Noted anthropologist, student of the “dark side,” dies

March 23, 2012

by David Tenenbaum

Neil L. Whitehead, a professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, died Thursday, March 22 in Madison following a bout with illness.

Whitehead was known for his studies of the Amazon basin and Caribbean, and in particular his exploration of violence, warfare and what he called "dark shamanism."

Whitehead studied the human propensity to violence through the lens of ethnography, and conducted groundbreaking studies of kanaimas. Men he called "dark shamans" in Guyana stalked their victims and inflicted a gory death.

Whitehead's own experience as the target of an apparent kanaima attack in Guyana gave special relevance to his 2002 book "Dark Shamans," which placed the kanaima phenomenon within the larger picture of human behavior, tradition and culture. In the book, he wrote: "the manner in which violence is enacted is not simply instinctual, psychopathological or the result of sociocultural primitiveness ('tribalism'), but it is also a cultural performance."

This performance, he continued, "may be utterly enigmatic to Western cultural experience, just as the violence of domestic terrorism, school shootings, or serial killing confounds and challenges the accepted cultural norms."

That willingness to discuss taboo subjects impressed J. Mark Kenoyer, a fellow professor in anthropology.

"He was willing to say things that most people were unwilling to talk about. Some of this was really scary to me. I grew up in Northeastern India, knew about shamans and tribal violence as a little kid. This is not something most other scholars have experienced, and I knew exactly what he was talking about," Kenoyer says.

Whitehead delighted in intellectual back-and-forth, says Kenoyer. "He was always honest in what he presented, did a really good job of showing different perspectives. He was quite willing to have people criticize his ideas, and was always willing to stand his ground."

All along, Whitehead made useful connections between the current human condition and what he was finding in the field and the library. In 2004, he told The Badger Herald, a campus newspaper, "Looking at Amazonians, even though they're capable of some spectacular forms of violence, I think America, with the wars we've waged and the bombs we've dropped, we're capable of no less."

This "commitment to talking about anthropology and its relevance to the world was something he took very seriously," says Erika Robb-Larkins, a recent graduate student who is now at the University of Oklahoma. "A lot of his work in the last few years related to the U.S. involvement in war and terrorism. He was trying to understand the larger system we are part of; this was a big intellectual concern."

These qualities made Whitehead a popular professor, Larkins adds.

"Undergrads loved him because he was so charismatic, dynamic. When you heard Neil talk, you were enchanted. He had such a brilliant mind, and was such a big person," Larkins says.

Born in 1956, Neil Whitehead grew up in the United Kingdom and received a Ph.D. in anthropology at Oxford University in 1984. He came to Madison in 1993, and rose to the rank of professor and later department chair.

Whitehead is survived by his wife, Theresa, and their children, Luke, Florence, Rose and Natalie.

Home life showed a man transformed, Larkins adds.

"With his family, he was a kind and sweet man. It was amazing — all day he was talking about violence — and at home he was such a devoted, caring parent," Larkins adds.

"Whitehead developed original lines of research that resulted in outstanding scholarship," says Kenoyer.

In the past few years, he expanded his research scope to landscape and land rights, tourism and a major archaeological project on the early villages and towns of northern South America.

"His insightful demonstration of how archival and archaeological materials can be integrated to reveal change and innovation among tribal groups has earned him wide recognition and increasing acclaim," Kenoyer adds.

Collaborating with Whitehead "was a wonderful experience," recalls Tomislav Longinovic, a professor of Slavic languages who has focused on the vampire tradition in the Balkans.

"He did not let people get away with facile explanations. He was very much a European intellectual; he would insist on his vision, his point of view, was always very persuasive in his arguments, and was beloved by his students, very generous with his time," Longinovic says.

Frank Salomon, a fellow expert on Latin America who is now professor emeritus of anthropology, spoke about Whitehead's service as department chair.

"Impressively, he was showing strong scholarly momentum even while carrying the chairship. And as the chair, he was showing more and more skill, maturity, generosity. Suddenly, it is all cut off," Salomon says.

A memorial service open to all will be held lakeside at Governor Nelson State Park, Wednesday, March 28 at 3 p.m.