Artículo en PDF
How to cite
Complete issue
More information about this article
Journal's homepage in
Sistema de Información Científica
Red de Revistas Científicas de América Latina y el Caribe, España y Portugal
INDIANA 29 (2012): 25-51
Dimitri Karadimas
Animism and perspectivism: Still anthropomorphism?
On the problem of perception in the construction
of Amerindian ontologies
For more than a decade, a close continuity, rather than opposition,
has linked Viveiros de Castro’s “perspectivism” and Descola’s “animism”. Both
theories are based on Amazonian ethnographic material and should be seen as
theoretical constructions of the “Lowland” developed to explain the speciFcity
of Amazonian ontologies. Today, both models exist independently of the south
Amerindian data. In this paper, I will present some North-West Amazonian ritual
and mythological material that illustrates the Frst, as well as the second theoretical
point of view. The main aim of this paper is to show that general cognitive
phenomena involved in the act of perception, such as anthropomorphism and
analogical projection, are able to give an account of some Amazonian ontologies,
especially if we draw iconographical expressions of past and present societies into
the discussion.
Perspectivism, animism, ontologies, Mira
a, Amazonia, Colombia,
Desde hace más de una década, el “perspectivismo” de Viveiros de Castro
y el “animismo” de Descola han estado unidos, más que por una oposición, por una
estrecha continuidad. Ambas teorías se basan en material etnográFco amazónico
y deben ser consideradas como construcciones teóricas de las “tierras bajas” con
el Fn de
explicar la especiFcidad de las ontologías amazónicas. Hoy día, ambos
modelos existen
independientemente de los datos amerindios sureños. En este
artículo presentaré material ritual y mitológico del noroeste amazónico que ilustra
tanto la primera como la segunda teoría. El objetivo principal de esta contribución
consiste en mostrar cómo fenómenos cognitivos generales, que forman parte del
acto de percepción –como el antropomorFsmo y la proyección analógica–, pueden
brindar información sobre algunas ontologías amazónicas, sobre todo si se tienen
en cuenta expresiones iconográFcas de sociedades del pasado y del presente.
Palabras clave:
Perspectivismo, animismo, ontologías, miraña, Amazonía,
Colombia, siglos
Dimitri Karadimas is an anthropologist in the Laboratoire d’anthropologie sociale at the Collège
de ±rance, Paris. His main research topics are the use of anthropomorphism and iconography in
knowledge constructions in Amerindian societies. His ethnographical attention is focused on the
Miraña of southern Colombia, and the North-West Amazonian tribes.
Dimitri Karadimas
1. Introduction
General discussions of distinct ontological constructions are mostly based on analy-
sis of practices, discourses and classiFcations. When it reaches the point of Fgura
tive expression, or of ritual and mythological elaborations, the somewhat “evident”
elements that are presented to the participant of a ritual, the listener of a myth or the
spectator of images, are rarely questioned in terms of perception. How does this later
mental ability enter into the cultural elaborations of myths, rituals and images?
One of the major cognitive modalities of understanding the environment uses
anthropomorphism as a prism. Behaviours, species, shapes, artefacts are translated
by applying a human
to them, thus rendering the world intelligible for a
human subject.
In this paper, my purpose is to question the two major interpretative trends
currently prevalent in Amazonian studies, namely Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s
“perspectivism” (1992) and Philippe Descola’s “animism” (2005) (this latter being
one of the four ontological modalities recognised by him in human cultures), put-
ting them to the test via analysis of an ethnographic case. I will take a close look at a
musical instrument made out of a deer skull by the Miraña Indians of the Colombian
Amazon, and at the myth linked to it. I will compare the data with other ethnographi-
cal and ethnohistorical sources where the same instrument was played to reveal the
parallels and oppositions that exist between them. Although made out of a deer skull,
this instrument does not make any reference to deer, nor to its “spirit”, but has to be
seen as an artefact for an imaged ritual construction based on anthropomorphism that
refers to a true being. The same treatment of “deer” images will be found in other
areas such as the Andes, Mesoamerica, or the North-American Indians (actual and
past: Mimbres and Zuni Indians).
The theoretical aim of this article is to show that anthropomorphic ability offers
a good modality for understanding the Fgurative process that arises in “analogical”
ontologies. This ability occurs as much in present and past Amazonian cultures, but
also elsewhere on the continent, and my purpose is to show that it offers a central
modality for bringing together the “perspectivism” of Viveiros de Castro and the
quadripartite division of human cultures according to the four types of ontologies
developed by Descola, in which the “animism” type is held by the Amazon area.
