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Volume 61 / Social Sciences


South America: Lowlands

SILVIA MARÍA HIRSCH, Professor, FLACSO, Buenos Aires, Argentina
BARTHOLOMEW DEAN, Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Kansas and Profesor Invitado, Graduate Program in Amazonian Studies/Maestría en Estudios Amazónicos, Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, Lima, Peru

FOUNDATIONAL THEMES OF SOCIAL ORGANIZATION, kinship, native cosmologies (including eschatology, death, predation, and cannibalism), history, sociocultural change, the environment, and indigenismo (emphasizing the relationship of ethnology and practical questions facing indigenous peoples) continue to direct much of the ethnological literature on Lowland South America. Given the constraints of space and the continued expansion of serious anthropological and ethnohistorical research in the area, this section inescapably fails to reflect the dauntingly rich and diverse nature of ethnological scholarship devoted to the massive region dubbed Lowland South America. Omission of various important contributions to the field is seemingly inevitable. For instance, mention of all contributions in edited volumes, symposium, and conference proceedings (many of which attest to increasing international collaboration) would greatly swell the number of annotations. Similarly, individual mention of the burgeoning literature produced by and for indigenous peoples of Lowland South America would simply overwhelm this section.

There is an emerging consensus among ethnographers that gone are the romantic days of portraying Amazonian communities as "populations" (rather than as culturally distinctive peoples) isolated from complex and contradictory forces of global capitalism, national politics, environmental degradation, and the often times violent and tumultuous socioeconomic changes associated with "modernity" and all of its real or illusory trappings. Indeed, in the not too distant past there was little regard for historical context or "native" voice in the ethnographic record, a trend that is happily no longer regnant in the ethnology of Lowland South America. There is a growing corpus of ethnological works written by indigenous peoples themselves, covering crucial issues such as linguistic activism, health, natural resource management, cultural revalorization efforts, and human rights. Perhaps not surprisingly, among the fastest growing areas of research in the ethnology of Lowland South America are indigenous social movements, the politics of identity, and the responses of indigenous peoples to ongoing change. A good example of the shift in anthropological sensibilities is the Yanomami affair, which has polarized ethnologists and has pushed South American anthropology into the headlines, adding to the controversy over the ethical nature of anthropological fieldwork among indigenous communities (among others, see items #bi2003000009#, #bi 99009178#, and #bi2001003224#).

Nevertheless, many ethnographers of one of indigenous South America's most enduring cultural legacies—mythology—continue to show little desire in placing their studies into analytical frameworks that might account for ongoing social-suffering associated with poverty, marginalization, and civil strife. Despite this ahistorical impulse, exceptional ethnography continues to be written on this region. Much of this literature concentrates on cosmology, shamanism, relations of power, and sociocultural change, particularly those transformations associated with environmental issues, struggles over territorial sovereignty, intercultural education, and cultural survival. Of particular note are the studies of Baniwa religion by Wright (see HLAS 59:965), Aikman's comprehensive ethnography of intercultural education among the Arakmbut of Peru (item #bi2004002844#), Conklin's masterful account of Wari' mortuary rites (item #bi2004002837#), and Vaquero Rojo's monograph on Warao spirituality (item #bi2001003360#). Historical accounts, such as García Jordan's pathbreaking portrayal of national incorporation of the lowlands of Bolivia and Peru (1820–40) (item #bi2004002834#), and Garfield's work on the Xavante during the military dictatorship in Brazil (item #bi2001003883#), both demonstrate the critical importance of providing a historical context for understanding the nature and consequences of sociocultural transformations in the region.

Current ethnographic research is shedding new light on a number of long-held assumptions regarding indigenous notions of gender, personhood, political power, material culture, shamanism, and the very nature of Amazonian sociality. McCallum (item #bi2004002828#), Muratorio (see HLAS 59:1144), and Gregor and Tuzin (item #bi2004002831#) are prime examples of the innovative approaches to understanding the gendered aspects of Amazonian sociality. A growing debate over Amazonian indigenous societies is fueled, on one side, by scholars who emphasize the convivial nature of social life and, on the other side, by those who insist that indigenous cultural issues must be historically contextualized in terms of the violence of colonial and postcolonial encounters.

Squeezed by economic aggression, and threatened by dominant groups' intolerance to their distinctive ways of life, many indigenous peoples are now caught in the crossfire between military forces, drug traffickers, rebels, and extractive entrepreneurs seeking a foothold in their territories. This is particularly evident in Western Amazonia, now haunted by the violent shadow of drug traffickers, paramilitaries, armed insurgents (such as the FARC, MRTA, and Sendero Luminoso), and agents of the state. The anthropological imperative is to humanize social suffering. We must not only bear witness, but as critically engaged ethnographers we are compelled to resocialize and de-exoticize violence.

