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The Oldest Trick in the Book
For the Yolngu of Central Australia, illness was often thought to be caused by a harmful object lodged within the body. Treatment involved a medicine man rubbing the pained part of the body and ‘extracting’ from it, through ‘sucking’ or sleight of hand, the object ostensibly causing the illness—generally a small stick.
The same belief and procedure were found among the Nenets of Northern Asia, except the object ‘extracted’ was usually a worm. For the Ticuna of Amazonia, the shaman would ‘suck’ out illness-causing thorns. Frogs, worms, and small sticks were all candidates for removal for a shaman among the Klamath of Oregon.
A ǀXam medicine man of South Africa would also remove small sticks from his patients, though he would extract these by ‘snoring’ them out, rather than through ‘sucking’ or sleight of hand. A Comanche doctor of the American Southwest would instead use a small horn to ‘suck’ out little stones supposedly causing the patient’s sickness.
This performance, the ‘extraction trick’, appears to be one of the oldest and most widespread healing practices and magical tricks in the world. It is found across independent hunter-gatherer societies on every part of the planet, and is underpinned by the same universal human psychology everywhere.
I discuss the pervasiveness of the extraction trick across independent hunter-gatherer societies, and the evolved psychology behind it, in my new paper in the open access journal Humans. If you want to learn more be sure to check it out, it’s a short piece.
And if you’d like to watch a related performance, see the 1964 ethnographic film Sucking Doctor. It depicts a Pomo shaman of California engaging in a healing performance and ‘sucking’ out the patient’s sickness, which she then ‘spits’ into a cup of water, where she claims it disappears after a few moments.
Reference: Buckner W. A Deceptive Curing Practice in Hunter–Gatherer Societies. Humans. 2022; 2(3):95-103. https://doi.org/10.3390/humans2030007
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