Wade Davis is an ethnobotanist, someone who studies human cultures and their interactions with the plants around them, and anthropologist (he studies people, psychoactive plants, and is explorer in residence for National Geographic. Could there BE a cooler resume?). I recently finished a book by him (The Serpent and the Rainbow), about Haiti and voodoo and zombis. He puts forward the theory that zombis are a cultural part of Haiti, that ‘secret’ societies help make up the major organizing component of justice and punishment in the community. Sometimes, when someone has done some transgression against their community, they may be zombified, and then forced to work as a slave for the rest of their lives. Wade puts forward the theory that zombis are made not by actually killing people, but by making the person and others to believe he’s dead with a poison that has Tetrodotoxin in it (TTX; I had to use this for my Masters thesis), a very toxic substance found in fugu puffer fish. He suggests that the TTX paralyzes the person and puts their body in a state of suspended animation (if it doesn’t kill them, which it probably often did). After the funeral and burial, the person is dug back up, beat, and given another drug, Datura, which is a VERY powerful hallucinogen, which, along with the beliefs of the culture, helps convince the person that they have died and been resurrected as a person without a soul… a zombi.
The book was pretty good. It gave a short history of the revolution of Haiti, which I really enjoyed. I was looking up Davis one day to sort of see what the rest of the scientific community thought of his work. In my searching, I came upon the following story of the Inuit (from Discovery magazine):
One of the cultures you celebrate in Light at the Edge of the World is the Inuit. What do you most admire about them?
Davis: The Inuit didn’t fear the cold; they took advantage of it. During the 1950s the Canadian government forced the Inuit into settlements. A family from Arctic Bay told me this fantastic story of their grandfather who refused to go. The family, fearful for his life, took away all of his tools and all of his implements, thinking that would force him into the settlement. But instead, he just slipped out of an igloo on a cold Arctic night, pulled down his caribou and sealskin trousers, and defecated into his hand. As the feces began to freeze, he shaped it into the form of an implement. And when the blade started to take shape, he put a spray of saliva along the leading edge to sharpen it. That’s when what they call the “shit knife” took form. He used it to butcher a dog. Skinned the dog with it. Improvised a sled with the dog’s rib cage, and then, using the skin, he harnessed up an adjacent living dog. He put the shit knife in his belt and disappeared into the night.
…shortly after reading The Serpent and the Rainbow, I read Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography by Chester Brown. Louis Riel was a Metis who helped the Metis fight against the corrupt Canadian government and founded the province of Manitoba. He was also religiously insane and thought he was a prophet. The graphic novel is really fantastic, and got me excited for Canadian history…which I am really ignorant of.
In my excitement, I started watching a Canadian documentary about my country’s history: Canada: A People’s History. You can watch the first episode here. Well, guess what I found? In the documentary, they talk about the Inuit, and about a story where an old man, who has been abandoned by his family, makes a knife out of shit, kills a dog, eats part of it and feeds the rest to another dog, fashions a sled out of it’s carcass, attaches it to the other dog, and goes to join his family.
Anyways, I have no main thing to say… I just wanted to share this stuff. Above is a TED talk by Davis about the importance of cultures… ain’t nothing wrong with that.