Header image  
Ethnobotany & Anthropology Research Page

Komugl Taï and Acute Nicotine Intoxication


Komugl Taï is the Kuma1 name for "…the condition of persons allegedly affected by mushrooms" (REAY 1977:55). This condition is better known as "mushroom madness" (REAY 1959; 1960; HEIM & WASSON 1965). The term also refers to a 1949 cargo cult that the Kuma participated in (REAY 1977:55). In Yu Wi (Yoowi), the language of the Kuma, Komugl means "ear" and also "deafness" (REAY 1977:55; HEIM & WASSON 1965:15). In other areas of Papua New Guinea where outbreaks of temporary madness also occur, the local term for the state of madness also often indicates "deafness" (CLARKE 1973:199). Among the Kuma, the term komugl covers any kind of inability to comprehend, including permanent and temporary madness (REAY 1977:55; HEIM & WASSON 1965:15). Komugl is directly translatable into Tok Pisin (Pidgin) as "longlong" ("mad" or "madness") (REAY 1977:55). Taï is the Kuma formal name for the Raggiana Bird of Paradise (Paradisaea raggiana). However, in the context of the cargo cult and "mushroom madness", taï means "shivering" (REAY 1977:56). This is suggested to be based on the male Raggiana bird shivering to display his plumes (HEIM & WASSON 1965:15; REAY 1977:56). Komugl taï then literally means "shivering deafness" in Yu Wi (Yoowi).

The physical effects of Komugl Taï originally observed by Reay were "…double vision, exaggerated shivering and intermittent aphasia" (REAY 1960:137; vide REAY 1959:190), "…as well as deafness and other physical symptoms which imply insensitiveness to or distortion of external stimuli" (REAY 1965:18). Reay has also described the subjective effects experienced by one Kuma man affected by Komugl Taï: "…The komugl man fell silent and failed to respond to anyone who addressed him. He grew tense and excited and shivered convulsively. Teeth chattering as if with cold…" (REAY 1977:58). Then the man:

…began to experience Lilliputian hallucinations, seeing bush demons flying about his head. The demons were allegedly buzzing about his head when he heard a strange and terrible noise 'inside his ears' which he interpreted as a bush demon boxing his ears. The onset of the noise was like a clap of thunder, but it stayed with him throughout his attack and, being loud, deafened him to the ordinary sounds like human voices and the grunting of pigs. His eyesight began to be affected… he was rapidly losing all power to focus his vision. Some reported having double vision, and in any case it was easy for him to lose his way... The disturbance of hearing and eyesight was frightening and confusing. All objects a komugl man saw in front of him while running seemed to him to be rushing towards him… According to men who had been komugl…[they] saw human beings simply as moving objects unless they were very close. The visual sensation of movement in a horizontal direction (like people running or walking) angered him because it irritated his eyes… His eyes were wild and fierce, with a piercing brightness. They began to travel upward until only the whites were showing. The komugl man had periodic rests from his wild running about. In the beginning he would pause, panting, and eat some tobacco as if for refreshment (REAY 1977:59-60).

All of the plants and plant material that the Kuma ate during Komugl Taï were analysed by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) Phytochemical Survey (REAY 1977:57). This analysis revealed that "…two varieties of local tobacco [Nicotiana tabacum L. [Solanaceae]] contained alkaloids that could influence behaviour" (REAY 1977:57). These varieties of local grown tobacco were ingested during Komugl Taï (REAY 1999). Men affected by Komugl Taï carried "…ragged handfuls of tobacco (of these two varieties) early in their rampage and, whenever they paused, they stuffed some into their mouths then chewed and swallowed it" (REAY 1977:57; vide MARSHALL 1987:42). It has been suggested that these men "…may well have eaten some before [being affected by Komugl Taï ]" (REAY 1977:57). Kuma women did not eat any tobacco and "…showed no physiological symptoms [of Komugl Taï ]" (REAY 1977:62; vide MARSHALL 1987:43).

The ingestion of large quantities of tobacco is known to produce acute states of intoxication (WILBERT 1991). The alkaloid nicotine in tobacco displays high acute toxicity (OTT 1997:81). The symptoms of acute nicotine intoxication include nausea, salivation, abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, cold sweat, headache, dizziness, disturbed hearing and vision, mental confusion, weakness, faintness, prostration, low blood pressure, difficulty in breathing, weak, rapid and irregular pulse, collapse, convulsions and death from respiratory failure (VOLLE & KOELLE 1975:569).

