Monthly Archives: March 2016

Warfare and Shamanism in Amazonia

In Carlos Fausto’s book Warfare and Shamanism in Amazonia, the author attempts to form an ethnography of the Parakaña, a Tupi-Guarini speaking, indigenous people who occupy eastern Amazonia, amid the Xingu and Tocantins rivers. Located in Pará, Brazil, the book examines the generations of the Parakaña, which split in the late 19th century, only to descend into a form of warfare that has lasted through the late 20th century.

An Associate Professor of Anthropology at the Museum Nacional, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janerio, Carlos Fausto has performed fieldwork amid the indigenous people of Amazonia since 1988. Published in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Current Anthropology, American Ethnologist, Religion and Society, Science, Mana, L’Homme, Gradhiva, and Journal de la Société des Américanistes, Fausto has also co-edited Time and Memory in Indegenous Amazonia with Michael Heckenberger and directed documentaries in partnership with the Kuikuro peoples.

Divided into seven chapters, Warfare and Shamanism in Amazonia, discusses the rapidly changing history of the Parakaña in the first three chapters, before moving onto the cultural schism and the impacts that has on their society, in the following three, ultimately finishing with an exploration of comparative mythologies and conclusion. Interestingly for a book that appears at first glance to be written about warfare and shamanism, the former only occupies a third of the book and the latter simply does not exist according to Fausto, as the role is more temporally inferred rather than physically practiced. What the book does offer is a diverse interpretation of a culture that is almost unique within the various Amazonian peoples.

Fausto first examines the cause of split which formed the Parakaña into two distinct social groups. It is his interpretation that the continued complications caused through the raiding of women ultimately resulted in a social schism. These groups, the eastern being more sedentary and defensive, and the western being more mobile and aggressive, transformed from what was once a more complex society to more individual, simplistic lifestyles. Explored in depth in the first two chapters, Fausto establishes his ethnographic timeline with the measured hand of a historian, setting down a very clear picture of the cause and effect of this social duality.

In the third chapter, Fausto grapples with this concept of social duality and the unique dichotomies that it ultimately forms. It is clear from his writing that many of our own Western concepts of the individual and their place in society and the world around them are foreign to Amazonian culture, and the very same duality that was created by this split was just as likely influenced by their interpretation of their own social morphology. However it is chapters four to six which focus on the warfare aspect of this society, and the concepts of “familiarising predation” and “productive consumption,” which becomes the central theme of the analysis. In short, the Parakaña identify themselves by how they act as predators towards others and in turn consume them, be that as aggressor or victim.

In the seventh and final chapter, Fausto makes an attempt at broaching the theme of similarities perceived of whites and the supernatural. To the Parakaña, whites possessed a superior shamanic knowledge, and as such they thought it better to attempt to know and understand them, as they were perceived to be noteworthy opponents. However, rather than take his analysis further, Fausto enters into a debate comparable mythologies, attempting to form an analogy for this society rather than explaining it within the context of its own depth. While it can be argued that there is a place for this, I feel it ultimately loses the power of the argument he was originally attempting to make and reduces the complexity of the overall ethnography that has been presented.

Fausto combines ethnographies, historical accounts as well as structural and social anthropological theories to take on a new approach to interpreting the complex Parakaña culture. By examining all facets of the Parakaña society, Fausto attempts to make a significant contribution to the study and understanding of indigenous peoples in Amazonia, however from an archaeological point of view, Fausto’s work illustrates an analogy that could be applied to the study of early plant cultivation. What is also clear, as a result of the split in the Parakaña society, is that once domestication has begun in favour of a more mobile, hunter gatherer lifestyle, it is not improbable or even impossible for a society to revert back at some stage in their development. This makes an otherwise difficult read more palatable to the archaeological mind.

Ultimately the work set forth by Fausto looks at this relationship between familiarising predation and war as consumption. Interestingly this theme of predation appears to be central to Amazonian beliefs. In Perspectivism in Amazonia and Elsewhere, Castro states, “animals (predators) and spirits, however, see humans as animals (as prey), to the same extent that animals (as prey) see humans as spirits or as animals (predators). By the same token, animals and spirits see themselves as humans: they perceive themselves as (or become) anthropomorphic beings when they are in their own houses or villages and they experience their own habits and characteristics in the form of (Castro 1998, 470).” This creates cross-perspectives across a wide range of sensory aspects which make this concept tangible to the Amazonian peoples (Castro 1998). However the Parakaña concept of familiarised predation encompassing the notion of war as productive consumption, articulates a link not seen in the aforementioned description. A mutable form of kinship exists between the two groups of the Parakaña that creates its own dichotomy and schism with the ideological constructs within which they live.

