The New York TimesBy Daniel Zalewski
March 25, 2001
Once in the Jungle, Tobias Schneebaum Confronts His Past
Tobias Schneebaum did not want to go back. For one thing, he feared that his old friends might be dead. It had been nearly a half-century, after all, since the Manhattan-born painter abandoned his easel, hitchhiked south to Peru, walked headlong into the Amazon jungle and went native with an isolated Indian tribe. For another, Schneebaum knew that the fantasy that had long ago propelled him into the forest -- a desire to live somewhere untouched by Western culture -- was becoming impossible to fulfill. "I worried that they weren't going to be naked anymore," he says wistfully of the Arakmbut people he lived with for seven months in 1956. "I thought, I don't want to see them clothed."
For someone who romanticizes Stone Age life as ardently as Schneebaum, the prospect of seeing his beloved Arakmbut wrenched into the modern world was indeed depressing. Schneebaum, who is now 80, lives in a tiny West Village apartment that is a shrine to his fascination with all things primitive. His walls are covered with masks, carved wooden shields and framed photographs of indigenous people he has met over a lifetime of remote travel. Dozens of plants complete the urban-jungle ambience.
Although Schneebaum was wary of sullying his exotic memories of Peru, there was a deeper reason he resisted the pleas of a pair of filmmakers who kept begging him -- an old man who'd had three hip replacements -- to retrace his remarkable Amazon adventure. "I didn't want to think about the one bad thing that happened," he says in a frail but melodious voice. "For a time, I apparently cried out in my sleep. I had nightmares."
But the filmmakers, David and Laurie Gwen Shapiro, who are siblings, kept pushing him to go. Schneebaum finally relented. In June 1999, he traveled into the jungle one last time. The resulting documentary, "Keep the River on Your Right," opens this Friday. As the film makes clear, the journey would be one of the hardest trips of Schneebaum's life. For he wasn't just going to revisit his quixotic attempt to shed his Western skin. He was going to relive the day he became a cannibal.
t was July, or maybe August, 1956. Schneebaum wasn't sure anymore. He'd been living in the jungle for so long.
He lay his paint-covered body down on a rock and stared up at the Amazon moon. The rock was one of many stone slabs jutting above the surface of the shallow, slow-moving river. Although he was in the middle of nowhere, he was not alone. On nearby rocks slept friends from the Arakmbut tribe. As the water gently flowed around them, his companions dozed off. But Schneebaum was too upset to sleep.
The day had begun routinely. In the morning, a group of men with spears gathered. It was time to look for food. Schneebaum was hopeless at hunting, and he constantly slipped on the muddy forest floor. But his pratfalls amused his companions. And so, as he had done many times before, Schneebaum tagged along.
It had been months since he first encountered some naked Arakmbut while walking along a tributary of the Madre de Dios River. In greeting, he took off his own clothes. The Arakmbut marveled at the tan lines on Schneebaum's body and returned his smiles with laughter. They took the tall stranger home. He was a baby Tarzan who just happened to be 34 years old.
The Arakmbut treated him well. They taught him words from their language and otherwise communicated through gesture. They shared their food with him and decorated his body in red pigments. At night in their communal hut, the Arakmbut men welcomed him into a warm body pile. These entanglements often turned amorous, to Schneebaum's delight. As he would later write, he had at last found a place where people "would accept me, teach me how to live without a feeling of aloneness, teach me love and allow for my sexuality."
With Schneebaum in tow, the hunting party ventured deep into the forest. Usually the group stayed close to the settlement; this time, however, they trekked all day. It was close to dusk when the Arakmbut began slowing down, almost to a creep. The men stopped just outside a small clearing. Through the trees, Schneebaum spied a small hut. He could hear the voices of men inside. Outside, bronze-colored women were cooking.
Suddenly, the Arakmbut charged, shouting and brandishing their spears. Schneebaum thought of running away, but he realized he was too far into the forest. Knowing what was happening, but not wanting to look, he leaned his trembling body against the hut and waited for the raid to be over.
The dead numbered around six. When Schneebaum finally glimpsed the corpses, he went off by himself to vomit. But he returned to the group. He discovered that some of the Arakmbut had begun dismembering their victims and wrapping body parts in leaves. Others rounded up women and children, who after some initial resistance appeared to accept their new roles as captives. The expanded party returned to the forest. Schneebaum carried one of the packages.
