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Volume 63 / Social Sciences

ANTHROPOLOGY: ETHNOLOGY: South America: Lowlands

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
SILVIA MARÍA HIRSCH, Researcher, Instituto de Lingüistica, Universdidad de Buenos Aires, Argentina

IN LOWLAND SOUTH AMERICA friction and pressures are evident among local communities that face challenges associated with the unstable processes of globalization, as shown in the transformations in household organization, patterns of sharing, and subsistence. Within the context of historical processes, such as the fertility transition (item #bi2007004991#), the impact of labor migration (item #bi2007004945#), and increased access and integration into translocal and international markets (items #bi2005002602#, #bi2007004929#, #bi2007004930#, and #bi2007004943#), studies have indicated mixed results in terms of ecological conservation efforts and community well being. Exclusion of essential contributions to the field is sadly unavoidable in a selected annotation of works, which can never capture the prolific literature covering so many divergent lines of inquiry that ostensibly come under the rubric of the "ethnology of Lowland South America." Caveats aside, a number of prominent themes do emerge in reviewing some of the recent scholarly contributions to the field. Many noteworthy works include contributions to the long-standing concern with the astoundingly complex connection between people and the socialization of plants and creatures in a region that, as some commentators note (item #bi2002004295#), functions in various occidental social imaginaries as iconic of "nature" itself.

Serious ethnobotanical research on topics as varied as manioc cultivation (item #bi2007004933#), the long-distance gene flow of peach palms (item #bi2007004989#) and the evaluation of household production and consumption in multiple sociocultural contexts (item #bi2007004941#), support the notion of the anthropogenic character of the tropical forests and river ways that pulse through this vast geographical area of South America. From the vantage point of community "sustainable" development, study of the economic reliance on some plants—such as chambira palm—calls into question the utility of "rain forest conservation-through-use" (item #bi2007004992#). Meanwhile, illicit production of prohibited plants—such as coca—continues to wreak havoc in many regions of Amazonia, particularly Colombia (item #bi2007004993#), Peru, and Bolivia, where efforts to eradicate or replace this crop have meet with limited if no real success, but rather further violence and growing social inequity.

Many of the selections listed in this section represent robust scholarship on the cosmological and ritual life of native peoples of Lowland South America. Nuanced accounts of phenomena as varied as "dark shamanism" and other types of symbolic assault, sorcery, the cultural significance of the dreams of dogs, food, animism, perspectival imagery, the social lives of nonhuman creatures, dualism, and ritual-making efforts—to mention only some of the topics recently covered—provide us with a corpus of materials pointing to a renaissance in the study of indigenous Lowland South American ontologies. Prominent monographs in this vein include Irving Goldman's work (item #bi2007004934#), Neil Whitehead and Robin Wright's collection (item #bi2007004938#), and Laura Rival's (item #bi2007005002#) tour-de-force contributions to our understanding of the micropolitics of religious life, mythology, and social organization in Lowland South America. Likewise, Michael Heckenber's masterful text represents an important cultural history of Brazilian Xinguano communities over time, and provides insight into their constructs of the body and notions of personhood (item #bi2005000042#).

Research has responded to determining how people have navigated the space between indigeneity and "acculturated" regional or national social identities. Underscoring the fruitful relationship between ethnology and practical questions facing local peoples, scholarship continues to illuminate the social import of various linguistic processes, speech practices, and modes of discourse (item #bi2007004925#), as varied as ritual wailing in Brazil and narratives of infanticide in Venezuela. Research has demonstrated how language ideology and discursive depictions of key cultural tropes shape the actual fabric of social life. To wit, discussion of "traditional" plant-based medicinal knowledge reflects misgivings about biomedicine and the failures of modernity and state-driven development in Amazonia (item #bi2007004996#).

Customary ethnographic concern with social organization, such as Allan Johnson's ethnography of the "family level" among the Matsigenka of Peru (item #bi2006000999#), attention to linguistic diversity, and the baroquely variegated spiritual lives of the native peoples of Lowland South America is paralleled with an ever burgeoning body of literature devoted to assessing indigenous peoples, formal leadership structures, native allies' efforts at political mobilization for cultural autonomy, as is amply demonstrated in the research on Ecuador, pan-ethnic federations, and the politics of petroleum and native communities (item #bi2007004988#). The contemporary 21st century concern with "eco-ethno-politics" is foreshadowed by the publication in English of Stefano Varese' now classic work on the Ashanínka of the Gran Pajonal of eastern Peru who (item #bi2007004937#), along with myriad other indigenous societies, have weathered centuries of unforgiving colonial affronts. Authors have raised consequential questions throughout the region that probe the politics of indigenous representation and cultural performance. From the Xavante's concern with public "image" and "existential recognition" in Brazil and beyond (item #bi2007004931#), to the hybrid forms of political legitimacy among the Ye'kwana of Venezuela (item #bi2007004940#), and localized concepts of authority among the Kayabi of the Brazilian Amazonian (item #bi2006000994#), these works recognize the extent to which indigenous cultural pluralism, authenticity, and claims to the right for cultural difference are intertwined. Critical to these studies is the role of the display of ethnic identities "internally" and "eternally" to outside actors—anthropologists, NGOs, missionaries, extractive entrepreneurs and state agents. Ramos' analysis of how indigenist discourse mirrors the ambivalence of nation-state policies towards their indigenous peoples, who on the one hand are seen as the authentic pillars of tribal wisdom, while on the other hand are deemed barriers to national development, is emblematic of the ambiguity underwriting the contradictory nature of Lowland South American State policy when it comes to accepting cultural pluralism in the region (item #bi2004003098#).

