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Shepard '87: Ethnobotanist, anthropologist, two-time Emmy winner

Not many botanists can claim to have won two Emmy Awards, but GlennShepard’87 can.

Shepard, an ethnobotanist and medical anthropologist whose research focuses on the indigenous peoples of South America, once worked with the Discovery Channel on a film that ended up winning two Emmys. He currently works in Brazil at the Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi, a research institution and museum, where he is continuing his decades-long research on health status, ecological knowledge and cultural change with several indigenous tribes.

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Since 2003, he has collaborated with Rainforest Flow (formerly House of the Children), a nonprofit organization that has been installing ecologically friendly, slow-sand filtrated, gravity-fed water systems to provide clean drinking water to indigenous villages in the Peruvian Amazon.

Nancy Santullo, founder of Rainforest Flow, first met Shepard through a biologist who knew Shepard in Peru when the two were doing research in Manú National Park.

“I needed to connect with him since I was thinking of doing work in Manú with indigenous cultures,” Santullo explained. Empowering the indigenous people to be "healthy stewards of the land" is a large part of the work that Santullo participates in.

“I saw a project in a village outside the park [Manú National Park] and said, 'We’ve got to do a project inside the park,' " Shepard said. "I set it up, and they just finished installing full tap water systems in September with this clean, sand-filtered water and composting-flush toilets. There are three total villages that now have this clean water system. It’s helped to drop the parasite loads by almost half, and diarrhea episodes with children have gone from about seven to one per year."

In that same region of Peru, Shepard has been documenting and publicizing in a series of articles in the international media the worrisome situation of the isolated Mashco-Piro tribe. The Mashco-Piro were massacred in the 1890s by the notorious “King of Rubber,” Carlos Fermín Fitzcarrald, and have since taken up a nomadic life in the forest, avoiding all contact with outsiders.

Recently, however, several different Mashco-Piro groups have become increasingly aggressive with nearby settled villagers, invading their lands and demanding food and supplies. It is unclear whether they are being forced out of their territories by illegal loggers or whether ecological disturbance has affected their traditional food supply.

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“Nobody knows what’s going on, but they’ve been attacking villages,” Shepard explained."The Peruvian government doesn’t know what to do with these people. In Brazil, there’s a whole group of anthropologists, indigenous specialists, and doctors who specialize in how to prepare for the worst case scenarios of contact."

Shepard has been promoting dialogue between the Peruvian government and Brazilian specialists to figure out the most effective response to this dangerous situation.

Shepard has also been working with a group of Kayapo Indians who expressed that they wanted somebody to film one of their festivals and to train them in film-making.

“[The Kayapo] have pop singers who sing popular [Brazilian] dance music and even the Beatles in their own language,” Shepard said.

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Shepard has plans this year to travel with Kayapo filmmakers to Nashville so that they can present their films.

A Princeton student with diverse interests

Shepard’s interests as an undergraduate were wide-ranging. He began college thinking he would pursue a degree in medicine, then archeology. At the suggestion of Peter Bogucki, the director of studies of Princeton Inn College where he resided, Shepard participated in an archeological dig in Germany the summer after his freshman year. He then realized he might be better suited for cultural anthropology.

His sophomore year, Shepard became interested in medieval Middle Eastern medicine and started studying Arabic. One of his teaching assistants in Arabic was a graduate student in Near Eastern Studies who had worked with a Bedouin group in eastern Jordan.

With funding from various on-campus sources, Shepard spent his sophomore summer living with a Bedouin tribe in Jordan on the border between Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia. He carried a letter of introduction from his teaching assistant to the sheik of the tribe to ensure a generous welcome. Shepard learned about Bedouin medicine’s healing rituals, which he would explore further as the topic of his junior paper.

“With that interest in somehow combining medicine with this interest in languages, that’s when I hit upon this area of medical ethnobotany,” Shepard said.

With the help and support of Dr. John Torbourgh, Shepard spent the first semester of his senior year in Peru on senior field project studying medicinal traditions of the Matsigenka people in their Amazonian village. His senior thesis, “Ancient Visions of Healing, Hopes for Modern Health,” explores medicinal plants, shamanism and witchcraft accusations as an expression of political and social rivalries between two different villages.

“I was archeology, then Middle East with Bedouin tribes. Next thing I knew, I was in Peru,” Shepard said."It was a whole series of encounters, but it was all based on me being at Princeton. If I hadn’t been at Princeton, I would never have achieved all of that. I certainly would have been doing something very different. It was all those sort of connections."

Shepard graduated the University with an independent concentration which combined his various interests.

“I created an independent major, sort of combining anthropology with chemistry and botany and biology. I created my own program, calling it ethnobotany and medical anthropology and taking many courses in different areas,” Shepard explained.

He received a Labouisse Prize upon graduating and spent the next year in Peru continuing his research in native health in medicine, living and working in the remote Matsigenka communities of Tayakome and Yomibato in Manú Park. Shepard noted that this work would become the basis of his graduate research. He began his doctoral program at the University of California at Berkeley, graduating in 1999 with a doctorate in doctorate in Medical Anthropology.

Shepard received popular acclaim when the Discovery Channel film "Spirits of the Rainforest," on which he worked as an anthropological consultant, won two Emmy awards in 1994.

“The Discovery Channel was interested in doing a film about Manú National Park. They wanted to have some specialist who worked with the indigenous people, and so they got in touch with me,” Shepard said.

Shepard is currently working on a book about shamanism, botany and sensory experience entitled "Sorcery and the Senses," while continuing his work with different indigenous groups of the Amazon. Since 2011 he has blogged regularly about his fieldwork and travel experiences at “Notes from the Ethnoground."

Correction: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this article misidentified Peter Bogucki's position at Princeton Inn College. He was the director of studies. The 'Prince' regrets the error.

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