Header image  
Ethnobotany & Anthropology Research Page

Nicotinism, Colonialism & The Wild Man


In many areas of Papua New Guinea there has been "...a prescribed pattern of… running wild and ferocious" (REAY 1977: 79). This is known as 'wild-man [sic] behaviour' (NEWMAN 1964; COOK 1966; CLARKE 1973). Among the Gururumba, who live in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, this behaviour is known as ahaDe idzi Be or "being (a) wild pig" (NEWMAN 1964: 1). This phrase is used to draw an analogy between the actions of a 'wild' pig and a pattern of human behaviour (NEWMAN 1964: 1). 'Wild-man [sic] behaviour' has occurred in other areas of Papua New Guinea where it has been variously characterized as 'aggressive or violent hysterical behaviour' (SINCLAIR 1957), 'amok' (CHOWNING 1961; BURTON-BRADLEY 1968; 1972), 'collective hysteria' (REAY 1965), 'hysterical psychosis' (LANGNESS 1965; 1967), 'guria' (HOSKIN et al. 1969), 'longlong' (BURTON-BRADLEY 1973), 'lulu' (RODRIGUE 1963), 'mushroom madness' (REAY 1959; 1960; HEIM & WASSON 1965), 'possession' (SALISBURY 1966a; 1966b) 'ritual madness' (REAY 1977) and 'temporary madness' (CLARKE 1973). It has also been reported in neighboring West Papua (KOCH 1968). There are several reports from Papua New Guinea that the ingestion of various parts of plants or fungi has produced 'wild-man [sic]' symptoms (CLARKE 1973: 202; vide THOMAS 1999). Among these are Lucy HAMILTON's (1960) description of eating certain leaves and bark, Alex SINCLAIR's (1957) description of eating certain fruit and Marie REAY's (1960) description of eating certain fungi.

There is increasing evidence that some forms of 'wild-man [sic] behaviour' have involved nicotinism (nicotine poisoning) as a result of eating green tobacco leaves (Nicotiana tabacum L. [Solanaceae]) (THOMAS in press). The ingestion of tobacco leaves has been implicated in several outbreaks of 'wild-man [sic] behaviour' (CLARKE 1973: 200; vide REAY 1960: 139; 1977: 57; KOCH 1968: 139). One of these outbreaks occurred in the Western Highlands in the 1950s. This behaviour was originally characterized as 'mushroom madness' (REAY 1959; 1960; HEIM & WASSON 1965). At first this behaviour was blamed on the ingestion of a "…hallucinogenic fungus [sic]" (REAY 1960). However, this was proven to be incorrect (HEIM & WASSON 1965) and this behaviour was explained instead as a form of collective hysteria (REAY 1965). There is ethnographic, phytochemical and pharmacological evidence that 'mushroom madness' was a case of nicotinism that resulted from the ingestion of toxic quantities of green tobacco leaves (THOMAS in press). For this reason, other outbreaks of 'wild-man [sic] behaviour' in Papua New Guinea may have also involved nicotine poisoning. Evidence for this can be found by comparing the physical symptoms of 'wild-man [sic] behaviour' described in the ethnographic literature (NEWMAN 1964; CLARKE 1973) with the known pharmacological effects of nicotine (VOLLE & KOELLE 1975).

The physical symptoms of 'wild man [sic] behaviour' include "...Increase in the rate of the respiratory and circulatory system, a drop in skin temperature, and sweating..." (NEWMAN 1964: 5) and "…panting, rapid heart beat, trembling, shaking, dizziness, erratic motor control and glazed or turned-up eyes" (CLARKE 1973: 199-200). Other symptoms include "deafness" (REAY 1965: 18; CLARKE 1973: 199), "…double vision, exaggerated shivering and intermittent aphasia" (REAY 1959: 137). These symptoms are summarized in Table 1.

Table 1.

Symptoms of 'wild-man [sic] behaviour'.

Increased respiratory rate
Increased circulatory rate
Decreased skin temperature
Rapid heart beat
Erratic motor control
Glazed or turned-up eyes
Double vision