Practical issues have been matched with concern over the ethical tensions of anthropological research among indigenous peoples, as epitomized by the Yanomami controversy (item #bi2007003370#), which serves as a poignant reminder to those conducting research among indigenous peoples to take seriously their concrete and at times conflicting interests, a point revealed in the study of the polemics of "ethnodevelopment" initiatives (item #bi2005002602#). Yet, not all anthropological research in the region is embedded in questions of radical alterity (items #bi2005004513# and #bi2004003099#) as shown by those studies exploring Amazonian peasantries, and diverse urban hybrid social identities. Notwithstanding this observation, as well as trends exacerbating class diversification, and the de-territorialization of culture, struggles over indigenous territorial sovereignty—including contested rights to ancestral land—remain a central concern of scholarly inquiry. Comparative study of indigenous peoples' rights to customary territories reflects a difference between official policy declarations and the practical realities of indigenous legal claims to their lands. Territoriality has rightfully been coupled with study of the diversity of subsistence patterns (item #bi2007004927#), innovative technological efforts at mapping lands (item #bi2007004948#), and vital policy considerations at the very heart of native cultural survival in Lowland South America. [BD]


The entries reviewed in this section represent several changes in ongoing research in the ethnology of Lowland Argentina, Bolivia, and Paraguay. Most of the studies are based on ethnographic research conducted on specific groups. As in previous years, the Chaco region of Argentina remains the most researched area, and where the majority of works are produced. This is the result of the presence of many new scholars conducing fieldwork in the area. The approaches and themes are diverse, but these ranges from religion, and music to ethnoscience.

Constraints of space have limited the annotation of contributions in edited volumes in particular those that are based on conferences. In 2005, Combès organized a conference in Bolivia, which grouped a variety of scholars to discuss from diverse perspectives, the construction of ethnic identities and ethnic boundaries among indigenous groups of the Chaco and Chiquitania regions. The publication of a volume (item #bi2007002240#) based on the conference is part of the ongoing debate on the political and anthropological dimensions of ethnonyms, self-definition of indigenous peoples and their labeling and classification by others. Contributions in this volume question the predominant view held by many scholars who insist in the classification of indigenous peoples by language, while down playing the cultural differences of peoples who speak related languages.

The trend towards in-depth ethnohistorical work is reflected in the book by Combès (item #bi2007000706#), based on extensive archival and field research, oral history, and careful analysis of documents, this contribution examines the history and political organization of the Isoseño in Bolivia, and questions the diverse forms of ethnic naming, and the influence of the process of the politics of ethnicity held by indigenous organizations.

While in Amazonia, studies of personhood and the body have been frequently published; such is not the case in other parts of Lowland South America. In this field, Tola (item #bi2007002241#), Palmer (item #bi2007000579#) and Siffredi (item #bi2007002301#) contribute to an understudied area while addressing the cultural construction of personhood and self from an ethnographically rich perspective.

A field, which continues to grow, is the study of ethnoscience. Ethnobotanists and ethnoastronomers (items #bi2007002245# and #bi2007002243#) have published data on the ecological domains of native people and contribute to the research on native knowledge of the environment.

Works in the study of religion, ritual, and cosmology (items #bi2007002242# and #bi2005002956#) represent an intensification of themes that were always present, but with significant theoretical grounding. These works examine the process of religious conversion and ritual from a historical perspective, focusing on the transformation of native religions and resignification of evangelical beliefs and practices.

It is noteworthy to mention the publication of studies in the area of music, dance, and performance. For example, one work emphasizes the study of dances and performances and the links to social identity (item #bi2007000580#).

A significant book length contribution is Gordillo's study of memory and space among the Toba (item #bi2006001426#). This work focuses on how memories of places are constituted by the experiences of state violence, labor exploitation, missionization, shamanism, and cultural resilience.

Indigenous peoples throughout the region have always been subject to state and nonstate development projects and policies with complicated outcomes. Several publications (items #bi2007002248# and #bi2007002300#) show a continued trend that explore national level processes and analyze the role of the state and development agencies, and the impact of policies and projects on leadership structure and communal life. These, in turn, portray the state's recognition of the rights and needs of indigenous peoples, but also the ambiguous political practices and discourses to address their demands. [SH]

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