Return of Narcisse from the dead stunned the world when BBC made a television documentary in early 1980s on him. BBC obtained his official death certificate and witnessed more than 200 family members ready to take oath that indeed the man is Clairvius Narcisse. It also obtained a sample of the “zombie powder”, which according to legend was the key to turn a healthy man into a zombie. Intrigued by the story and the fake zombie powder that Nathan Kline had obtained for testing, he asked Wade Davis to investigate.
In Haitian villages zombies are part of a traditional system- a social control that oversees individual behavior and dispenses justice. The downcast of Narcisse is a crossroad between death and misery. There is no life. Narcisse was zombified by the bokor (sorcerer) because he cheated his brother out of some land. The bokor took the “soul” out of Narcisse as a part of severe punishment and made him work as a slave in a bucolic sugar factory. Upon the death of his master, Narcisse simply walked away from the factory and met his sister. Initially, he was given a powder that ‘killed’ him. Next day he was dug out from his coffin and was administered with another powder which turned him into zombie.
Investigation of Wade Davis
Initial negotiations of Davis with a bokor resulted in obtaining a fake zombie powder which Davis proved by consuming the powder. However prolonged reiterations with the bokor lead Davis to witness the preparation of the real stuff. Davis accompanied the bokor to a grave yard where in a young girl’s decomposed body was unearthed and a few pieces of her skull were collected. The bone was charred along with pieces of two iridescent blue lizards, a large toad that Davis recognized as Bufo marinus, a highly toxic species and leaves of two plant species that do not cause any harmful or hallucinogenic effect. Finally the dried puffer fish was added. The bokor and his helper chanted mysterious vodoun incantations while preparing the powder. It took sometime for the powder to get ready. Most zombie victims die inside the coffin due to hypoxia. But those who survive are treated as soulless slaves.
Davis sent the samples to New York State Psychiatric Institute at Columbia Presbyterian College for analysis. The powder was applied to shaved laboratory mice under the laboratory conditions. The mice became comatose and appeared dead. However the EKG monitors showed faint heartbeat and small brain waves appeared in EEG scanning. Presence of tetrodotoxin was confirmed in the powder. According to some sources the second powder that was administered after his exhumation was a paste made from datura stramonium.
Tetrodotoxin is a deadly neurotoxin. 0.00000065 g of tetrodotoxin is enough to kill an adult human, making it about 1000 times more toxic than cyanide. However lower concentrations in the blood leads to paralysis state which can be mistaken for death. The victim suffers from difficulty in breathing, cyanosis, and a precipitous drop in blood pressure although he can see and hear what is going on around him. I shall not bug you further by giving details of underlying molecular mechanism. The highly prized Japanese dish fugu is prepared from the raw flesh of the puffer fish. Chefs must be specially trained and licensed to prepare fugu. Even then hundreds of fugu diners have payed the ultimate prize.
Bufotoxin that was also present in the powder probably enhanced the effect of tetrodotoxin derived from the puffer fish. The bufotenines induce hallucinogenic effects that have been used in many different cultures like the Yoruba tribesmen of Nigeria and the Mayans (1290 B.C.). The Chinese have used it as a drug for heart disease since 3500 B.C
The second powder contained the extracts of datura stramonium, a plant rich in tropane alkaloids that induces psychotic state. The word datura has the Hindi origin (thorn apple) that dates back to 1662!!. Commonly found in tropics and temperate region, the amount of poison in the plant varies with geographical distribution, water, temperature and humidity. I happen to take this picture in a remote village (Salkod) of Karnataka during my recent visit to India.
The question is how come Haitian bokors knew the exact composition of the zombie powder? The only scientific explaination would be trial and error which accounts for innumerable lives!!. But the bokors have mysterious answers.
Definition of death has been a topic of debate in the past. Scientists, philosophers and religion defined it in antithetic manner. The mid-18th century witnessed a chaotic state as there was a public upsurge in the fear of being buried alive. Thanks to advancement in medical technologies, the status of death has been persistently re-evaluated. The investigation of Wade Davis had two important consequences. One, a nightmarish folk legend had turned into a million dollar business for the pharmaceutical industries. Second, an ethnobotanist shaped himself as one of the world’s finest anthropologist. Davis has documented many heart-warming stories, the stories that depict the human endeavor to survive on this planet. His works have inspired many and shall continue to do so as long as one realizes that-
wide acceptance of an idea is not the proof of it’s validity. It has to be tested.