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IUAES 2013: Evolving Humanity, Emerging Worlds. 5-10 August 2013.

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Evolving humanity, emerging worlds

Manchester, UK; 5th-10th August 2013

(LD24)

Documenting the meanings of life and death in the Americas

Location Roscoe 4.3
Date and Start Time 07 Aug, 2013 at 09:00

Convenor

Laura Rival (University of Oxford) email
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Short Abstract

This panel interrogates the attribution of life and death by native peoples in different contexts, including ritual and mythical ones. We are looking for ethnographies that make sense of how native Americans engage with the vitality of nature.

Long Abstract

Our panel proposes to build upon recent discussions on animism, personhood and the meaning of life to interrogate the attribution of life and death in a wide range of social and cultural contexts. Much recent ethnography illustrates the creativity and agency of the other-than-human world, the rich communication between human and other-than-human social persons, and the limits of extending personhood as a category of human-like subjectivity to non-humans.

Recent scholarship gives us a good understanding of which objects, animals or plants acquire human-like qualities - and when; what the relationships between humans and non-humans consist of; and what trans-specific humanity actually means. However, we know little about what life qualities humans share with non-humans, or what images, techniques or experiences are mobilized to express culturally what organic life is all about. We know that indigenous peoples tend to apprehend life as birth, but what about conceptions of death as a process that regenerates life? How are concepts of life, death, and animation related? Which practical actions (cooking, weaving, etc) best describe the workings of vital processes? Can things be alive? Is loss part of life? Is matter lifeless? Is the earth thought about as a living organism? Can there be life or death without transformation? How does biological life relate to human life? Is human wellbeing in any way connected to nature's ecological functions?

We invite presentations that tackle at least one of these questions through detailed ethnographies of Amazonians, AfroAmericans, campesinos, and other native peoples of the Americas.

Chair: Cecilia McCallum
Discussant: Laura M Rival

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

The spilling of blood: documenting concepts of revitalization in cycles of life and death in the Andes

Author: Penelope Dransart (University of Wales)  email
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Short Abstract

People make libations of camelid blood in highland Andean communities to revitalize life qualities in persons, herd animals and other entities. The paper addresses the connections of such activities with life processes and the dynamics of political power in cycles of life, death and revitalization.

Long Abstract

Brightly coloured oxygenated blood circulating through a living organism is a sign of life, but the spilling of dark blood can signal wounding or death. In highland Andean communities people make libations of llama, alpaca or sheep blood and other liquids with the purpose of revitalizing life qualities in persons, herd animals and other entities. Andean countries have suffered national crises in which the state has, in recent times, failed to protect its people. This paper, written from my perspective of having conducted fieldwork with herders from Isluga, northern Chile, reviews ethnographic studies of rural Andean agrarian and pastoralist communities, mainly in Peru and Chile, in the context of local people's practical actions in making libations. It addresses how these ritual activities are connected with life processes and trajectories of political power in cycles of life, death and revitalization. The symbolic meanings to be explored include the importance of breath and the infusion of life-giving oxygen.

The Concepts of Ayni and Yanantin Through the Lenses of the Andean Funeral Practices.

Author: Anastasiya Travina (University of Texas at Austin)  email
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Short Abstract

The paper analyzes the perception of death as reflected in the reciprocal and dualistic concepts of yanantin and ayni.

Long Abstract

A dualistic worldview is a prevalent cognitive pattern in contemporary and ancient Andean communities and can be found in their ceremonies, tales, rituals, and narrative stories. Traces of dualism and binary opposition can also be found in the social structure and spatial organization of these communities; especially in the pre-colonial Inka Empire. The cosmological concept of complementary duality, suggested by the unity of two opposed entities known as yanantin, evinces the notions of reciprocity and dualism prevalent in contemporary Andean communities. The paper analyzes the perception of death as reflected in the reciprocal concepts of yanantin and ayni. During the process of coping with grief and loss, the communities perform mourning songs and libations and thus establish the interaction between the ancestral world of the dead and the present life of the communities. Using ethnographic data and historical analysis, this paper explores the binary and cyclical nature of death in the Andean indigenous communities as reflected in their mythology, cosmology, and, particularly, funeral, burial and mourning practices.

Dogs, guilt and death in Apiao, Chiloé

Author: Giovanna Bacchiddu (Pontificia Universidad Catolica, Chile)  email
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Short Abstract

This paper explores attitudes towards death, guilt and social conflict through the experience of people and their guilty dogs. People’s attitude towards the death of animals is described, drawing on cases of killer dogs that had to be executed by their owners to prevent them from doing further damage.

Long Abstract

This paper is based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Apiao, a small island of the Chiloé archipelago, southern Chile and is devoted to the peculiar relationship between Apiao people and their dogs. Amongst all the animals that are part of everyday life, dogs cover an important role in household life and daily routine, and epitomise the perfect guardians as well as the indispensable companions on dangerous night trips. They are seen as in-between creatures, and occupy a privileged position within the household bestiary. On some occasions, however, dogs allow their beastly nature to overcome the quasi-human aspect of their kind, becoming anti-social beings, verging on the monstrous. The paper addresses issues of death and guilt in relation to people and their animals, and shows how the social nature of dogs ceases when anti-social behaviour produces the impossibility of negotiation. While relationships between fellow islanders are articulated through constant negotiation, guilty dogs represent the possibility of a society where negotiation is impossible, allowing hierarchy to momentarily take the place of egalitarianism.

