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Volume 57 / Social Sciences


South America: Lowlands

SILVIA MARIA HIRSCH, Professor of Anthropology, Princton University
ROBIN M. WRIGHT, Professor of Anthropology, Universidade Estadual de Campinas (Brazil)

IN THE LITERATURE REVIEWED for this issue, one characteristic clearly stands out: a large number of articles on various themes cluster into four main areas: indigenous history, religions, kinship and social organization, and indigenism. The Quincentenary celebrations (1992) and the UN’s International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People (1995) were important stimuli both for the publication of vast amounts of material on Amazonian native peoples and for the identification of uncovered areas.

One important area receiving attention is history, which has been either neglected or not considered recuperative for a long time. A few pioneering voices in the 1970s and early 1980s called attention to the need for historical research and Latin American anthropologists eventually began organizing this interest through symposia at the international Americanists meetings (items bi 95021963 and bi 98012819). In the mid-1980s, this research movement was coordinated in Brazil by the Center for Indigenous History in S˜ao Paulo, who, in 1991, organized a major international conference on the History of Indians in Brazil (item bi 98013463). The following year, the conference papers were published in a volume which surpassed the two volumes on the conquest of Brazilian Indians by John Hemming, until then virtually the only reference books on the subject (HLAS 42:1648, 51:877 and 52:2889).

One result of this conference was the identification of what had yet to be done on Lowland ethnohistory, such as a basic survey of material relevant to indigenous history in Brazilian archives. As a result, the Center published a guide to Brazilian historical archives in 1994 (item bi 98008424). Large areas of Amazonia were not included in the volume, indicating directions for future research. In Northeast Brazil, a number of research projects are currently underway to reconstruct regional indigenous history.

Shortly after reaching a peak of intensity, the research focus on history in Brazil lost steam. Theses continued to be produced in the area, but numerous research questions went unanswered, such as historical demography and images of the Indian in history. These topics will most likely continue to be investigated, but on a smaller-scale and in a less-centralized fashion.

The second area of research is native religions. The noteworthy, systematic publication of collections of myths, particularly by ABYA-YALA Publishers in Quito, has made numerous obscure works available to researchers (item bi 98012823). However, a contextual explanation that would make these myths accessible to unspecialized readers does not exist. One interesting development we may continue to see is collections of myths organized by native narrators.

The literature is limited in types of interpretations and analyses of myths and religion. Structuralist analyses continue to appear, although recent critiques of Lévi-Straussian analysis confirm the weakness of its ethnographic base (item bi 94016078). One collection focuses on myth as praxis comparing mythic forms among Lowland and Andean societies (item bi 98012796). Parallels can be drawn between these studies and the more linguistically-oriented discourse-centered approaches of North American anthropology, particularly in the focus on narrative performance and construction of meaning.

Papers from the International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences (ICAES) in 1993 focus on the relation of mythic structure to historical praxis - an evident link in millenarian, messianic, and prophetic movements (item bi 98014137). An excellent monograph explores the relation among founding myths, historical narratives, and social structure of the Curripaco of the Guainía River in Colombia (item bi 98008443). The monograph on the Warao of the Orinoco Delta is a beautiful demonstration of how mythic and religious themes are expressed in material existence (item bi 95021969).

A number of studies focus on eschatology, death and the afterlife, and cannibalism in the Lowlands (items bi 95021978, bi 95015225, and bi 95021950). Cunha’s classic study on the Krahó (HLAS 43:1098) and Castro’s brilliant monograph on the Araweté, now translated into English (item bi 95021872), continue to serve as models on the theme. The importance of death to the construction of identity and alterity, and the centrality of predation are key themes in the relations of cosmos to society and society to nature in Lowland South America.

The greatest number of studies in religion have concentrated on shamanism, including both monographs (items bi 95021910 and bi 95021882) and collections of articles (item bi 98008435). The complexity and richness of shamanism are explored through diverse approaches focusing on performance, relations to cosmogony and cosmology, prophetism, Western medical practices, and ecology. A key issue in debate is the basis of shamanic power in ritual reproduction of the cosmos and society (item bi 91005993). One new topic to the study of religion is the relation of Christianity to native cultures. In Brazil, a global and comparative research project explores the diversity of relationships among indigenous religions and Christianity, concentrating on the nature of conversion experiences, prophetic movements, and native churches in the Lowlands.

Kinship and social organization are the areas in which Lowland ethnologists have most clearly been rethinking in-depth available analytical models and theoretical presuppositions. One leading figure in this movement, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, has for nearly a decade undertaken a comparative study of kinship systems in Amazonia, focusing especially on Dravidian systems (item bi 98008422), and has proposed a new model for conceptualizing the notions of affinity and consanguinity and their interrelations in Amazonia. Some articles in the extremely important 1993 issue of L’Homme on Amazonia discuss possibilities and implications of new kinship models, demonstrating that dialogue among French, Brazilian, and British anthropologists has a great deal to offer by way of a new synthesis (item bi 98012822).

One area where Lowland Ethnology could advance is by a critical rethinking of the separation between studies of Central Brazil (particularly Gê-speaking societies) and the rest of Amazonia - a distinction produced and reinforced by predominant directions in the field in the 1960s and 1970s. The isolation of Gê studies has prevented a more effective synthesis which may account for the significant differences between Gê models of society and Amazonian patterns (item bi 98012822).

Indigenism provides the greatest diversity in the literature; this ‘practical ethnology’ addresses the relationship of traditional ethnology to practical and political questions such as land, health, education, development, and movement politics. These concerns have preoccupied indigenous peoples for a long time but ethnology has only recently begun to make theoretical contributions. For example, the new journal Filhos da terra offers Brazilian indigenous leaders the opportunity to express their concerns about many of these practical issues (item bi 98013656).