Fausto sees this as a means of acquisition, where the mode of warfare is not one of maximum kill ratios as you would find in modern warfare models, but instead one whereby you “extract a surplus value from a single death (Fausto 2001, 180).” In this sense, warriors desire to limit deaths, rather than massacre, thus rendering the dead “substrates for the fabrication of persons (Fausto 2001, 180).” Through their deaths, the enemy “produces bodies, names, identities and virtualities of existence,” therefore allowing for a creative procurement of an individual enemy’s history (Fausto 2001, 177).” Fausto admits that there are still many unanswered questions on this concept of familiarising predation, particularly in relation to “how these mechanisms for absorbing persons and symbols are distinguished,” and “what place the movement of familiarising predations occupies in the reproduction of such systems (Fausto 2001, 304).” Unfortunately this leaves the reader, much like Fausto himself, with no sure answers to his own questions. Whether as a result of not taking the research deep enough, or leaving himself open to further research at a later time, this theoretical oversight ultimately costs the ethnography dearly in justify the challenging read of what could have been a complex and enlightening study.

While it cannot be denied that the inherent strength of this ethnography is in the approach Fausto took to write it. Combining a socio-historical and cultural methodology in formulating his ethnography, he creates a powerful image of who and what the Parakaña people are. Unfortunately after making such a strong opening statement in the first six chapters, Fausto’s reliance on mythology as analogy loses much of the strength behind his research and ultimately costs him his own argument in the form of many unanswered questions. Additionally Fausto’s reliance upon overly-verbose sociological terminology, coupled with the unnecessary creation of his own vocabulary to explain his theories later in the book, further detracts from the overall message. It leaves the reader to wonder if it was used merely as a prop to favourably argue his point, rather than make it as clear and engaging as the first two chapters, or to simply mask the inconsistencies of his research in anthropological rhetoric. Taken as the latter, it makes Fausto’s theoretical constructs, thoughts and concepts seem almost unoriginal and lacking.

I cannot fault the presentation of Fausto’s work. From the chapter construction to the illustrations and photography used throughout, the ethnography is formed into a clear and logical framework. However as discussed above, despite how well the ethnography may be framed, Fausto’s inability to stay focused towards the end ultimately cancels out the logic underpinning it. It makes the reader feel as though it is somehow incomplete and awaiting a further few chapters to draw a clear and concise end to the entire mass of research, rather than posing many of the questions that the reader is left with in the form of its conclusion. While Fausto set out to create something compelling, he ultimately finished with a challenge to himself and other ethnographers, in the clear understanding that there was still much work to be done.

As the reader I initially found this a challenging read, not due to an inability to engage with ethnographies or even a lack of understanding of the material, but due to the obtuse nature of the ethnography as written. I found myself reading and re-reading key aspects of the book, as it started off in the first few chapters being quite easy to follow but somehow lost its flow and focus as it neared its completion. It was almost as if it were lacking the sum of all its parts. Perhaps this is inherent to the subject matter, or due to a lack of enough original research on the part of Fausto himself, but the concise establishment of the Parakaña history suggests otherwise. It is almost as if Fausto began to second guess himself, and ultimately formed a piecemeal deconstruction of his argument that rendered it inert and asking for more questions to be answered through a lack of conviction.

While this is not necessarily a common trope amongst anthropological ethnographies, there does seem to be enough of a reoccurring theme throughout the readings used over the space of the course that does make me wonder that if by attempting so strongly to remove bias in interpretation, the ethnographers are losing sight of their own goals. Perhaps it would be healthier to accept that no matter how entrenched you may be within a particular society or culture, short of abject brain-washing, it is impossible to examine these cultures objectively. It can be quite liberating to throw off self-imposed shackles and tackle a theoretical construct without the pre-conceived notions that you must be doing it wrong in the first place. If you can rationalise the very notion that it is acceptable to acknowledge the dangers of infusing your research with your own biases, it can be therefore easier to identify and deal with them when they arise in your writing. This is an issue central to all theoretical study, not simply anthropology. Archaeology, for instance, is equally guilty in its application of theory, far too often taking an almost dogmatic approach to something that should merely be interacted with as an informative toolset. This toolset should be approached like any number of implements we utilise in the field, existing to be applied to our methodologies and interpretations, so that we might look beyond the standard line of thought, take those elements which work within your context and integrate them to achieve the desired result.

Despite this, when taken against the backdrop of the Introduction to Social Anthropology course, I believe it would be a useful addition to the discussion on People, Animals and their Environments, as it engages with many of the themes discussed in that topic, but perhaps gives an alternate view not clearly expressed by the existing material. This is particularly true of the Casto reading, which directly relates to the material in Fausto’s ethnography and yet illustrates the diversity of the Amazonian peoples despite what similarities they might inherently be perceived to have. By contrasting these two sources, it would become possible to illustrate just how easy it is for social dichotomies to form in a way that both anthropologists as well as archaeologists could engage with. The only issue I can foresee here is the length of the text. Perhaps focusing on a chapter or two in this context would best serve the structure of the course, however as a subject of a book review, it is a perfectly acceptable book and certainly belongs on the reading list.

References

 

 

Cosmological Deixis and Amerindian PerspectivismAuthor(s): Eduardo Viveiros de CastroSource: The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. 4, No. 3 (Sep., 1998), pp. 469-488

Fausto, C. 2012. Warfare and Shamanism in Amazonia. Cambridge University Press.

 

 

 

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