Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Manioc Beer and Meat: Value, Reproduction and Cosmic Substance among the Napo Runa of the Ecuadorian Amazon

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Manioc Beer and Meat: Value, Reproduction and Cosmic Substance among the Napo Runa of the Ecuadorian Amazon

Article excerpt

Questions of value

One afternoon during the initial months of my fieldwork in Ecuador's Amazonian region, I was helping to clear a garden with some Napo Runa men. After we had been working for some time, a woman came up to us with a large pot full of liquid and invited us to drink. The men kept working and waited until she insisted once again. Everyone stopped and waited for her to dip a bowl into the pot to serve the milky-white substance. One man was served. After the first bowl was finished, she then asked the same man to down another bowl. The process was repeated for each person. When it was my turn she said to me in an unemphatic tone, 'Upi, cai asuara, asua Runa causaimi', which means 'Drink this manioc beer, manioc beer is the life of Runa people'. Feeling an intense thirst, I drank down the contents without hesitation. The drink tasted fruity, and had the notable bite of fermentation. The woman, smiling at the look of satisfaction on my face, served the second bowl, and said, 'You see, now you will be able to continue working. Manioc beer gives you strength'.

It was through this experience, and many others like it thereafter, that I slowly began to learn about the significance of asua (manioc beer) among the Napo Runa. Asua not only quenches one's thirst, but also produces desirable intersubjective outcomes of conviviality and happiness (kushi). Furthermore, people identify asua with positive physical effects (like strength) and Napo Runa culture in general, as can be seen from the story recounted above. I have spent a long time thinking about how to write about asua. After reading Gow's (1989) analysis of desire in Amazonia, I began to think more seriously about the rich symbolic and social meanings of asua in Napo Runa society. Years of considering Gow's arguments allowed me see that asua, and its relationship to meat and hunting, involved complex questions about desire. I came to see that asua was at the centre of the ways in which Runa people organize and enact reproduction, which I define as the dialectical relationship between the 'self-replacement of both things and people' (Gregory 1982: 29; Lorrain 2000; Marx 1972; 1977; Weiner 1992). In this article I do not simply apply Gow's concepts, however. My aim is to enrich and supplement his approach by connecting his insights with those of anthropologists concerned with theories of value; apart from the work of Turner (1985; 1995; 1996), this theoretical perspective has not been extensively deployed by Amazonia specialists. (1)

Value is a term of common usage and people mean many things by it. In academic literature, the term is widely used in ways that reflect its popular use to refer to a modern individual's personal beliefs or political opinions, as for example in the use of such phrases as 'family values'. Value theory, however, is something quite different, as Graeber (2001) has demonstrated. From the work of the field's most influential value theorists (Damon 1980; 1983; 1990; 2002a; 2002b; Dumont 1977; 1980; 1982; Graeber 2001; Gregory 1997; Munn 1986; Strathern 1988; Turner 1985; 1995; 1996), I would offer a working definition of value from the anthropological perspective in the following terms: a cultural system of human productive action by which people relate to one another socially and intersubjectively. (2) While this definition is a useful start, I must stress that value becomes a 'murky concept' if divorced from 'productive purposes and cycles' (Damon 2002a: 239). Furthermore, as formalized aspects of cultural orders, value systems are the means by which people rank certain aspects of cultural practice and expression over others (Damon 2002a: 240-1; 2002b). In this sense, value is a perspective deriving from the totality of reproduction, the configurations by which society reproduces itself through the co-ordination of parts and wholes (Damon 2002b: 116-17; Gregory 1982; Marx 1972; 1977; Turner 1985; 1996).

Having defined value, I need to say a few words about my method. …

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