Not long after, his companions stopped and lighted a fire. The mood was triumphant, with plenty of laughter. The group began singing and dancing. At first he refused to join in, but he was pressed. He found himself caught up in the whirl.
A few of the leafy packages were unwrapped, and their contents were placed directly into the flames. After a while, meat was removed from the fire. Portions were passed around, one by one, to each member of the group. Eventually, a piece was placed in Schneebaum's hands.
He put the human flesh in his mouth and ate it.
After the feast, the hunting party and the captives continued homeward for a while, finally stopping for the night in a cool, open-air spot. Lying there in the middle of the river, Schneebaum decided that it was time to get out of the jungle. As much as he tried, he couldn't help viewing what had just happened through Western eyes. He and the Arakmbut were not one after all.
That night, for the first time," Schneebaum says sadly, "I thought, What am I doing here?" He stares out his apartment window, which overlooks the Hudson River. "I had thought I was going to stay there forever." He is sitting in a small metal chair, munching idly on some mushroom pizza. "I thought it was the perfect place for me as long as they continued to give me food. I missed my old life at times, my friends and so on. But in Peru, those people were truly free. They had nothing holding them back."
This vision of liberation is clearly what attracted Schneebaum to the jungle in the first place. "It was a different time then, the 50's," he says. "It was hard. It wasn't easy to be yourself if you were gay. In the forest, I could be who I wanted to be."
But why did he want to be an Arakmbut? The anthropologist Clifford Geertz once wrote of his profession: "We are not, or at least I am not, seeking either to become natives (a compromised word in any case) or to mimic them. Only romantics or spies would seem to find point in that." Schneebaum falls squarely into the romantic camp. "I'm not an anthropologist, and I didn't go to Peru to gather information," he says with mild distaste. "I wanted to meet people and have a good time. I never thought about if I was exploiting anybody. I was doing something that thrilled me, and that was the only thing on my mind."
Schneebaum suffers from Parkinson's, which sometimes causes his face -- dominated by a charmingly oversize nose -- to turn masklike. But he lights up when asked about his days with the Arakmbut. "To have made the first contact with an indigenous group of people -- one that was naked -- was the most exciting thing that ever happened in my life," he says. "I ached with pleasure." He speaks of the "delicious" roast tapir he was given to eat, and jokes about almost gagging on the Arakmbut's home brew, a drink made from cassava fermented with spit. He motions to his closet, where an enormous wooden bow from Peru rests next to a mop and broom. "I never did learn how to use those things," he says, laughing.
The raid, however, taught Schneebaum the limits of his sylvan fantasy. Although he went into the jungle to escape the oppressive mores of Western culture, he has struggled ever since with the fact that he broke one of its biggest taboos.
In 1969, he tried to deal with what happened by writing a heavily embroidered memoir about his Peru adventure. He called it "Keep the River on the Right," a nod to his improvised path through the jungle. (In addition to temporal changes and literary flourishes, the book disguised the Arakmbut's identity, calling them the Akarama.) Although the book devoted only a few pages to cannibalism, it brought him a fleeting fame that both pleased and dismayed him. Some people were amazed by his story. Others were repulsed.
How could he have eaten human flesh? "I didn't want to be the typical tourist who would run away from anything that was interesting," he says. His tone suddenly turns more grave. "I wouldn't say they forced me, but they wanted me to do it, to become part of the group. So I'm glad I did it. On the other hand, I'm terribly upset that I did it. And that's as honest as I can be." He pauses, then adds: "The killing horrified me more than the cannibalism. They were already dead, after all." Yet even if what happened to Schneebaum is merely a bizarre object lesson in the perils of peer pressure, that single swallow has haunted him. In "Keep the River," he writes: "I am a cannibal. . . . No matter into what far corner of my mind I push those words, they flash along the surface of my brain like news along the track that runs around the building at Times Square."
There is one question that everybody asks him. "I can't remember the taste," he says. "All I'll say is that I like my meat well done, and this wasn't." Although he has gotten used to prurient inquiries over the years, they still make him nervous. He prefers to be seen as a bold adventurer, not as Hannibal Lecter.