2. Viveiros de Castro’s “perspectivism”
In his development of the Amerindian – here Amazonian – description of how
human/non-human relations are conceived, Viveiros de Castro focuses on the point
of view that, ultimately, sees the relational deFnition of a being and subsequently his
Animism and perspectivism: Still anthropomorphism?
identity. This concept of the relational deFnition of a being has several implications
for the author. First of all, there is no concept of “absolute nature”, which means that
Viveiros de Castro had to create the concept of “multinaturalism” to explain the re-
lationship the Amerindian have to the plurality of bodies that appear before them (as
they do not exist outside of a point of view). In perspectivism, each body expresses
a particular “nature”, while at the same time, there is only one “culture”, which is
the predatory relationship between living beings. So while predation implies an-
tagonistic relations (enemies), it also creates afFnity (and
vice versa
). Carlos Fausto
completes the construction by adding commensality (Fausto 2007) which implies
peaceful relations (close relatives), but also the ethos of consanguinity in opposition
to predation (ethos of afFnity).
The implications of this approach are, to give an example, that humans are seen
as “jaguars” by peccaries, worms are the “peccaries” of ants, an Oropendola bird is
the “hawk” of the beetle etc. There seem to be no stable identities in the world view
of the “perspectivist subject”, as identity depends on the subject and that subject’s
point of view.
Jaguars and humans are problematic as they sometimes kill each other (in fact,
more jaguars are killed by humans than vice versa). But for Viveiros de Castro,
those who eat humans (shamans, gods, masters of the animals, etc.) are described
as “jaguars”, or more precisely, they look at us with jaguar’s eyes. For this author,
deFning an entity or a species is to give it a set of eyes – looking through these eyes
creates a reality.
The main problem with this approach is that there is no absolute way of gain-
ing access to the interiority of other beings: it is always an imputation of identities
that occurs. What anthropology therefore addresses are the different ways in which
cultures construct this imputation of interiority. And it is always a construction, not
of one point of view concerning a particular being, but of the way in which the
Amerindians regard a speciFc relationship between two beings or two entities. If a
jaguar eats a man, there is absolutely no way of asking the jaguar whether it saw the
human as a peccary or not. It is not possible to make an ethnographic study of the
jaguar’s point of view – and much less of jaguars in general – the best we can do is
a naturalist’s ethological description. Thus, in our naturalistic ontology, it is correct
to present the same act saying that the human victim of a jaguar is his prey. In some
Amerindian languages, the “predator” category can be named or labelled “jaguar”
and the “prey” category can be presented as “peccary”. In this sense, a wasp is a
jaguar: it is the “jaguar” – or, as it ±ies, the “hawk” – of caterpillars and others. The
point is that if some Amazonian ontological systems say that jaguars see humans as
peccary, they mean that humans are sometimes eaten by jaguars “as if they were”
Dimitri Karadimas
peccaries (thus the assertion “humans are peccaries” is to be understood as “they are
sometimes the ‘peccaries’ of the jaguar”, and perhaps always those of the Masters
of Game and the Gods). It is therefore a deFnition given to a position and not to an
In this relational deFnition, the Amerindians transform the position of humans
into that of peccaries; factually, they are still humans in identity. To have it as a per-
spectivistic ontology as Viveiros de Castro claims is, in a way, to confuse the object
with the category and to think that categories create the world although they just give
a speciFc account of it whilst still creating a different relational world. If we go a
little further in this direction, we could say that consciousness in different ontologi-
cal systems will not make it possible for a subject that runs off the edge of a cliff, as
in cartoons for example, to keep running in the air until he realises that there is no
more ground beneath him: he will just fall like any other material element attracted
by gravitation. The only place where such a possibility exists is in cartoons and tales.
Figure 1.
The perspectivist point of view. Anonymous (1996).
But these cases are relatively common in a multiplicity of cultural systems where
there is a naming system. For example, the “antlion” (
) was named
after the fact that for the ant, the larva of this insect acts as a lion would act with its
prey: It is the ant’s “lion” (predating ants). Should we conclude from this relational
deFnition that our ontological system is in some way also “perspectivistic”, similar
to those of the Amazonians? If that is the case, then it is not necessary to debate
these topics: Up to a certain point of view, both ontologies have the same capacity
for relational deFnitions of entities.
Animism and perspectivism: Still anthropomorphism?
