I’ve been too busy to actually sit down and read Paul Raffaele’s Smithsonian article on getting “up close and personal with New Guinea natives who say they still eat their fellow tribesmen” until now. What finally prompted me to do so was this recent article in The Age responding to a “60 Minutes” segment about Raffaeles and the boy Wa-Wa. (I discovered both articles via the unflagging anthro-blogging of Anthropologi.info.)
I was amazed by how cliche ridden Raffaele’s article is. It was startlingly reminiscent of the kinds of articles National Geographic published a century ago: The intrepid explorer ventures into a dangerous and unknown territory for the sole purpose of making contact with natives who practice bizarre and grotesque rituals and are deeply suspicious of the explorer whose humanity they question (but finally accept). The experience causes tears to well up in Raffaele’s eyes.
Responding to the “60 Minutes” version of the story, Sarah Hewat writes:
Before we go pointing the finger, let’s look for the primitive fetishist within. Those who saw the 60 Minutes report perhaps did not notice the shorts being worn by members of the “forgotten” tribe, and the black plastic bags they were holding? And did audiences notice that they were speaking Bahasa Indonesia, rather than, as was claimed, an ancient dialect?
Now, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that people are still accused of witchcraft and killed (even eaten) for the crime. But one would like some good-old-fashioned ethnographic understanding of the practice rather than the raw exoticism that Raffaele offers up. In India, witchcraft accusations are closely related with the marginalization of the Adivasi population, battles over land, and gender relations. In short, they are a thoroughly modern phenomenon. But Raffaele portrays these practices as some kind of enduring primitive trait, and I find that pretty hard to stomach.