Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Making Kin out of Others in Amazonia

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Making Kin out of Others in Amazonia

Article excerpt

...[la naissance] n'est pas la simple addition d'individu supplementaraire telle ou telle famille, mais une cause de desequilibre entre le monde des hommes et l'univers de puissances invisibles ...

(Clastres 1972: 12)

During the same period in which anthropology debated the relationship between the 'biological facts' of reproduction and the socially recognized ties of kinship through the works of Durkheim, Malinowski, Rivers, and later Radcliffe-Brown (an enduring dichotomy according to Schneider 1984: 193), Levy-Bruhl -- exploring the phenomenon of primitive participation -- noted with some surprise that in the most varied ethnographic regions, procreation was no assurance of kinship with the child. This was not because paternity -- or even maternity -- could not be recognized, an important issue in theoretical discussions at the time, but because the child born to a woman could still be reckoned to be non-human: the child of an animal. Levy-Bruhl was not referring to mythic episodes in which such cases were abundant, but to the facts of quotidian life: 'The idea that a child of normal appearance may nevertheless not be "human" is a familiar one to the primitives' (Levy-Bruhl 1966 [1927]: 42).

One of the examples which Levy-Bruhl uses to illustrate his point is quoted from a 1924 issue of the Journal of the African Society:

In Northern Nigeria, 'when a child gets to the age of three or four without being able to walk, and keeps thin in spite of a large appetite, the case is considered a very serious one. The parents bring the child to the priest and consult him. He examines the child, and may inform the parents that it is not "human," but the "offspring of something in the bush or in the water." If the offspring of something in the bush is indicated, the parents give the child to a friend to carry to the bush: he does so, leaves the child and hides to see what happens. The child left to himself will first cry and then, after looking round and seeing that no one is about, will change into a monkey and vanish among the trees' (Levy-Bruhl 1966 [1927]: 45).

Looking back at this period, we find ourselves face to face with two sets of phenomena or objects of study: first, kinship, pertaining to the sphere of human relations, or more specifically to relations within the same ethnic group; and, secondly, data on cosmology and religion, where different domains peopled by humans and non-humans are set in relationship. Despite referring explicitly to the native concept of filiation, the case reported by Levy-Bruhl was not correlated with the facts of kinship. (1) Faced with the same phenomena today, we may observe that anthropologists working directly on kinship still fail to connect these two sets of data.

At the core of anthropology from its inception, kinship studies underwent a kind of ostracism in the 1970s, especially after the critiques of Needham (1971a; 1971b) and Schneider (1965; 1972) threw into question the relevance of kinship as an area to be studied. In the 1990s, however, kinship surfaced again, only now with a different range of interests. Instead of terminologies and marriage rules, analysis focused on native conceptions of bodies and gender -- themes derived from a feminist agenda; instead of the concern with the relationship between the biological and the social, authors aimed to show the complexity of the 'biological'. The emphasis was thus on native notions of body and consubstantiality; rather than being seen as natural givens, these came to be understood as products of society and culture. Consubstantiality, located in this new body, was no longer a relation determined by birth, but a condition being continuously produced through acts of sharing, particularly of foods (Carsten 1995; Rival 1998) and mutual care (McCallum 1998; Overing & Passes 2000).

In her introduction to a recent collection of articles on notions of kinship (now termed 'relatedness' (2)) in different areas of the world, Carsten (2000) claims that an important shift differentiating old and new studies lies in the privilege given by the latter to the domestic sphere (understood as relationships of caring and food sharing between people living in close proximity on a day-to-day basis). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.