Remembering Neil L. Whitehead

MJS_whiteheadWe were saddened to learn of the death on March 22 of Neil L. Whitehead. Whitehead, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was the author or editor of six books and journal special issues here at Duke Press. From 1998-2007 he was editor of the journal Ethnohistory. He also edited the series The Cultures and Practice of Violence.

In the early 1990s, Whitehead traveled to Guyana to conduct fieldwork studying 978-0-8223-2988-6_pr shamans. In his book Dark Shamans: Kanaimà and the Poetics of Violent Death, he recounts his encounters with the kanaimà, practioners of black magic who were suspected of ritualized murder in the Guyana highlands. The book takes a personal turn when Whitehead recalls how the kanaimà turned their attention to him and poisoned his meal. Rather than scaring Whitehead away, however, the attack only strengthened his resolve to understand the strange phenomenon. 

978-0-8223-4231-1_prWhitehead's interest in violence also led him to study cannibalism. He edited a new translation of the classic work Hans Staden's True History: An Account of Cannibal Captivity in Brazil, a captivity narrative of a sixteenth-century German adventurer. Whitehead explained to the Wisconsin Alumni Magazine that we need to place violence like cannibalism in context, and reminded readers that some kinds of "cannibalistic" behaviors are widespread. "There may be all kinds of ritual behavior that involve mucking around with human bodies," he said. "We roll it all up and say, 'Ugh, cannibalism,' without thinking clearly about what's going on."

According to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Whitehead was much-loved by his students, many of whom attended his memorial service. He is survived by his wife, Theresa Murphy, and their children, Luke, Florence, Rose and Natalie.

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