The Anthropologist’s Friend Who Became a Jaguar

May 20, 2016

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.

Most normal jaguars stay far from the villages. Violent, aggressive jags that come into the village are were-jaguars.

“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.

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