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Images of Nature and Society in Amazonian Ethnology (Written by Stacia T.)

by on September 27, 2011

“Images of Nature and Sociey in Amazonian Ethnology” by Eduardo Viveros de Castro takes a look at the past and present interpretations of the indigenous populations of Amazonia and the anthropological approaches that have been used to study them. Vieros de Castro mentioned that the varzea, the floodplains of the Andes River, and the terra firma, the uplands of with poor soil, the ecological types of Amazonia and the emphasis on the connection between diversity ad human ecology. The author argues that the common interpretation of distance in past and present indigenous societies’ practices is flawed, and gives the impression that the native people were solely victims of the invaders. This however presents the problem of denying the existence of indigenous agency, which would lead to the conclusion, which the author rejects, that contemporary societies would be able to be assimilated into national society. The author also mentions the idea of “archeological perversion” which is the danger of then native people use history as means of legitimating existence in present political context to ensure the future survival of the culture. This is dangerous because it treats the natives as helpless to the power of the state, and they are treated as “puppets”. This is flawed because it doesn’t take into account the adaptation of the environment before 1492 when written history in this region began to be recorded, for instance the destruction of biodiversity instead of stimulating it. Furthermore, the author argues that we should not assume that the indigenous were following a “natural evolutionary path” that was disrupted by invaders, instead we should allow room for the idea that the indigenous were treating the environment in a similar way before the colonizers came. The author’s final argument is that the evaluations of contemporary society by the standard of agriculture and politics should encompass the sociopolitical chefdoms that stull exist in Amazonia. This leads me to the questions that I would like to pose to you:

1.)  Do  you agree with the statement that the treatment of indigenous groups as victims of the invaders negates the agency of the indigenous people as a whole?

2.)  How do you think the historical interpretations of the indigenous differ from modern interpretations?

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7 Comments
  1. To answer the first question, yes i do believe that we need to “assume” that these indigenous groups were taking advantage of their environment long before colonization came into play. First of all, anyone who practices agriculture or horticulture is immediately affecting and changing their environment and landscape. By manipulating the land and vegetation by clearing forests for crops, domesticating wild plants, and by building and cutting into the land, nature is forced to either adapt to the human impact or be devastated by it. Through previous discussions made in class we have learned that it is impossible for humans to live in a balanced world with nature. In order to survive, we have to take advantage of the resources given to us and in return, nature takes and gives back in ways that it can handle. Changing our interpretations of the indigenous from a savage and primitive point of view to a more realistic understanding of the vast technologies used and the complexity of the social structures helps us understand that colonization were both beneficial and detrimental to the indigenous culture.

  2. Frederick Reisen permalink

    I agree that it is appropriate to interpret the indigenous groups as victims of the Western invaders. The devastation caused to the indigenous peoples both by warfare and previously unknown illnesses I believe is the worst in human history and literally led to the death of millions. The aforementioned destruction left the indigenous population scarcely populating what once of a massive civilization. In regards to the second question I believe that modern interpretations of Amazonian people have altered the view from helpless and in need of “civilizing” to people with complex social structures. As the author states I think it is important to cite the history of colonialism but also understand the certain political, environmental, and social choices made by the Amazonia tribes over time since colonialism ended. Furthermore, as Kelcy alluded to I believe as we begin to further understand the anthropogenic effects on the tropical forests now being studied and step pack to take a regional over village organization look at things a more comprehensive understanding will come into play. Despite all the interesting and in-depth analysis of different theoretical approaches to studying Amazonia the question I came away asking is how can we apply the current observations of formerly unrecognized anthropological changes of the environment to other indigenous cultures around the world? And from there whether or not this was an isolated example of it?

  3. 242colleencarey permalink

    The indigenous groups were victims of the invaders. I agree with this statement. But Vieros de Castro also believes that the ways in which the indigenous lived before the invaders somewhat still remained in their culture. Therefore, the agency of the indigenous people can’t negate them as a whole. Vieros de Castro mentions in the article how aspects of their culture, before the invasions, still existed in contemporary societies. This supports the idea that the indigenous can’t be negated.
    Modern interpretations of the indigenous are much more holistic. Many of the articles we’ve read over the semester have talked about looking at culture through different perspectives and taking into account many aspects of a culture. Therefore, I think that modern interpretations are more accurate because they are implementing more than just the “standard model.”

  4. Summer Rose W permalink

    It is interesting to think about how indigenous people lived before western invaders. I agree with Kelcy that we should assume the indigenous people used the environment around them to an advantage. Even though they were using the environment, it was not necessarily having negative impacts on the environment as a whole. Before western invasion, it is difficult to imagine that relatively small populations have had such significant impacts. New technology and greater population has seemed to have much more impact on the environment than smaller groups of indigenous people have. This reading reminded me of the Raffles and Winklerprins article that talked about Amazonian people making an impact on the environment, altering the environment for a very long time. As a civilization that is advancing, it is/was probably necessary to alter the environment. Otherwise, it would have been impossible to keep up with technology. I believe it is important to look at people of the past through modern interpretations, but that it is also important to consider the historical interpretations to get a better understanding of indigenous peoples.

  5. I was definitely surprised when I started reading this article because I felt like there were little light bulbs going of in my head that were blinking: ‘environmental determinism.’ I may have taken what they said at first a bit harshly but I was irritated that they were discussing the limitation of an entire group of people due to their environment. I was glad when the author argued this point because, as Summer and Kelcy said above me, these conflicts with the environment became “stimuli” (195) rather than a handicap. I do agree, although I wish I didn’t, with the first question. Castro discusses in his conclusion that Amazonia is more centralized on hunting while the rest of the world expects larger amounts of surplus in order to make a profit (194). It seems to me that many native people are forced to adapt from a life style that was perfectly suitable to them long before european contact but had to change to fit an ever growing and globalizing world.

    • I agree with Megan on this too. A lot of the perspectives mentioned and argued against seemed to put a prescriptivist view the past and present situation for the indigenous population, placing them into categories that they don’t necessarily belong in. It seems that Castro is trying to state that people have always adapted to the environment because of the same factors

  6. yes, i agree that the treatment of indigenous groups as victims of the invader negates the agency of the indigenous people as a whole. i think that the indigenous people were had complete agency to their cultivation and aspects of cultivating their environment long before invaders came in. even thought invaders came in i’m not convinced that the indigenous people changed the way the used the land. i’m sure that in many cases they taught the invaders a thing or two. i think that the indigenous groups cultivated the land the best way they could in order to have the best life possible.

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