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Culture and Psychopathology

The Anthropology of Mental Illness

Georgi Onchev

The book sets itself the ambitious task of exploring the relationship between human culture and the phenomenon of mental illness, that which has embarrassed, fascinated, and challenged educated minds throughout the centuries. Various manifestations of this phenomenon are examined in specific cultural contexts, presented with notable competence, and illustrated with memorable descriptions of clinical cases. (…) The book and its author have many merits—the capacity to present a highly specialized subject in an intelligible, absorbing, and simultaneously profound manner; respectable erudition and academic self-discipline; and the notable skill of handling different domains of knowledge, among others. The most remarkable quality, however, is the author’s concern both for the reader—who is carefully led into quite unknown and still frightening territory—as well as for his protagonists, the mentally ill. All told, I believe that this book will be of interest not just to students of psychiatry, psychology, and anthropology, but also to a broader circle of readers who are excited by the wretched and admirable destiny of being human.

Haralan Alexandrov

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1 Introduction: Heritage and Phenomena


Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

P. Gauguin

Over 6 million years ago pre-humans and pre-chimpanzees separated and took different roads of evolution, which remained relatively slow until some 11,000 years ago. Modern homo sapiens appeared around 60,000 years ago, and 20,000 years later the Neanderthal man had already started believing in the supernatural, and thus coping with his fears. Still, it would take another 25,000 more years before Cro-Magnons sewed clothing, made tools, painted, and played—thus creating the ritual foundation of culture.90 11,000 years before the present, a transition began from hunting and gathering to farming and settlement, and this occurred at the earliest within the valleys of civilization’s great rivers: the Nile, Jordan, Tigris, and Euphrates, all along the so-called Fertile Crescent which stretches between Egypt and Mesopotamia (from the Greek, meaning “between the rivers”).47 Later, encounters with non-threatening strangers were tolerated, and history gained momentum. Food production began 9,000 years ago and the first metal tools were made before some 7,000 years, while the first writings and state administrations appeared around 5,400 years ago (3400 BCE), along the Nile and in Mesopotamia, followed shortly by settlements in China, Mexico, the Andes, and Madagascar. All of them were traditional communities: communes, tribes, chiefdoms, and states. The concentration of many people in one place and cattle-breeding resulted in the transmission of microorganisms from animals to humans, and...

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