Social visibility in the cemeteries of Mexico City: Photography and material culture of the dead

Author: Marcel Reyes-Cortez (Goldsmiths)  email
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Short Abstract

My research findings explores the array of complex levels of sociability found in the cemeteries of Mexico City. The spaces of the dead such as cemeteries are at times regarded as non-social spaces due to a believed negligible amount of daily social interaction and activity between the living, the dead and the ánima (spirit/soul). My paper argues that the spaces of the dead, like the cemeteries of Álvaro Obregón are clear examples of active social, spiritual and visual spaces in which the dead and their ánimas are daily socialised and memoralised through a combination of contemporary funerary practices and material culture.

Long Abstract

My research findings explores the array of complex levels of sociability found in the cemeteries of Mexico City. The spaces of the dead such as cemeteries are at times regarded as non-social spaces due to a believed negligible amount of daily social interaction and activity between the living, the dead and the ánima (spirit/soul). My paper argues that the spaces of the dead, like the cemeteries of Álvaro Obregón are clear examples of active social, spiritual and visual spaces in which the dead and their ánimas are daily socialised and memoralised through a combination of contemporary funerary practices and material culture.

My paper analyses the phenomenon, socio-cultural and political conditions of the dead in the private and public spaces dedicated to host them by the use of visual and sensorial methods, analysis and practice of photography in collaboration with other more established ethnographic research methods. Including the investigation of life histories of the people who visit and work in the cemetery in order to explore why communities in México City have embraced and transferred agency to material objects and photography in order to bond with their dead. Digging deeper into why the wide spread embrace of material culture is playing a greater role in the contemporary rituals dedicated to the dead in the cemeteries of a megalopolis.

Nature of the Wayana Maraké Ritual: Death as Transformative Process of Life

Author: Renzo Duin (Leiden University)  email
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Short Abstract

Meaning of life and death in the Eastern Guiana Highlands becomes foregrounded during the maraké ritual, commonly understood as initiation ritual. By means of differences and similarities between this ritual in myth and contemporary Wayana rituals, the nature of the maraké is critically assessed.

Long Abstract

In the Eastern Guiana Highlands (Brazil, Suriname, and French Guiana), the indigenous Wayana people habitually practice a ritual known as maraké (ëputop in Wayana), which is generally interpreted as an initiation ritual for adolescent boys to become marriageable adults. Tradition and transformation of the maraké ritual, an element of evolving humanity, will be discussed by means of the body of myths and oral histories in conjunction with the recent maraké ritual performed in 2004, in the Upper Maroni Basin. Myths provide a foundation to conceptualize the indigenous Wayana perspective regarding the life qualities humans share with non-humans, transformative processes of life and death, along with general conceptualizations of the vitality of nature. Central in the myth of the Creator twins, who instigated the first maraké ritual, is that death is the necessary transformative process to generate life. Regarding the Wayana region as an emerging world, I will critically assess the nature of this assumed "initiation ritual," whereby emphasizing the role of precious feather headdresses imbued with what I call "ancestral agency." In this sense, feather headdresses and related regalia are not lifeless objects, but instead have their proper object biographies of extended personhood. Rethinking myth and history is grounded in the differences and similarities between the mythical ritual of the Creator twins and the contemporary Wayana maraké ritual which keep the heritage alive.

Restricted Life and Expanded Death in Amerindian Animism

Author: Istvan Praet (University of Roehampton)  email
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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.

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.

The angry earth: Ashaninka relations with Aipatsite in times of war and extractivist industries (Peruvian Amazonia)

Author: Juan Pablo Sarmiento Barletti (Durham University)  email
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Short Abstract

Building on notions of the agential and transformative qualities of land in the literature on indigenous Amazonia, this paper posits that some of these groups see land as a living entity but also see a parallel between land and themselves as moral agents whose memory is inscribed in their bodies.

Long Abstract

The literature on indigenous Amazonia highlights that places and landscapes, like bodies, are transformable and filled with agency. This paper expands on the agential and relational aspects of land, focusing on how some indigenous Amazonians posit it has memory and a high sense of morality. This is especially important in today's context of extractive practices and increased indigenous interest in economic activities which require a more intensive use of the environment.

My work amongst Ashaninka people offers a different view into the agency and memory of land. I will show how Ashaninka understanding of the current scarcity of fish and game and the diminished productivity of their gardens is grounded on aipatsite's ('our land/territory/earth') capacity as a moral and memorious agent whose emotions have been affected by the extreme violence of the Peruvian internal war (1980-2000) and of extractivist industries.

I propose that not only do Ashaninka people see aipatsite as a living entity they must interact with in socially productive ways, but that they see a parallel between it and themselves as moral agents whose memory is inscribed in their bodies. Just like the antisocial behavior of many Ashaninka people in the wake of the war is understood to be fuelled by anger felt from them 'not being able to forget violence', scarcity is understood as evidence of aipatsite's anger due to this continuous violence. Thus, people and aipatsite must be reminded of the positive pre-war social relationships in order to eradicate the memory of violence from their bodies.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Sponsors

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