Copious tobacco use produces changes in vision as a result of nicotine's action on the pupil (WILBERT 1991:183). This can result in a condition known as tobacco amblyopia. Tobacco amblyopia, or dimness of vision, is caused by "…a bilateral retrobulbar neuropathy of the optic nerve with central scotoma" (WILBERT 1991:183). It is a consequence of advanced acute nicotine intoxication. Other symptoms of tobacco amblyopia are fatigue, depression, anxiety, insomnia, pallor of the face, incapacity to recognize people's faces and the perception of people's complexion as yellow and waxy (WILBERT 1991:184). A person affected by tobacco amblyopia smells of stale tobacco and has a dry and fusty body odor (WILBERT 1991:184). Their hands are tremulous and they feel shaky (WILBERT 1991:184). There is also furring of the back of the tongue, lack of appetite, constipation and depressed libido (WILBERT 1991:184).

The symptoms of acute nicotine intoxication can include: "double vision", which is more likely dimness of vision associated with tobacco amblyopia (WILBERT 1991); "shivering" as a result of cold sweats (VOLLE & KOELLE 1975:569); "aphasia" (LEWIN 1998:262); and "deafness" (LEWIN 1998:262). Acute nicotine intoxication results in auditory disturbances involving congestion of the middle ear tract ("deafness") with symptoms of tinnitus aurium and other local noises ("buzzing") (LEWIN 1998:262). "Lilliputian hallucinations" are also possible in acute nicotine intoxication as nicotine has the potential, through its action on the central nervous system, to produce "…hallucinatory eschatological scenarios on a cosmic scale" (WILBERT 1991:185).

Kuma Komugl Taï ("shivering deafness") has been characterized as "mushroom madness" (REAY 1959; 1960; HEIM & WASSON 1965). However, Komugl Taï was actually associated with the ingestion of tobacco. Kuma men ate large quantities of tobacco during Komugl Taï. The ingestion of large quantities of tobacco resulted in acute nicotine intoxication. Acute nicotine intoxication would also have been accompanied by the condition tobacco amblyopia. The observed effects of Komugl Taï are the symptoms of acute nicotine intoxication and tobacco amblyopia. For this reason, it is suggested that Komugl Taï should be renamed "tobacco madness" (cf. MARSHALL 1987:43).


Clarke, W. C. 1973. "Temporary madness as theatre: wild-man behaviour in New Guinea" Oceania 43: 198-214.

Heim, R. and R. G. Wasson 1965. "The 'mushroom madness' of the Kuma" Botanical Museum Leaflets Harvard University 21(1): 1-36.

Lewin, L. 1998. Phantastica: A Classic Survey on the Use and Abuse of Mind-Altering Plants. Park Street Press, Rochester, Vermont.

Marshall, M. 1987. "An overview of drugs in Oceania" In: L. Lindstrom (Ed.) Drugs in Western Pacific Societies: Relations of Substance. University Press of America, Lanham. pp. 13-49.

Ott, J. 1997. Pharmacophilia or The Natural Paradises. Natural Products Co., Kennewick, WA.

Reay, M. 1959. The Kuma: Freedom and Conformity in the New Guinea Highlands. Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, Australia.

Reay, M. 1960. "'Mushroom madness' in the New Guinea highlands" Oceania 31(2): 137-139.

Reay, M. 1965. "Mushrooms and collective hysteria" Australian Territories 5: 22-24.

Reay, M. 1977. "Ritual madness observed: a discarded pattern of fate in Papua New Guinea" The Journal of Pacific History 12: 55-79.

Reay, M. 1999. Personal Communications.

Volle, R. L. and R. B. Koelle 1975. "Ganglionic stimulating and blocking agents" In: L. S. Goodman and A. Gilman (Eds.) The Pharmacological Basis of Therapeutics. Fifth Edition. Macmillan Publishing Co., New York. pp. 565-574.

Wilbert, J. 1991. "Does pharmacology corroborate the nicotine therapy and practices of South American shamanism?" Journal of Ethnopharmacology 32(1-3): 176-186.