Indigenous Theories, Anthropological Ideas: A View from Lowland South America

By Maybury-Lewis, David | Anthropological Quarterly, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview
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Indigenous Theories, Anthropological Ideas: A View from Lowland South America

Maybury-Lewis, David, Anthropological Quarterly


This paper discusses certain themes in the social and cultural anthropology of the indigenous peoples of South America. Although I refer to the historical record in tracing and situating the emergence of these themes, the essay cannot and does not deal comprehensively with the history of lowland South American ethnography, nor does it attempt to survey all the work done there as the century draws to a close. I focus mainly, though not exclusively, on Brazil and discuss the developments in the study of cosmology, social theory, and social organization that have taken place there. I have therefore had to omit discussion of another major theme in the anthropology of Brazil, namely of the work done in the tradition pioneered by Roberto Cardoso de Oliveira on inter-ethnic friction. I also regret that space prevents me from discussing the interesting and more recent developments of studies in the psychology of indigenous peoples, carried out by scholars such as Waud Kracke, Thomas Gregor, and William Crocker. In this paper, I discuss how anthropologists have modified old paradigms and developed new ones in order to understand the cultures of the indigenous peoples of lowland South America.

Early Beginnings

The Spanish invaders of the Americas established themselves in the Caribbean but their attention was soon focused on Mexico and Peru, where they were drawn to the wealth of the Aztec and Inca empires. By comparison, the Atlantic seaboard of South America was disappointing. The Portuguese and others who penetrated the tropical forests along the coast found no El Dorado. They had to contend instead with warlike tribes of sometimes cannibal Indians. The most famous of these were the Tupinambá, who are best known from the account of Hans Staden, a ship's gunner from Hesse, whom they held prisoner for nine months. Staden described his captivity in a book published in 1557 whose title-A True History and Description of a Land of Wild, Naked, Savage, Maneating People as it Happened in the New World of America-gives a graphic indication of how Europeans viewed the native peoples of South America at that time.

Staden's description was, however, much more sober than his title. Considering that he expected to be killed and eaten at any time, the relatively detached objectivity of his account of Tupinambá life and their cannibal feasts was quite remarkable. Nor was he the only one to write of cannibalism with detachment. Jean de Léry, in his History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil (1578), described Tupinambá cannibal feasts in detail, confirming Hans Staden's account and adding further nuances to it, such as the voracious greed of the old women. Both these writers stressed the ritual aspects of Tupinambá cannibalism, recounting how a captured warrior was held for months or even years. He was provided with a wife who might bear him children before the day on which he was led out to his final confrontation. He would then exchange insults with his executioner before they engaged in mock combat, which the executioner invariably won since the prisoner was tethered. Only then would the slain warrior be cooked and eaten, as an act of revenge, and so that the villagers could ingest his heroic essence. Jean de Léry nevertheless concluded that the Tupinambá, in what he took to be their obedience of the laws of nature, produced conditions of life for the average person much better than those obtaining at that time in France. The great French essayist Montaigne reached a similar conclusion in his famous reflection on cannibalism, where he wrote: "We may call them barbarous in respect of reason's rules, but not in respect of us that exceed them in all kinds of barbarism."

Such rational and relativistic attitudes were, however, the exception rather than the rule. Europeans were on the whole horrified by anthropophagy, which they erroneously imputed to most, if not all, of the "naked savages" of the New World.

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