Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

The Bones Affair: Indigenous Knowledge Practices in Contact Situations Seen from an Amazonian Case

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

The Bones Affair: Indigenous Knowledge Practices in Contact Situations Seen from an Amazonian Case

Article excerpt

Lavoisier's method was not to read and pray, but to dream that some long and complicated chemical process would have a certain effect, to put into practice with dull patience, after its inevitable failure, to dream that with some modification it would have another result, and to end by publishing the last dream as a fact (Peirce 1940 [1877]: 6).

I once asked an old man: Are all stones we see about us here alive? He reflected a long while and then replied, 'No! But some are. (Hallowell 1960: 24).

In this article I revisit an old theoretical question, the rationality of beliefs, through the analysis of the contact process of an Amazonian people. My initial stimulus was Obeyesekere's (1992: 124) remark about the possibility of applying his deconstruction of Cook's deification to other famous apotheoses. I intend to take up this challenge here, but in another direction. Drawing on my ethnographic data and on written documentation, I seek to re-construct the experience of the Eastern Parakana, a Tupi-Guarani-speaking people of Southeastern Amazonia, in their early stable contact with national society. I also make use of historical data from South America and comparative ethnography from Melanesia so as to analyse the relation between beliefs and practice in contact situations.

Ever since Tylor, anthropology has been concerned with the explication of 'apparently irrational beliefs', to use Sperber's expression (1982). Modern anthropology provided a standard answer to the problem, which at the same time derived from, and was directed towards, the fieldwork situation: one must explain natives' beliefs in their own context, since they are part of a wider social system or a meaningful whole. Once in context, there is always a reasonable reason to believe that witches can fly, that twins are birds or that the Bororo are parrots, and thus to act according to these beliefs. (1) The central tenet of contextual understanding is that the justification for someone believing in something has to be evaluated according to the epistemic standards of the community in question (Haack 1993: 190).

For most anthropologists, contextualism is both an epistemological belief and a methodological instrument. Despite its theoretical aporias, it works well as an heuristic principle for making sense of fieldwork data, and I will resort to it in my rendering of the Parakana contact experience. However, a contextualist response to Obeyesekere's challenge would not suffice, since his critique is Janus-faced: on the one hand, he contextualizes European myth-making and, on the other, he universalizes Hawaiian behaviour on a cognitive basis.

These are not unrelated movements. They are part of a wider effort to dispose of the category of totality, and related concepts such as culture or society. If there are no bounded meaningful worlds, only worlds within worlds connected in various ways, for whom then are twins birds; for whom do witches fly; for whom is Lono a god? One answer to this question has been: for anthropologists. If the context to explain beliefs and practices cannot be the native's, then it must be our own. Cargo cults, cannibalism, deifications are thus to be dismissed as figments of imperial imagination.

Obeyesekere's second move is of a different order, but it is also a way out of the concept of culture. Experience has a residual epistemic status in cultural theory: beliefs are interwoven into the great fabric of culture, they stand by themselves and imprint themselves on people's minds as if the mind was a blank paper. (2) Obeyesekere adopts a cognitive universalism and a sort of empirical foundationalism to counteract this idea. He assumes that there are basic representations that stem from practical engagement, which are strongly constrained by the objective properties of the world and by the structure of the mind. (3)

In this article, I will reverse Obeyesekere's first argument and offer a different interpretation of the second. …

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