[Home] [Current Tables of Contents]

[ HLAS Online Home Page | Search HLAS Online | Help | FAQ | Comments ]

Volume 55 / Social Sciences


South America: Lowlands

JONATHAN D. HILL, Professor of Anthropology, Southern Illinois University at Carbonale

MAIN TRENDS IN THE FIELD OF AMAZONIAN ETHNOLOGY during the early 1990s have deepened and broadened the concern for studying indigenous social organization and religion from a variety of historical and interpretive perspectives. Indigenous ritual and ceremonial practices, together with associated beliefs and mythic narratives, continue as a focal interest. However, it has become increasingly apparent that symbolic and other interpretive approaches to indigenous religion are most productive when integrated into broader issues of social organization and history.

One of the clearest examples of such integrated, interpretive, and historical approaches to social change is the collection of essays on Cosmology, values, and inter-ethnic contact in South America edited by Terence Turner (item bi 95023276), a work in which the intricacies of indigenous cultural symbols and their meanings are analyzed as dynamic elements of political resistance to the loss of powers of self-determination. Through a well-researched and highly insightful comparison of Arawakan and Tukanoan religious movements of the 19th century, Robin Wright (item bi 93012814) domonstrates that such processes of cultural resistance follow distinct historical trajectories, depending upon underlying contrasts in indigenous political organization and patterns of interethnic relations with Western societies. Oscar Agüero's fine study of religious movements among the Tupi-Cocama of Peru (item bi 95023917) traces contemporary "ethno-dynamism" to the pan-Tupian complex of prophetism and the unique social history of the Upper Amazon region. In a valuable survey of religious movements in Lowland South America, Michael Brown (item bi 92015608) argues that the specific cultural forms manifested in messianism must be studied in relation to divisions and contradictions internal to indigenous social orders as well as to external relations of resistance and accommodation to Western societies.

The ongoing creativity and historical longevity of indigenous religions are amply demostrated in the collection of essays edited by E. Jean Langdon (item bi 94006418). Through a number of case studies from various regions of Lowland South America, Langdon's collection explores the rich diversity of indigenous concepts of shamanistic power and the expressive styles through which such power is put into practice. Complementing Langdon's broadly comparative study of shamanism, Jonathan Hill provides an in-depth study (item bi 94006415) of how the musical and verbal practices of Wakuenai shamans and chant-owners are used in the construction of an indigenous poetics of ritual power. Fusing the musical and visual dimensions of shamanic ritual into a seamless whole, Eduardo Luna and Pablo Amaringo interpret a magnificent chiaroscuro of indigenous paintings based on power songs and hallucinogenic visions induced by ayahuasca, or Banisteriopsis caapi (item bi 93004598). Still another tribute to shamanic creativity is Jean-Pierre Chaumeil's survey (item bi 93016036) of various mixtures between indigenous shamanism and Afro-and Euro-American religions in Latin America. Taken together, these studies imply that shamanic practices continue to develop in creative new ways and that they are in no way reducible to static relics of an archaic past.

A small number of very significant works employ discourse-centered approaches to the study of indigenous ritual performance and narrative discourse. Ellen Basso's attention to the language of Kalapalo history demonstrates the great potential for using discourse analysis as a tool for exploring indigenous histories (item bi 91004793). Specifically, Basso's study reveals how the Kalapalo construct memories of the historical past through biographical stories about great warriors whose lives embodied the transition from a formative period of chaotic warfare to a more recent past characterized by relatively peaceful ties based on ritual and ceremonial exchanges among Upper Xingu peoples. Charles Briggs shows the value of discourse analysis for understanding power relations within Warao society through an exploration of women's ritual wailing as a musical and verbal means for challenging the authority of male political and religious leaders (item bi 93013777). Laura Graham focuses discourse analysis on the political speeches of Xavante men's councils to show how these speeches dampen factionalism through performance practices that strengthen collective identities over and above individual speakers' voices (item bi 94012056). Although the number of discourse-centered studies is somewhat lower than in previous years, the outstanding quality of these works and the success with which they use discourse analysis as a tool for illuminating broader issues of social organization, history, and religion is a sure sign that discourse analysis will continue to play an increasingly prominent role in Amazonian ethnology as it develops through the 1990s.

