As we found in our recent episode, the medical origin story of the zombie seems to have originated in Haiti and associated Caribbean islands with practitioners of voodoo, a religious practice brought to the region by West African slaves, and has nothing to do with the flesh-eating, brains-seeking versions in popular culture.
Travelers from the Caribbean during the 19th and 20th centuries told tales about persons who were transformed into living dead servants by evilly dispositioned “bokor,” voodoo practitioners believed to have the capability of creating zombies with special brews or potions.
The zombie powders obtained from bokors seemed to always contain ground up puffer fish. This, in turn, contains tetrodotoxin, a substance within the pufferfish capable of causing full paralysis–including breathing–in high enough doses. It appears these powders were typically applied to the skin. Cases of persons claiming to have been declared dead only to be found on the streets years later with personality alterations have persisted into the 20th century.
This has led to the theory that use of zombie powder may have induced a level of paralysis that appeared to medical practitioners of the time as consistent with death. Persons may have even been buried for a short time until the tetrodotoxin wore off. If they weren’t buried, they also may not have been breathing adequately if the toxin dose paralyzed the muscles of breathing. These factors may have lead to near asphyxiation and the low oxygen environment of a grave may have contributed to varying degrees of anoxic brain injury, a phenomenon that might explain why some of those purported to be zombies, seemed to be acting off or at least without the mental faculties that their families may have expected.
This is all a far cry from the pop culture zombies we see in the media today.
Doctor with a mustache.