Nature and Society: Anthropological Perspectives

By Philippe Descola; Gisli Palsson | Go to book overview

Chapter 10

The cosmic food web

Human-nature relatedness in the Northwest Amazon

Kaj Århem

Among Amerindians of the Amazon the notion of 'nature' is contiguous with that of 'society'. 1 Together they constitute an integrated order, alternatively represented as a grand society or a cosmic nature. Humankind is thus seen as a particular form of life participating in a wider community of living beings regulated by a single and totalising set of rules of conduct. Following Croll and Parkin (1992) I adopt the concept of eco-cosmology to refer to such integral models of human-nature relatedness. 2 The concept is related to the classical anthropological notions of 'totemism' and 'animism'. Totemism, in Lévi-Strauss' formulation (1966), refers to an intellectual system of classifying social units on the basis of the classification of natural species. As such, totemism thus exploits observable discontinuities in nature to confer a conceptual order on society. Animism, as Descola (1992) has pointed out, may in significant respects be considered the symmetrical inverse of totemism: a mode of conceptually organising the relationship between human beings and natural species on the basis of the system of social classification. Animic systems endow natural beings with human dispositions and social attributes; sometimes, as in the case examined below, animals are attributed with 'culture'-habits, rituals, songs, and dances of their own. If totemic systems model society after nature, then animic systems model nature after society.

The analytical separation of totemic and animic systems tends, however, to conceal that the two schemes have fundamental properties in common: both imply a relationship of continuity between nature and society with compelling experiential and behavioural implications (cf. Willis 1990). Intellectually, totemism and animism are complementary and commensurate strategies for comprehending reality and relating humans to their environment; the one making use

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