Accepted Paper:

The shifting ground of illness and healing in northern Peru  


Marieka Sax

Paper short abstract:

The treatment of illness in an Andean district accommodates aetiological uncertainty with multiple healing practices (biomedicine, herbalism, shamanism). The experience of illness and healing is grounded in cultural presuppositions that do not always correspond to people's stated or conscious belief

Paper long abstract:

Healing in CaƱaris (northern Peruvian Andes) is sought from a variety of local and non-local specialists who represent distinct traditions (biomedicine, herbalism, shamanism). This system of healing assumes that an illness is curable only by methods specific to that illness, since this method responds to a distinct cause (inanimate factors, non-personified and personified agents). However, it is not simply a matter of some conditions being treatable by ritual healers and others by biomedicine, because at the outset it is unknown to both observers and the afflicted person what has "really" caused the illness; this can only be known when the illness has been cured. The local healing system accommodates this uncertainty, and in practice various curative approaches will be tried until one is found to be effective.

Nevertheless, there are certain illnesses that are specific to each method of treatment. The most intractable, serious, and life-threatening conditions which respond to neither herbalism nor biomedicine can only be cured by shamanic specialists called maestro curanderos. Most people will deny for various reasons believing in this form of healing (curanderismo), yet many later admit that it cured a condition that did not respond to other forms of treatment. Their reported experience has a corporeal affect that is not necessarily tied to their stated belief. To experience curanderismo as healing implicates the existence and efficacy of the place-based powers to which both the cause and cure of illness are ultimately attributed - and by extension a world in which certain places and things can have agency, subjectivity, knowledge, and affect. I address this shifting ontological ground in the two-fold relation between multiple healing practices that respond to distinct aetiologies, and the coexistence of and tension between contradictory existential principles implicated in these causal factors and methods of healing.

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Shifting ontologies and contingent agencies