Armchair Explorations

Across the world there are people whose cultures are still a mystery to outsiders. The "walking dead," cannibalism, and other customs usually found in lurid fiction often have a basis in the reality of some other place. Come, explore with anthropologists and other wanderers whose sense of adventure goes hand in hand with their scientific desire to discover the truth behind the legends.

The Spears of Twilight: Life and Death in the Amazon Jungle

By Philippe Descola

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“The Jivaro Indians of Amazonian Ecuador have earned a somewhat sinister reputation among travelers and anthropologists because of their custom, only recently abandoned, of shrinking the decapitated heads of enemies. Descola, an anthropology professor in Paris, spent three years living among a Jivaro tribe, and this engrossing, minutely detailed chronicle of daily life gets past exotic stereotypes to delineate a band of individualists oscillating between gentle anarchy and factional solidarity. Obsessed with bloody vendettas against neighbors or relatives, the tribal group nonetheless reverentially communicates with a world of spirits, plants and animals, with the wandering souls of both the living and the dead. Descola explores Jivaro shamanism, dream interpretation, polygamy, marital violence against wives and the Jivaros' loose-knit, fluid cosmology, which makes no effort to impose coherence on the world. Sprinkled with Jivaro songs, chants, myths and the author's line drawings, this lyrically precise exploration of a people's lifestyle and consciousness is a work of enchantment.” (Publishers' Weekly)

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The Serpent and the Rainbow

By Wade Davis

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“A Harvard scientist’s astonishing journey into the secret societies of Haitian voodoo, zombies, and magic.”
Not to be confused with the movie!

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The Mountain People

By Colin Turnbull

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This time Turnbull (The Forest People) turns his insight on another African tribe. The Ik, formerly prosperous, are now starving, and, as Turnbull observes, their society unravels into the proverbially vicious “state of nature.”

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The Mapmaker's Wife: A True Tale of Love, Murder, and Survival in the Amazon

By Robert Whitaker

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At the heart of this sweeping tale of adventure, discovery and exploration is one woman's extraordinary journey, inspired by her love for a man she had not seen in 20 years. In 1769, Isabel Grameson - an upper-class Peruvian woman who had lived all her life close to home - set out across the Andes, and down the length of the Amazon in order to rejoin her husband in French Guiana. Her 3,000-mile trek through untamed wilderness was one that no woman (and few men) had made before. (Book jacket)

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The Forest People

By Colin Turnbull

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The Forest People describes the author's experiences while living with the BaMbuti Pygmies, not as a clinical observer, but as their friend learning their customs and sharing their daily life. Turnbull conveys the lives and feelings of the BaMbuti whose existence centers on their intense love for their forest world, which, in return for their affection and trust, provides their every need. We witness their hunting parties and nomadic camps; their love affairs and ancient ceremonies -- the molimo, in which they praise the forest as provider, protector, and deity; the elima, in which the young girls come of age; and the nkumbi circumcision rites, in which the villagers of the surrounding non-Pygmy tribes attempt to impose their culture on the Pygmies, whose forest home they dare not enter. (From the summary)

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Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice: An Ethnobotanist Searches for New Medicines in the Amazon Rain Forest

By Mark J. Plotkin

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“The thrilling account of the 13 years Plotkin, vice-president of Ethnobotany at Conservation International in Washington, spent in the northeastern Amazon's primeval rain forest is a first-rate travel and adventure tale in which scientific lore, passionate advocacy of conservation and literary gifts are combined. Thanks to the trust and friendship the author inspired among the declining number of powerful shamans ("witch doctors") and other Indians who considered him a "harmless oddball," they welcomed him at tribal rituals and assisted him in identifying plants (60,000 yet unknown species, used to treat ills from testicular cancer to earache). They even shared secrets for making curare poison and other hallucinogens (which he tried). The author has also succeeded in having the indigenous people share in the profits from their plant-derived wonder drugs, and encouraged them to preserve their heritage of botanic lore and customs.” (Publishers’ Weekly)
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Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph

By T. E. Lawrence

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“This is the exciting and highly literate story of the real Lawrence of Arabia, as written by Lawrence himself, who helped unify Arab factions against the occupying Turkish army, circa World War I. Lawrence has a novelist's eye for detail, a poet's command of the language, an adventurer's heart, a soldier's great story, and his memory and intellect are at least as good as all those. Lawrence describes the famous guerrilla raids, and train bombings you know from the movie, but also tells of the Arab people and politics with great penetration. Moreover, he is witty, always aware of the ethical tightrope that the English walked in the Middle East and always willing to include himself in his own withering insight.” (Amazon)

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Patterns of Culture

By Ruth Benedict

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For more than a generation, this pioneering book has been an indispensable introduction to the field of anthropology. Here, in her study of three sharply contrasting cultures, Benedict puts forward her famous thesis that a people's culture is an integrated whole, a "personality writ large." Her other famous book, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, is a case study of Japanese culture during the World War II period.

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One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest

By Wade Davis

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In the 1940s, biologist Richard Evans Schultes uncovered many of the secrets of the rain forest, relying not only on his own prodigious investigations, but on the wisdom passed down by local tribes. Thirty years later his student, Wade Davis, followed in his footsteps. Two interwoven tales of scientific adventure bring to life the riches of the Amazon basin and bear witness to the destruction of its indigenous culture and natural wonders over two generations. (From the summary)

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