Glenn Shepard looks like a lot of white men who have spent many years in the tropics: handsome, but his skin looks older than his eyes. Along with the tan, in nearly three decades of living and working as an anthropologist among the Matsigenka tribe in the Peruvian Amazon, he’s acquired the tropical ability to remain calm in the face of long, unexpected delays, mishaps, and accidents. He keeps telling me to go with the flow.
We’re in a motorized canoe on our slow way to the Matsigenka village of Tayakome—unreachable by any road, deep in the heart of Manú National Park in Peru. (Read all about Manú and the Matsigenka in the June 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine.)
The Manú River is shallow and the color of chocolate milk. Glenn has a big plastic bag of coca leaves on his lap, and we both have wads in our cheeks. He chews it with a bit of sweet vine called chamayro and a bit of the ash of the puigoro plant. It feels like a strong cup of coffee, but more peaceful.
Glenn is telling me about death among the Matsigenka.
“Some people just walk off into the sky,” he says. Once he and a whole village searched for weeks for an old woman who had just taken off all her clothes and disappeared. They never found a trace.
More troublesome, however, are the people who become jaguars—were-jaguars, you could call them.
“Some old people,” says Glenn, “especially the ones who go through an excruciating old age, who become senile and incontinent—you have to put tar in their noses after they die. That will suffocate them before they turn into jaguars.”
“Most normal jaguars stay far from the villages,” he goes on. “Violent, aggressive jags that come into the village are were-jaguars. They tend to be really big and old. Their teeth are all worn down. The word for transforming into a jaguar, maetagantsi, literally means ‘growing fur.’ That’s what they are doing, first at night when they are ailing, and then after they die.”
A Princeton Boy Meets a Man from Manú
Glenn knows the principal villages in Manú like his own hometown in Virginia. He first came here to study medicinal plants when he was 19 and a senior at Princeton. He arrived in Tayakome in November 1987, a slender, serious, pale youth.
On one of his first days in town, he met Cornelio Pascal Koshani, who was about 46. Like most people in Tayakome, Cornelio was a hunter, forager, and subsistence farmer. His specialty was pineapples. He lived in the house furthest from the center of the far-flung village.
“He would walk from that settlement 40 minutes and come and bring me a bunch of brilliant, super-ripe, succulent pineapples,” Glenn says. “These were the best pineapples I have ever had. He had the magic.”
The two developed a bond. Over the decades, when Glenn returned to Tayakome, he would bring Cornelio a knife or some cooking pots for his wife. And Cornelio would bring pineapples, until he became too infirm to tend the trees. Then he carved wood to stay busy. “I have a dozen of his spoons at my house,” Glenn says.
“He is the sweetest old man. Always laughing. He sings this beautiful love song. He isn’t a healing shaman, but he knows all this love magic. With the Matsigenka, you never know, because the people who are shamans never say they are.”
When Cornelio was a young man, he did a dangerous thing. He ate a hallucinogenic plant called kaviniri to make him a more powerful hunter and put him in touch with the guardian spirits of his prey. Most Matsigenka take hallucinogens, but most won’t use kaviniri; the convulsions and visions it causes are intense. The Matsigenka believe kaviniri was given to humans by the jaguar. In Western terms, taking it is a Faustian bargain: You become a better hunter, but you may also become a jaguar when you grow old and die.
A Troubled Sleep, With Bats
When we arrive in Tayakome, Javier, the boatman’s assistant, jumps into the shallow water and ties the boat to a tree. The riverbank is steep and slick with red mud. We carry all our gear out of the boat and struggle up the bank, then down a forest trail that at last opens into a clearing. Standing in the clearing is a boy holding a child-size bow and arrows fletched with black feathers. No guns are allowed in Manú. Everyone here hunts with bow and arrow.
The boy’s name is Delfin. As the first to meet us, he gets to tell us the local news, which for the Matsigenka always begins with a discussion of who died recently. Their standard greeting literally means “is your mother living?”
It’s at that moment that Glenn learns that Cornelio has died.
Delfin stoically poses for a few photos, and we haul our gear down the path to the casa communal—a large thatched roof on poles, about 25 feet long—where we will set up our tents. We are told that if we leave the bright solar-powered light on all night, the bats will leave us alone. The floor is splattered with crusty guano.