The unhappy ending of Schneebaum's Peru journey in no way dampened his enthusiasm for seeking out primitive people. "It all turned out so well except for the raid," he says. Upon returning to New York in September 1956, he quit painting for good and got a job folding Christmas cards to amass fresh travel funds. He traversed Borneo, befriending Dyaks along the way. In 1973, he went on the first of many sojourns in New Guinea. Schneebaum spent several years living (and sometimes sleeping) with men of the Asmat tribe. He transferred his artistic energies to drawing, making detailed pen-and-ink records of the Asmat's elaborately carved wooden shields. While becoming one of the world's leading experts on Asmat art, he supported his travels by working as a tour guide in New Guinea.
In 1994, David Shapiro came across an old copy of "Keep the River," by then long forgotten, lying in a box on Avenue B in Manhattan. He excitedly shared the book with his sister. When the Shapiros discovered that the man they envisioned as a latter-day Cortés was a witty, effete Jewish artist, they asked to chronicle his life story on film. "But to do it right, we knew we had to take him back to Peru," says David Shapiro. "It was his defining moment."
chneebaum's story is the only personal account of ritual cannibalism on record. There are some dubious "eyewitness" reports from the Age of Exploration, but they serve to demonize more than document. Indeed, though most anthropologists believe that murder followed by cannibalism occurred in some preliterate societies, it has not been easy to prove that the practice ever existed. (Those thousands of cartoons depicting people roasting on spits don't count as evidence.) Despite occupying a recurrent role in the Western collective imagination as a symbol of uncivilized man, flesh-eating has never actually been witnessed by scholars or captured by a camera's lens.
Only in recent years have archaeologists been able to show, for example, that certain fossilized human remains display clear signs of having been cooked. (Bones floating around in a boiling pot, for example, get scratched in a unique way.) And last September, the journal Nature published a striking report. Fossilized human excrement located at an Anasazi site in Colorado was found to contain digested human-muscle protein. But what motivated this meal? Starvation? Revenge? Were the bodies already dead, or had they been slaughtered? The closer one gets to proving cannibalism, the harder it can be to say what it really means.
The Shapiros' movie emphasizes that Schneebaum's life should not be reduced to a single grisly meal. At the same time, the second half of the film puts Schneebaum's Peru story to the test, following the same route he followed from Cuzco in 1956. Arriving at the remote outpost of Shintuya, the crew learns that the settlement where Schneebaum lived was abandoned soon after his departure, when missionaries colonized the Arakmbut. But they are told that a village tied to indigenous traditions exists six hours upriver.
At this point Schneebaum protests that he's too frail, physically and emotionally, to continue. The filmmakers, he says plaintively, "are forcing me into doing things I do not want to do." The Shapiros calm him down, however, and the group travels by boat up the Madre de Dios.
San Jos 1/8 del Karene is, in some ways, exactly what Schneebaum predicted. The village looks impoverished. A small store is surrounded by a moat of empty soda bottles. There's a communal structure, but it's now a community center; a TV showing "Rambo" flickers in the corner. When Schneebaum warily greets a group of around 30 Arakmbut, he is treated as a stranger. Then, slowly, some elders recognize him. He is embraced once more. (This time, everyone stays clothed.) Through a translator, Arakmbut men merrily recall Schneebaum's pathetic bow-and-arrow skills.
His dreaded trip back suddenly melts into a joyful family reunion. It's a moving sequence, and it confirms that Schneebaum really did go native. Yet amid all the reminiscing, one subject is pointedly not addressed. What happened on the raid?
"We don't want to remember those days," says one Arakmbut man firmly.
It becomes clear that, having been "civilized" by missionaries, the Arakmbut now feel a similar anxiety about their past. Sensing this, Schneebaum tenderly tells the men that he would love to hear their old hunting song. A graying Arakmbut complies. As the beautiful melody fills the air, Schneebaum's eyes flood with tears.
The journey offers a personal catharsis for Schneebaum, but a question lingers: is his tale of cannibalism true? If it is, it means that cannibalism took place in the Amazon well into the 20th century. If it's not, it would be hard to dismiss as a harmless fiction. Last fall, Patrick Tierney condemned anthropologists in his book "Darkness in El Dorado" for turning the Amazon into a playground for their personal fantasies. The writings of Napoleon A. Chagnon, Tierney argued, had projected his own prejudices about "savage" Indians onto the gentle Yanomami of Venezuela.
