The Anthropologist and the Ancestors

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Dutch anthropologist Ton Otto

Thanks to Sabina Magliocco, I read this interesting piece about a Dutch anthropologist experiencing an ancestor ritual, one involving both the ancestors of the people in New Guinea whom he is visiting and his own.

And even though science failed to explain everything, the way I viewed the world was based on the idea that everything – with time – could be explained with logic and observations of reality.

Most likely, spiritual manifestations were simply projections of the unconscious, the deceitful trickery of sensory impressions or misunderstandings of natural phenomena.

I had no problem leading a life without spirits, but even so, deep down I always had a nagging feeling that I’d cut myself off from a lot of experiences.

The photo with the article is too perfect. I have cropped it here.

In turn it reminded me of an collection published twenty years ago: Being Changed: The Anthropology of Extraordinary Experience. (The late Judy Harrow told me about that one.)

A reviewer wrote,

Anthropologists of recent generations have always expressed enormous sympathy with ‘non-rational’ modes of thought, with the ‘supernatural’ experiences of people around the world. What they have rarely in their scholarly writing admitted to doing is giving any credence to the ‘irrational’ themselves—though such beliefs have long been common among those who have lived and worked for extended periods in cultures different from those that dominate Western society.

Now, in a ground-breaking volume, leading anthropologists describe such experiences and analyze what can occur “when one opens one’s self to aspects of experience that previously have been ignored or repressed.” The ten contributions to the book include Edith Turner on “A Visible Spirit Form in Zambia,” Rab Wilkie on “Ways of Approaching the Shaman’s World,” and Marie Francoise Guedon on “Dene Ways and the Ethnographer’s Culture.”

Note that it came from a small publisher, not a university press! But these experiences do happen, and it is good to get them into print.

Meanwhile, if you are interesting in “going native” in the physiological sense, I wholeheartedly recommend Carl Hoffman’s Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art.

It’s the best combination of archival research, history, and walking the ground where it happened, talking to people who were there.

And this is getting away from anthropologists . . . but spirits and possibly angry tribal peoples have been evoked to explain the “Dyatlov Pass Incident.”

Writer Donnie Eichar followed much the same methodology as did Hoffman for his own 2013 book, Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident. Some people treated those deaths as “high weirdness,” but his explanation is more naturalistic — and fairly convincing.

2 thoughts on “The Anthropologist and the Ancestors

  1. Change. Everybody probably can. Most probably don’t, too much. Ethnographic experimentation is a perfectly suitable avenue of changing a world view. Or of confirming one.

    These days, I find that I can’t really tolerate crowds–of bustling folks or of the jostling dead.

  2. In addition to D E Young and J-G A Goulet’s _Being Changed_ (1994), Goulet and B G Miller published a follow-up volume, _Extraordinary Anthropology: Transformations in the Field_ (2007). A field memoir by Paul Stoller and Chery; Olkes, _In Sorcery’s Shadow_ (1987) is by an anthropologist who apprenticed to a sorcerer in Nigeria, and was deeply frightened by his experiences, what he saw others do and what he learned to do himself. Other important anthropological monographs and srticles were published by such leading lights as Bruce Grindal, Edith Turner, Barbara Tedlock and Philip M Peek. As yet … there are hardly any cracks so far in the profession’s public walls against the notoriety that such studies and accounts can bring upon the whole field. In private, however …

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