Perhaps as a reactive move to postmodernism and cultural studies' obsession with signs, sounds, and text, often at the expense of paying attention to social suffering and the structural conditions that underpin the violence of poverty and cultural marginalization, the possibilities of practical action and anthropological advocacy are returning to the forefront of a discipline now engaged with issues of "relevance." The growing acknowledgment of group rights, acceptance of the benefits of cultural pluralism, and an increasing recognition of the plight of subaltern peoples has provided the stimulus for the re-imagination of how indigenous peoples are portrayed in both ethnographic and popular accounts. 1

Scholars, such as Hernán Ibarra (item #bi 00004949#), MacDonald (item #bi2001003219#), and the late Andrew Gray (item #bi 98013526#) have all recognized the vital importance of giving indigenous peoples a real voice as formidable stakeholders in determining their own futures and the shape of their cultural survival. [BD]


Ethnological work on lowland Argentina, Bolivia, and Paraguay shows a continued and growing interest in politics, indigenous political participation, and the conflictive relationship of indigenous peoples with the state. The publication of articles on indigenous peoples of Argentina in scholarly journals in English marks the beginning of a growing interest in the subject, as well as the emerging presence of a heretofore practically unexplored area of study. Gordillo and Hirsch organized a panel on indigenous peoples at the 2000 American Anthropological Association meeting. This was the first time a panel was organized on indigenous peoples of Argentina at a North American anthropology conference; the result was a journal issue which gives greater visibility to the research conducted in the area.

The majority of the items reviewed for HLAS 61 are on indigenous peoples of Argentina, perhaps reflecting the greater number of anthropologists conducting research in the country, although it also reflects the difficulty of accessing materials produced in Paraguay and Bolivia. There has been an increase in book publication compared to the numbers published in previous years; this may also reflect a greater interest by publishers and the public in the culture and situation of indigenous peoples.

The process of political mobilization and participation and the growing presence of indigenous organizations are reflected in several works. Hirsch and Gordillo (item #bi2004002592#), Trinchero (item #bi2004002819#), and Carrasco (item #bi2004002847#) examine how the Argentine state developed a discourse, policy, and legislation that attempted to efface indigenous peoples and that only recently has the state changed to give greater agency to indigenous groups. However, these articles and others (items #bi2004002589#, #bi2004002845#, and #bi2004002849#) show how resilient and savvy indigenous peoples are at developing alternative political and religious strategies. Two works on indigenous peoples in Paraguay (items #bi2004002590# and #bi2003005807#) focus on similar issues and examine the government-sponsored discourse of integration and a contradictory policy towards the indigenous population. These works also examine the important presence of the Catholic Church and NGOs as intermediaries and supporters of the indigenous groups.

The publication of ethnographies and brief studies on smaller indigenous groups, such as the Tapiete (items #bi2004002593# and #bi2004002878#) and Nivacle (item #bi2004002879#), is a continuing trend that sheds light on the complex process of change and adaptation of hunter and gathering groups.

The study of shamanism and religion continues to grow, but shows a different turn. Gordillo's work constitutes an important contribution to the theoretical discussion on shamans, political power, resistance and domination. Several works provide detailed descriptions of ritual cycles (item #bi2002006994#) and cosmology (items #bi2004002879# and #bi2002007003#), and seek to provide in-depth data into these areas.

Kinship and gender have long been studied by ethnologists, but are understudied topics for this region. Two works reviewed this biennium do address these topics and provide new and more elaborate data on social structure and kinship systems (items #bi2004002587# and #bi2003005805#).

The books by Tamagno (item #bi2004002818#) and Ros Izquierdo (item #bi2004002586#) explore the process of migration and urbanization and the emergence of different forms of ethnic identity and political organization, and thus reflect a growing area of interest already present in previous HLAS volumes.

The work by Arenas is an outstanding contribution by a botanist to the ethnobotany, ecology, and nutritional knowledge and practices of indigenous peoples (item #bi2004002817#). In spite of this work, there continues to be a dearth of research in the areas of medical anthropology and ecology. [SH]

  1. See, for example: Dean, Bartholomew. "Critical Re-vision: Clastres' Chronicle and the Optic of Primitivism." In The Best of Anthropology Today. Edited by Jonathan Benthall, preface by Marshall Sahlins. London: Routledge, 2002, p. 66–71.

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