Nature and Society: Anthropological Perspectives

By Philippe Descola; Gisli Palsson | Go to book overview

Chapter 8

Blowpipes and spears

The social significance of Huaorani technological choices

Laura Rival

This article argues that hunting technology can shed new light on the interface between society and nature. It examines the social relations existing between the Huaorani, a group of Amazonian hunter-gatherers, and the animals they hunt. It discusses Huaorani extensive ethological knowledge, the social relations through which weapons are made and used, and those through which game is shared, prepared and consumed. Each of these aspects illuminates the principles which structure Huaorani social organisation and ensure its reproduction. Huaorani hunting techniques, which are based on a profound knowledge of animal life, bring about specific social relations, and produce distinctive social identities. It is shown that the blowpipe and the spear, which constitute two contrasting ways of killing and relating to game animals, monitor social distance in myths. Their mythical function thus reveals a striking homology between the way in which Huaorani people treat each other and the way in which they treat animals. It is concluded that hunting technology might be a better guide to the social objectification of nature than animal symbolism.

If we accept the proposition that technical processes are socially meaningful (Lemonnier 1994), we must see hunting technology as a key area for understanding the interface between nature and society. Few ethnographers of hunting societies have failed to comment on the accurate and extensive ethological knowledge possessed by indigenous hunters. And most of them have assumed-if not explicitly stated-that success in the hunt must be attributed primarily to hunters' expert tracking and skilled imitations of animal cries. Why is it, therefore, that studies have tended to ignore the practical knowledge of the living habits of animal species, focusing instead on semiological

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