Karl Von Den Steinen's Analysis of the Brazilian Indian's Mind and Worldview Reconstructed: A Contribution to the Interrelationship of Ethnology and Developmental Psychology

By Oesterdiekhoff, Georg W. | Mankind Quarterly, Fall 2015 | Go to article overview

Karl Von Den Steinen's Analysis of the Brazilian Indian's Mind and Worldview Reconstructed: A Contribution to the Interrelationship of Ethnology and Developmental Psychology


Oesterdiekhoff, Georg W., Mankind Quarterly


In 1894, the publishing house Dietrich Reimer in Berlin presented the journey report and ethnographic data collected and documented by Karl von den Steinen and his coworkers under the book title Unter den Naturvölkern Zentral-Brasiliens. Reiseschilderung und Ergebnisse der zweiten Schingú-Expedition, 1887-1888 (Among the nature peoples of Central Brazil. Description of journey and results of the second Schingú expedition 1887-1888). This book experienced a far- reaching reception across the sciences for many decades and is not forgotten even today. It gathered and analyzed data covering many aspects of the social and material life of the natives in the Brazilian jungles, including relevant geographical and biological details. Brazilian intellectuals and officials still consider Karl von den Steinen as the Alexander von Humboldt of Central Brazil, its true scientific discoverer.

Some chapters of the book aim to describe mind, worldview, beliefs and religion of the Indian natives, delivering descriptions that have gained high esteem in ethnology and are cited and discussed in texbooks and influential readers across countries and generations, across the whole world of ethnology and social anthropology. Examples that have been well known among educated people beyond the limits of ethnology for generations are von den Steinen's descriptions of the Bororó belief that they are red Araras, the Bakairí idea that the neighbouring Trumaí are water beings, and the slave who, according to the nativesassumptions, escaped from his prosecutors by a transformation into a turtle.

Von den Steinen shows in these chapters his highly elaborated understanding of the nativesthinking and his ability to analyze the data. The chapters reveal intellectual thoroughness and excellence in describing these and some other very astonishing phenomena. Nevertheless his descriptions do not deliver full explanations of the phenomena. The aim of this article is to find the appropriate explanations to the phenomena reported by von den Steinen. These cannot be found by relying on ethnological theory only. We need to apply developmental psychology, or the cognitive-developmental approach, to find the key for a proper and encompassing understanding of the facts. This does not distort, mutilate or abridge the data by forcing them into a theoretical straitjacket, but secures their preservation and leads to an understanding of their deeper nature and structure.

"Cultural relativism" and "universalism of mind," especially since the 1970s, have had a tremendous impact on ethnologiststendencies to belittle the obvious intellectual differences between archaic and modern peoples (e.g., Levi-Strauss 1958). Already von den Steinen (1894: 354), however, criticized any attempts to assume archaic people might think as modern people do. Though, he did not know in 1894 that the developmental approach could be the theory to find an understanding of the nativesideas.

The developmental approach gained a tremendous influence in interpreting ethnological data on an implicit basis with Tylor (1871) and Frazer (1994), approaches known as the "British school", as "classical British anthropology" or as "evolutionary anthropology". A fuller understanding, based explicitly on developmental psychology, was reached with Schultze (1900), Allier (1929), Blondel (1926), Murphy (1927), Wallon (1928), Werner (1948), Werner & Kaplan (1948), Vierkandt (1937) and others. Nearly all early representatives of child psychology recognized the resemblances between children's and nativesthinking, for example G. S. Hall, J. M. Baldwin, E. Jaensch, F. Krüger, W. Stern, P. Janet, E. Claparède, W. Zeininger, C. G. Jung, S. Freud, and J. Piaget. This idea was central to the life work of the world's most influential child psychologist so far, J. Piaget (Jahoda 1999, 2000; Oesterdiekhoff 2011, 2015a,b). Especially in the time span 1900-1950 most influential scholars of several disciplines contributed to this idea and built their theories on it. …

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