A number of studies focus on the material, political and economic processes of change that provide the broader context within which indigenous societies are enmeshed. Roberto Pineda Camacho offers a general survey of the economic roles of indigenous peoples as slave laborers and debt peons in the historical development of the Colombian Amazon between 1550 and 1945 (item bi 94000520). R. Brian Ferguson marshals historical and ethonographic evidence to argue that the Yanomami war complex portrayed in recent ethnographies must be understood in terms of the long-term history of interethnic relations between the Yanomami and Western societies and the consequent disintegration of traditional practices of reciprocity (item bi 94002616). Ferguson's study is particularly timely and significant in light of the recent massacres of Yanomami by Brazilian goldminers and the sterility of academic debates over the supposed causes of Yanomami warfare and violence. Another valuable work is the new edition of Expedito Arnaud's historical and sociological articles on the Galibi, Mundurucú, Cayapo, and other indigenous peoples of Brazil (item bi 93004569). Arnaud's case studies span a 50-year period (1940-90) and bear tribute to an entire lifetime dedicated to indigenous advocacy informed by solid anthropological research and publication.

Given the centrality of interpretive and materialist approaches to indigenous histories in contemporary ethnology, it is not surprising to find that archaeologists are beginning to turn to these new historical studies for insights into pre- and post-contact processes of social change. In an interesting study of Wayu (Guajiro) historical origins, José Oliver uses colonial history, comparative linguistics, and archaeology to argue that the Wayu arrived in their present location at least 1,500 years ago, rather than more recently as a result of the breaking apart of the Caquetios during the colonial period (item bi 95024272). In a similar manner, Alberta Zucchi argues that indigenous oral histories of the Piapoco and other Northern Arawakan groups outline patterns of past migrations that are consistent with archaeological evidence from the Llanos and adjacent forest areas to the south (item bi 94001964). By taking advantage of the opportunities provided by recent ethnohistorical studies, these archaeological works could become a point of departure for productive collaborative research between archaeologists and ethnologists in the future.

As in past years, the number of works focusing on aspects of indigenous ecology have continued to diminish. Case studies in this area include an analysis of fluctuating game resources and the sexual division of labor among the Hiwi of Venezuela by Magdalena Hurtado and Kim Hill (item bi 91022125), an intensive study of subsistence activities among the Siona-Secoya of Ecuador by William Vickers (item bi 94006420), and a Spanish translation of Roland Bergman's ecological analysis of Shipibo subsistence economics (item bi 93004605). The downward trend in ecological studies has been consistent for nearly a decade, and it is probable that such studies will never return to the prominence they had in Amazonian ethnology during the 1970s and early 1980s.

Studies of indigenous social organization have rebounded in the early 1990s to become one of the more productive research topics. Among the most important of these new studies are Irene Bellier's historical interpretation of the Mai Huna complex of patrilineal clans and uxorilocal residence (item bi 93004571), Janet Chernela's monographic treatment of ranked social organization among the Wanano of the Brazilian Vaupes (item bi 95021879), Stephen Fabian's analysis of ethnoastronomical knowledge as symbolic mediation of social processes among the Bororo of Central Brazil (item bi 92014243), and Alcida Ramos' study of patrilineal sibs and accompanying ritual practices among the Sanuma (Yanomami) of Brazil (item bi 93004577). Shorter works worth mentioning include a study of Cashinahua kinship as a historically dynamic process of adapting to Brazilian society by Cecilia McCallum (item bi 91006609), a feminist interpretation of gender relations in the Colombian Vaupes region by Jean Jackson (item bi 93002807), and an interesting study of Cayapo naming practices as evidence of matrilineal descent groups by Vanessa Lea (item bi 93013493). The resurgence of interest in social organization indicates that contemporary ethnologists of Lowland South America have not lost interest in the major questions raised by earlier generations of ethnologists. On the contrary, today's ethnologists are developing imaginative theoretical approaches and methods, such as interpretive ethnohistory and discourse analysis, to explore old topics in fresh new ways.

Go to the:

Begin a Basic Search | Begin an Expert Search

[ HLAS Online Home Page | Search HLAS Online | Help | FAQ | Comments ]

Library of Congress
Comments: Ask a Librarian (11/16/04)