Nicotine causes an "…excitation of respiration" (VOLLE & KOELLE 1975: 568) therefore producing an increase in the rate of respiration (NEWMAN 1964: 5). Nicotine has a stimulant effect on the cardiovascular system and causes an increase in "…coronary blood flow" (VOLLE & KOELLE 1975: 568) therefore producing and increase in the rate of the circulatory system (NEWMAN 1964: 5). Nicotine stimulates a number of sensory receptors including the thermal receptors of the skin (VOLLE & KOELLE 1975: 568) thereby causing a drop in skin temperature (NEWMAN 1964: 5). Nicotine can cause sweating (VOLLE & KOELLE 1975: 569). As a result of increased perspiration, nicotine can reduce skin temperature from 32.5oC to 25.5oC (WILBERT 1991:181). Nicotine can cause wheezing as a result of parasympathetic stimulation (TURKINGTON 1994: 192) and therefore produce panting (CLARKE 1973: 199). Nicotine can cause increased heart rate by excitation of sympathetic or paralysis of parasympathetic cardiac ganglia (VOLLE & KOELLE 1975: 567) thereby producing rapid heart beat (CLARKE 1973: 199). Nicotine can cause trembling (TURKINGTON 1994: 289). Nicotine can cause shaking (WILBERT 1991: 184). Nicotine can cause dizziness (VOLLE & KOELLE 1975: 569; TURKINGTON 1994: 289). Nicotine can cause deafness of both ears (LEWIN 1998 [1924]: 262). Nicotine can cause "double vision" as a result of tobacco amblyopia (WILBERT 1991: 184). Nicotine can cause shivering as a result of cold sweats (VOLLE & KOELLE 1975: 569). Nicotine can cause motor aphasia for several hours (LEWIN 1998 [1924]: 262). This pharmacological evidence suggests that 'wild-man [sic] behaviour' in Papua New Guinea has been associated with significant nicotinism.


1. Apologies to Michael T. Taussig (1987).


BURTON-BRADLEY, B. G. 1968. "The amok syndrome in Papua New Guinea" The Medical Journal of Australia 1: 252-256.

BURTON-BRADLEY, B. G. 1972. "Amuck," In: Ryan, P. (Ed.) Encyclopaedia of Papua New Guinea. Volume 1. A-K. Melbourne University Press in association with the University of Papua New Guinea, Melbourne, Australia. pp. 19-21.

BURTON-BRADLEY, B. G. 1973. Longlong. Public Health Department, Port Moresby, PNG.

CHOWNING, A. 1961. "Amok and aggression in the d'Entrecasteaux" In: Garfield, V. E. (Ed.) Proceedings of the 1961 Annual Spring Meeting of the American Ethnological Society. American Ethnological Society, Seattle, Washington.

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

COOK, E. A. 1966. "Conflict resolution and hysteria: another instance of 'wild man' behavior from Highland New Guinea" Paper presented at the 34th Southwestern Anthropological Association Meeting, Davis, California, 7th-9th April 1966.

HAMILTON, L. 1960. "An experiment to observe the effect of eating substances called ereriba leaves and agara bark" Transactions of the Papua and New Guinea Scientific Society 1: 16-18.

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

HOSKIN, J. O. et al. 1969. "Epilepsy and guria: the shaking syndromes of New Guinea" Social Science and Medicine 3: 39-48.

KOCH, K-F. 1969. "On 'possession' behaviour in New Guinea" Journal of the Polynesian Society 77:135-146.

LANGNESS, L. L. 1965. "Hysterical psychosis in the New Guinea Highlands: a Bena Bena example" Psychiatry 28: 258-277.

LANGNESS, L. L. 1967. "Hysterical psychosis: the cross-cultural evidence" American Journal of Psychiatry 124: 143-152.

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

NEWMAN, P. L. 1964. "'Wild man' behavior in a New Guinea Highlands community" American Anthropologist 66 (1): 1-19.

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.

RODRIGUE, R. B. 1962. "A report on a widespread psychological disorder called Lulu seen among the Huli linguistic group in Papua" Oceania 33: 273-279.

SALISBURY, R. F. 1966a. "Possession on the New Guinea Highlands: review of literature" Transcultural Psychiatric Research 3: 103-108.

SALISBURY, R. F. 1966b. "Possession among the Siane (New Guinea)" Transcultural Psychiatric Research 3: 108-116.

SINCLAIR, A. 1957. Field and Clinical Survey Report of the Mental Health of the Indigenes of the Territory of Papua New Guinea. W. S. Nicholas, Port Moresby, PNG.

TAUSSIG, M. T. 1987. Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.

THOMAS, B. 1999. "Therogens" Eleusis: Journal of Psychoactive Plants and Compounds 3: 82-88.

THOMAS, B. in press. "'Mushroom madness' in the Papua New Guinea Highlands: a case of nicotine poisoning?" Journal of Psychoactive Drugs.

TURKINGTON, C. 1994. Poisons and Antidotes. Facts on File, Inc., New York, NY.

VOLLE, R. L. and R. B. KOELLE 1975. "Ganglionic stimulating and blocking agents" In: Goodman, L. S. and A. Gilman (Eds.) The Pharmacological Basis of Therapeutics. Fifth Edition. Macmillan Publishing Co., New York, NY. 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.