Has Schneebaum slandered the Arakmbut by calling them cannibals? His response is matter-of-fact: "Some people think I sat in Cuzco and made the whole thing up. But it all happened." Indeed, his endless effusions about the purity of naked man suggest a lack of interest in exposing humanity's dark side. "The raid was a bad thing," he tells me, "and the cannibalism was not for me, but I loved the Arakmbut. And if you think about it, it wasn't so unusual. We have wars all the time."
The only study of the Arakmbut in English was written by the British anthropologist Andrew Gray. (He died two years ago.) His 1996 study notes that "intense warfare" took place between the Arakmbut and rival groups "prior to contact with the missions." Reasons for these raids, he writes, included "raiding for women." Though Gray documents no cannibalism, he observes that some Arakmbut myths feature man-eaters.
It may well be that by going native, Schneebaum witnessed things that no scrupulous anthropologist could ever see. Gray's ethnography, for example, ignores same-sex relations. (Schneebaum says his lovers also slept with women.) But to apprehend the private practices of a foreign culture, one might need to go beyond interviews. To sleep in a pile with natives affords an intimacy that, however unconventionally obtained, may yield genuine knowledge. The ethnographer who remains a "distanced observer" may leave some secret places unexplored. Schneebaum didn't merely ask the Arakmbut about their hunting traditions. He hunted -- and ate -- with them. Although his actions broke every rule of field research, Schneebaum may have inadvertently beaten ethnographers at their own game.
That said, Schneebaum's memoirs, which in addition to "Keep the River" include accounts of life in New Guinea, could hardly be considered scholarly. His writings are too self-obsessed; one gets little sense of the natives beyond descriptions of their physical glories. (You could learn almost as much by staring at a Gauguin.) But his memoirs are matchless in the way they give voice to a potent desire: namely, the Westerner's yearning for salvation in the primitive. The idea that seeing man in his "natural" state would offer spiritual emancipation can be traced back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who coined the term "noble savage." Schneebaum's life has been an attempt to make Rousseau's myth a reality. For him, that impulse doesn't seem strange in the slightest. "In going to live in the jungle," he says, "I did something that almost everybody, at some point or other, has thought of doing or wanted to do."
rowing up in Brooklyn in the 20's, Schneebaum frequently visited Coney Island with his mother. On the boardwalk there was a sideshow attraction called "The Wild Man of Borneo." The tent's poster of a hirsute savage provided one of the first sparks in young Toby's imagination -- and libido. As he grew older, he devoured books in the corny "Bomba the Jungle Boy" series. (The prose was classic Ooga-Booga: "From time to time the dreaded headhunters . . . invaded this district in search of the hideous trophies which their name implied wherewith to adorn their wigwams.") Schneebaum was hooked. "The minute I read 'Bomba,' " he says, "I knew that someday I would go live like him."
Schneebaum is in some ways a historical relic. One suspects that if he were growing up today, he wouldn't feel compelled to escape to the jungle to express his desires. It's too facile, however, to attribute his interest in the exotic with his sexuality. Too many others share his fascination.
"At film festivals," he says, "people keep coming up to me with maps, asking where they can go that's still unexplored by Westerners. I point to a small region of New Guinea and say, 'That's about it."' An Austrian acquaintance, an amateur explorer, sometimes sends him photos he has taken of "uncontacted" people from the central highlands of New Guinea. The photographs are lovely, he says, but they're no substitute for the real thing. "That's what I miss," he says. "When you come upon a native for the first time, if he's all painted and decorated, it's scary. Terrifying, gorgeous and absolutely beautiful."
Schneebaum is glad he went back after all. "I still feel such a connection with the Arakmbut," he says. "To see people you'd been friends and lovers with 45 years ago was astonishing." And though he happily reveals that he now has a boyfriend -- a native of exotic Canada -- he leans forward and offers a confession. "I still sometimes wonder," he says, "Why I am I living here? Why I am not still there, in the forest?"
Daniel Zalewski is an editor for the magazine.