some of its original articles and reports.

Like its French counterpart, the Giornale Illustrato featured tales of geographic exploration and adventure fiction, and in its last years of publication it even presented sci-fi and horror short stories.
In 1931 the magazine was discontinued, and it merged with Il Mondo.

As for the 1923 cover, it was actually the copy of an illustration by Horace Castelli for the serialized fiction novel À Travers l’Australie: les dix millions de l’opossum rouge by Louis-Henri Boussenard, a picaresque tale of Australian adventures published in 1878 on the Journal des Voyages and then in 1881 on La Récréation.

This inventive little episode, as we have seen, is centered on the expedient (which is not devoid of genius) of combining two classic 19th-century fixations: anatomy and cannibalism.
The anatomist was indeed a recurrent character in romantic literature (from the works of Scapigliati to naturalists), at a time when authors looked at the new positivist science, and anatomy in particular, with a mixture of exaltation and morbid interest. In this case the narrator is indeed a scientist, even if the “aseptic” patina of his academic report is soon forgotten to leave room for the more macabre and sensationalist tones.

The other obsession emerging here is the endless fascination for cannibalism and the myth of the “savage”. It is an obsession with a dual nature: first, it serves to highlight the superiority of Westerners, who have freed themselves from the “bestial” state.
The 19th-century explorer’s colonial arrogance is reflected in the contemptuous tone reserved for the indigenous people (‘abominable savages‘, ‘monstrous tastes‘, ‘brutes‘), often seasoned with animal comparisons (‘like seals‘, ‘gorilla-like‘, ‘like young kangaroos‘) and references to a pre-cultural state (‘those unworthy children of nature‘).
At the same time, however, this fixation is tinged with an ill-concealed envy for the freedom of customs shown by these “primitive” people. It’s no coincidence that these narratives insist so much on morbid tones, and that the portrayed “savages” are often nothing more than function characters, inserted in stereotyped situations — the perfect excuse for the writer (his hand trembling, of course, as he barely dares to proceed to the next horrible scene) to describe orgies, assorted violence and nudity.

Upon reading these fantastic reports, one gets the impression of being confronted not so much with anthropophagy (which, far from being orgiastic, actually followed rigorous rituals, was often carried out within the tribe itself and was limited to the assumption of small parts of the body of a deceased relative as a sign of respect) but rather with a repressed impulse of breaking free from social norms.
As I argued when talking about severed heads — those macabre souvenirs that Westerners brought home from their explorations — the Savage is a screen on which we project the distorted image of what we want him to be.

But we must keep in mind that behind these tales of cannibalism there was also a strictly political motivation: they were meant to provide an ethical excuse for colonial expansionism.

Such stories were not just intended to thrill people back home; they also provided moral underpinning for the domination of the locals by western settlers. Cannibalism was an unnatural act, seemingly as far as possible from acceptable European behaviour. Tales of man-eating could therefore justify the annexing of foreign lands as well as the introduction of Christian morality into a country. […] The labelling of the rebels as hungry cannibals reduced their uprisings to a battle between civilisation and savagery […]. It made violent repression the authorities’ most likely response and necessitated a continuing colonial presence to ensure further outbreaks of man-eating were prevented.

Fonte: The History Notes.

We might think that the Western obsession for cannibalism and for uncontacted, “uncontaminated” tribes is a thing of the past, like the old topos of the explorer boiled alive in a pot, but that’s not really the case (see this other article).
Cannibals still thrive in comic books, horror films and more generally the collective imagination.

So much so, that some people are willing to spend considerable amounts of money and face a journey that’s all but safe and comfortable, just for the thrill of coming face to face with “real cannibals”.
But we will talk about this in detail in the second part of this post.

Links, curiosities & mixed wonders – 4

As I am quite absorbed in the Academy of Enchantment, which we just launched, so you will forgive me if I fall back on a new batch of top-notch oddities.

  • Remember my article on smoked mummies? Ulla Lohmann documented, for the first time ever, the mummification process being carried out on one of the village elders, a man the photographer knew when he was still alive. The story of Lohmann’s respectful stubbornness in getting accepted by the tribe, and the spectacular pictures she took, are now on National Geographic.

  • Collective pyres burning for days in an unbearable stench, teeth pulled out from corpses to make dentures, bones used as fertilizers: welcome to the savage world of those who had to clean up Napoleonic battlefields.
  • Three miles off the Miami coast there is a real underwater cemetery. Not many of your relatives will take scuba lessons just to pay their last respects, but on the other hand, your grave will become part of the beautiful coral reef.

  • This one is for those of you acquainted with the worst Italian TV shows. In one example of anaesthetic television — comforting and dull, offering the mirage of an effortless win, a fortune that comes out of nowhere — the host randomly calls a phone number, and if the call is picked up before the fifth ring then a golden watch is awarded to the receiver. But here’s where the subversive force of memento mori comes in: in one of the latest episodes, an awkward surprise awaited the host. “Is this Mrs. Anna?” “No, Mrs. Anna just died.“, a voice replies.
    For such a mindless show, this is the ultimate ironic defeat: the embarassed host cannot help mumbling, “At this point, our watch seems useless…

  • How can we be sure that a dead body is actually dead? In the Nineteenth Century this was a major concern. That is why some unlucky workers had to pull cadaver tongues, while others tried to stick dead fingers into their own ears; there were those who even administered tobacco enemas to the dead… by blowing through a pipe.
  • What if Monty Python were actually close to the truth, in their Philosphers Song portraying the giants of thought as terminal drunkards? An interesting long read on the relationship between Western philosophy and the use of psychoactive substances.
  • If you haven’t seen it, there is a cruel radiography shattering the self-consolatory I-am-just-big-boned mantra.

  • Man will soon land on Mars, likely. But in addition to bringing life on the Red Planet, we will also bring another novelty: death. What would happen to a dead body in a Martian atmosphere, where there are no insects, no scavengers or bacteria? Should we bury our dead, cremate them or compost them? Sarah Laskow on AtlasObscura.
  • In closing, here is a splendid series of photographs entitled Wilder Mann. All across Europe, French photographer Charles Fréger documented dozens of rural masquerades. Creepy and evocative, these pagan figures stood the test of time, and for centuries now have been annoucing the coming of winter.

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!)