The Anthropologist Who Became a Shaman Cult Leader

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Browsing through an antique bookstore in Quito, I stumbled on a book called Shabono: A Visit to a Remote and Magical World in the South American Rain Forest, written by an anthropologist named Florinda Donner. Published in 1982, I expected it to be like most academic texts: interesting but long-winded and dusty. Instead, I got a gripping adventure that puts even Indiana Jones to shame.

The book opens with Donner, a German immigrant studying anthropology in California, feeling hopeless. She’s spent weeks on the border between Venezuela and Brazil shadowing Indigenous healers who refuse to reveal the secrets of their trade. Preparing to return to the U.S. empty-handed, she befriends a kind but crazy old woman who wants to introduce her to her village, located deep inside the rainforest. The woman dies on the journey, and when Donner arrives at the village, she joins a ceremony where she drinks banana soup seasoned with the woman’s ashes.

And that’s just the first couple chapters. Later, Donner experiences existential hallucinations after snuffing epená, a tryptamine derivative, and narrowly avoids getting kidnapped by another tribe.

The story of Shabono is so compelling I found it hard to believe it was true, which – it turns out – it wasn’t. While the book was praised for its writing, it was torn apart for lack of academic rigor. Some anthropologists believe Donner made everything up, claiming she never left the U.S. and plagiarized the account of a Brazilian woman who had once been held captive in the same region of the Amazon.

As shocked as I was to learn all this, the rabbit hole proved to go much, much deeper.

It’s hard to separate the story of Florinda Donner from that of Carlos Castenada. Castenada, like Donner, was a California-based anthropologist accused of fabricating his studies on Indigenous healing. He claims to have met Don Juan Matus, the Yaqui sorcerer at the center of his bestselling 1968 book The Teachings of Don Juan, whilst waiting for a Greyhound bus in Arizona. Critics questioned Don Juan’s existence, and Castenada, who didn’t like being questioned, offered no help in trying to locate him.

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  1. Carlos Castenada created a mythological narrative around himself that attracted a cult following. Charisma plus mythos can be the basis for forming a cult.

  2. Critical and independent thinking are the key ingredients needed to leave a destructive cult. Conversely they are two of the most notable impediments to cult recruitment and indoctrination.

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