The two predominant concerns in education are educating primary and secondary school teachers and the general population about indigenous peoples, and conversely, rethinking Western pedagogical models to meet indigenous peoples’ needs. Brazilian ethnologists and specialists have dedicated substantial attention to these questions (items bi 96011372, bi 96011383, bi 95021951, and bi 98008421). Some fundamental areas are lacking research: in particular, an encyclopedia of indigenous peoples in Brazil does not yet exist. However, an institute in S˜ao Paulo is organizing a collective project to produce a multimedia CD-ROM on the subject.

Health is yet another area where specialists from various areas have come together to explore the possibilities of making Western medical systems more responsive to indigenous needs, while determining the principal concerns of indigenous medical systems (items bi 96011385, bi 95021972, and bi 95021979). On the question of land, various collections of articles have been published on recognizing and demarcating indigenous lands. One interesting development is the ethnologist’s expert role in preparing legal documents concerning land claims in Brazil, an area in which research on indigenous history has a central role (items bi 96011387 and bi 94003533).

Development research in indigenous areas has not advanced significantly in the past few years: outside of critiques of the effects of development projects (items bi 96011395, bi 95021966, and bi 95021902), a few studies explore ethnoecology, ethnoagronomy and ethnobotany and propose alternative development models (item bi 95021953). One noteworthy study recommends an approximation between sustainable development and indigenous needs (item bi 95021966).

A number of studies evaluate indigenous movements of resistance (see Turner in item bi 98008422) and revitalization, their relation to cultural constructs, and how past experiences can help to shape strategies for future political moves (item bi 95021881). One relevant article examines ethnogenesis, or “the process of constructing and transforming social identity in changing historical conditions” (Hill, HLAS 53: Introductory Essay), which should be a model for reconsidering the anthropologist’s role in political movements of cultural revitalization (item bi 98013725).

Discourse-centered approaches to ethnography continue to produce important results as authors explore limitations and potentialities in life narratives (item bi 95021866), the relation of expressive performance to cultural transmission (item bi 96011367), the construction and reproduction of power in inter-ethnic relations (items bi 95021869 and bi 95019686), and the construction of knowledge and sensibility in social relations (item bi 96004767).

Hill’s prediction that ecological studies of Amazonia would continue to diminish in the 1990s (HLAS 55: Introductory Essay) has not changed significantly. Despite the English translation of Philippe Descola’s classic work on the Achuar (item bi 95021948), his synthesis of ecological and symbolic approaches has unfortunately received little attention. Two studies demonstrate the enormous potential his approach has over more reductionist and pragmatic concerns of ‘sustainable development’ or ‘resource management’ (items bi 96011365 and bi 95021864).


Research and publications on lowland groups of Bolivia, Paraguay, and Argentina have grown steadily during the last decade. There has been a systematic increase of studies on the large Chaco region which includes these three countries. The largest number of publications have come from Paraguay and Argentina. Growing areas of research include: the struggle for indigenous peoples to claim territorial and legal rights, the impact of new national indigenous legislation, indigenous minorities and the State, and new forms of religiosity.

Articles on the Paraguayan Guaraní groups represent the struggle for land rights and the impact of national legislation on indigenous rights. A case-study analysis illustrates the conflict and contradiction of the national legislation created to protect indigenous rights and the difficulties of implementation (item bi 96025111). Government agencies in charge of protecting and defending indigenous peoples often express conflicting solidarities and alliances with different social groups. The analysis of the impact of new indigenous law in Misiones, Argentina on the Guaraní communities examines how political parties attempt to co-opt indigenous leaders and how indigenous peoples emerge as political actors involved in organizing and deciding the fate of their communities (item bi 94012160). Another study documents the conflicts that arise between different forms of leadership in these communities (item bi 95014447). A thorough analysis of Wichi toponymy, in which indigenous knowledge of the environment has the potential for effecting change in territorial claims, is a seminal contribution to this area of study (item bi 96002797).

The emergence of a new indigenous political discourse has been an ongoing theme during the last decade. One study examines the Enxet, who are developing an ethnic discourse in response to the challenges they confront in the process of land claims (item bi 95014447). Another work provides a detailed sociocultural and economic description of indigenous communities in Paraguay, which is useful for scholars interested in the present-day situation and in development projects (item bi 94016020). A growing interest in legal issues, focusing on folk law is exemplified in a detailed study of Ava-Guaraní social control and folk law (item bi 94016009). These studies can contribute to effective policy making among native peoples.

The analysis of indigenous people's incorporation into the capitalist economy and their ways of coping with economic changes have focused on adaptive strategies and native resource management (items bi 94016025, bi 96002791, and bi 94008567).

The longstanding interest in religiosity, mythology, and shamanism continues to be evident in several studies. The study of Ava-Katu-Eté shamanism is a noteworthy contribution to the vast literature on Guaraní religiosity and mythical narrative (item bi 94016016). Several articles reflect the growing interest on the conflicts between shamanism and evangelism. Wright’s study of Toba evangelical therapeutic practices uses a discursive analysis of death dreams illustrating the complex relationship between evangelical and shamanic practices (item bi 95019859).

The growing process of urban migration of indigenous peoples is still not a major topic, but recent studies depict new forms of organization, leadership, and linguistic change that have come with the movement to the cities (item bi 95004037).

The ethnology of lowland Paraguay, Bolivia, and Argentina has grown in both publications and research but the field is much less explored than the rest of Lowland South America. There are still gaps in ecological oriented research, gender issues and migration and urbanization of indigenous peoples.

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