People from the town come by to visit and chat. Glenn translates for me. There is much talk of Cornelio.
When Glenn last saw him, he had been turning into a jaguar at night for some months. “He was really sad, deeply worried he might even kill one of his own grandchildren,” Glenn says. “He wasn’t eating very much. Old people lose their appetite, because they are eating at night as jaguars.” Someone had given Cornelio some honey, though, which he thought might cure him, by replacing and counteracting the blood that jaguars drink. He had been in good spirits when Glenn left.
After dinner, Glenn and Javier shoot tobacco into each other’s noses with a special pipe as they squat facing each other. The tobacco is very strong, and their eyes water. Glenn looks dizzy. He goes to bed early, falling asleep under the bright light.
The next day Glenn feels very sick. I wonder if he overdosed on tobacco, or if he is mourning Cornelio.
Months later, back home in Brazil, he’ll learn that his appendix probably partially ruptured that night. When surgeons remove the infected organ, it’s the size of a grapefruit. Glenn’s doctor is astonished he walked around with it for months and didn’t die.
Shot Through the Heart
While Glenn rests, I go with the cook, Orlando, and the boat driver, Pancho, to pay respects to the village president, Reynaldo Peña Timpiato. He lives at Cornelio’s old clearing because he is married to Cornelio’s daughter, Patricia. We walk into the jungle for three-quarters of an hour to reach the place. Reynaldo and his mother-in-law are weaving a new palm thatch roof for one of the buildings. A pet spider monkey dozes in the sun nearby.
Cornelio’s widow, Eusebia Asuso Mechoshinari, is tiny with big ears. She looks pained. None of us can really speak Matsigenka, but we manage to convey that Glenn Shepard is sick in his tent. Reynaldo says he will come visit.
He arrives at the casa communale shortly afterwards, having dressed up in a neon yellow soccer jersey, plaid shorts, a Casio illuminator watch, and a backwards baseball cap that says “RENIC”—the acronym for the Peruvian government agency that issues identification documents.
He and Glenn talk for a long time about Cornelio. The honey worked for a while, Reynaldo says, but then Cornelio started growing fur again. When he died, he transformed into a massive jaguar and moved up to Yomibato, the next sizable village upstream.
A couple of days later we travel to Yomibato. There we learn that the jaguar that was once Cornelio had killed eight dogs and countless chickens. It sometimes lurked under the health clinic, forcing the medic to come and go with a machete in his hand. A hunter named Celsor tells us that he set up a blind along a path where the cat was often seen. He waited until the jaguar came close, then shot it through the heart with an arrow.
Celsor is slight and grins a lot. He doesn’t seem like the type of man who shoots arrows through the hearts of jaguars. But many of the best Matsigenka hunters are shy and small. And they never brag.
Celsor says he and other villagers burnt the jaguar carcass so Cornelio’s spirit would never come back.
Ways of Letting Go
On our way back downriver, Glenn and I visit Cornelio’s widow Eusebia again. She is still working on the thatched roof. Glenn asks her if he might have any of her husband’s carvings to remember him by. She says that she burned all Cornelio’s possessions when he died because she was afraid of them. She looks sorry that she has nothing to give him. Glenn seems reluctant to leave her.
On our way into Tayakome the first time, Glenn had given me an anthropological explanation for the Matsigenka belief in were-jaguars.
To the Matsigenka, feeling grief or attachment to the dead is dangerous. Some old people spare their families by walking off into the forest or the sky. The jaguar transformation is for the others—those who become a burden in their last days and then make those who cared for them feel a guilty sense of relief when they go.
It's easier not to feel conflicted about wanting your relative dead if he has turned into a jaguar. And that transformation also accounts for the observed fact that old jaguars often appear in Matsigenka villages, scrounging for food.
Often, though, Glenn talks as if he believes Cornelio really did turn into a jaguar. Much later, after we’re both back from our travels, I ask him about that.
“The Amazon is a big enough place that these mysteries can stay alive,” he says. “Both things can be true.”
Follow Emma Marris on Twitter @Emma_Marris.