Restricted Life and Expanded Death in Amerindian Animism
(University of Roehampton)
Paper short abstract:
This paper examines a strange habit of contemporary ethnographers of Amazonian societies: their tendency to project one of their own deepest convictions – namely, a belief in ‘other living beings’ – on their subjects of inquiry.
Paper long abstract:
In recent years, Amazonian anthropology has established that indigenous notions of humanity share distinctive characteristics. Ethnographers have documented how human bodies are 'made' and how humans are continuously 'fabricated'. In this context, one can never take one's humanity for granted: it always requires a sustained effort. I here suggest that the same argument can be extended to indigenous notions of life. Drawing on my ethnography of the Chachi of the rio Cayapas area in Esmeraldas (Ecuador), I show that life is always conditional. That is, to be considered 'alive' always requires a fairly circumscribed effort; and those who fail to deliver it are mercilessly excluded. For example, Chachi people restrict (or at least used to restrict) the status of 'living being' to those who 'live well' (primarily the Chachi themselves) and to those who partake in a common sphere of commensality and conviviality: essentially their companion animals and cultivated plants in their gardens. This restricted conception of life is coupled with an expanded notion of death. Anybody who fails to 'live well' according to Chachi standards - those clumsy highland Quichua, those annoying Blacks living downstream, those dubious Whites dwelling in cities - are strictly speaking not alive but dead. The same goes for all untamed animals of the forest: monkeys, peccaries and felines must be grasped as 'wild-dead' rather than as wildlife. It is no coincidence that those various 'foreigners' and forest animals play a prominent role at Chachi funerary rites - they are palpable representatives of an expanded realm of death.
Documenting the meanings of life and death in the Americas