We immediately recognise that the difference between the two systems relies
on the existence or absence of objectivity: For Viveiros de Castro’s perspectivism,
there is only subjectivity. There is no “third eye” that can give a holistic account of
an event. Everything relies on the subject’s point of view, humans and non-humans
creating an endless chain of relational positions, depicted using the same “cultural”
pattern that de Castro labelled “monoculturalism” – the predation schema – and
accompanied by a variability of bodily expressions that he called “multinaturalism”
(each species has its own “nature” just as each one has a different body).
It was whilst confronting this problem that Philippe Descola developed a more
general quadripartite division of how human cultures conceive their ontologies, in
which the Animistic one is represented by the Amazonian populations.
3. Descola’s “animisms”
What characterises the construction of ontologies in human cultures can be seen in
the different ways in which the continuity and discontinuity between what Descola
has called “interiorities” and “physicalities” occurs in each system.
Naturalism characterised “our” system (at least from the beginning of “mo-
dernity”, more or less after the Renaissance) in that it established a continuity of
physicalities between, not only humans and non-humans, but, in the end, within the
entirety of Nature. On the other hand, there is a discontinuity between “interiori-
ties” as naturalism does not recognize any means of access to the interiority of non-
humans – animals, objects, Gods, etc.
The two other ontological systems – the totemic and the analogical – are, briefy
sketched, the continuity of interiorities and of physicalities (everything is connected
with everything, as in the “dreamtime” of Australian aborigines) for the former (to-
temic), and a discontinuity of interiorities and of physicalities (these systems have to
recreate new links between parts of beings with other beings, and with elements of
the environment based on analogical links) for the latter (analogical).
Animism, that supposedly features Amazonian ontology, is therefore the op-
posite of the naturalistic way of perceiving how beings are: it is the continuity of
interiorities and the discontinuity of physicalities (and here we can recognize, to
an extent, a point of view that could be shared by Viveiros de Castro because what
Descola calls physicalities is Viveiros de Castro’s “nature”, and Descola’s interiority
is Viveiros de Castro’s “culture”).
One oF the problems involved in these approaches is that oF ±guration. This is
certainly the reason why Descola has spent the last four years of his teaching at the
Collège de France focusing on the topic of images (
ontologie des images
). This focus
was also behind the exhibition held from February 2010 to July 2011 at the Musée
du Quai Branly in Paris (
La Fabrique des images)
Dimitri Karadimas
What we call “art” in this article is a graphical representation, or a dance, theatri-
cal or ritual representation, of the images recognized in things and their surround-
ings (for Descola according to each ontological system). This is a mental process:
Recognition gives an identity to the forms that are perceived by our senses (taste and
odours therefore create mental patterns that are remembered when they are presented
to the consciousness of a subject).
Going back to the Amerindian way of Fnding out what kind of interiority dwells
within a body, the general shape of a plant or of an animal gives an important clue
as it reveals an identity in the being that is not instantly apparent when it presents
itself to a person. For example, a bat can be the “spirit” of a tree because the pattern
of its leaves is reminiscent of the bat’s wings. This is something that an Amerindian
subject, or at least a Miraña subject, experiences in his own consciousness (leaving
out here the concept of “interiority”). It is exactly this mental process that occurs
when the Miraña myth presents a human body that is made up of different kinds of
Fsh. If we look closely at what kind of Fsh have been chosen, it appears that a close
analogical relationship links each body part to a speciFc Fsh (for example, a hand
a crab, etc.).
This analogical construction is therefore experienced in the consciousness and
makes it possible to fashion some inferences about the nature of the “spirit” that
rests in that plant or animal. This Frst acknowledgment of an analogical ontology
into the animism ontology is perhaps the way to build bridges between the different
ontological systems.
For many actual ethnographers of the Amazonian populations, the iconographic
domain is seen as being non-Fgurative, at least in the ornamental domain of bodies
and objects. Or, to put it another way, it has no speciFc Fgurability, with one excep
tion, namely ritual and myth.
4. Why a deer skull as an instrument? And why a myth?
The Miraña Indians of the Caquetá River are a small group of Amazonian slash and
burn hunters living in the south of Colombia. Their traditional way of living is very
similar to other North-West Amazonian populations like the Barasana, and other
Tukanoan speaking groups from the Vaupés region. The Miraña language is not re-
lated to this linguistic macro-family; it pertains, with the Muinane and the Bora, to an
isolated language-family. At the same time, the Miraña are culturally related to other
neighbouring populations of the area like the Uitoto and Andoque from the Caquetá
and Putumayo Rivers: They all refer to themselves as “People-of-the-Centre”, a
macro-cultural designation that simultaneously opposes them to the Arawak speak-
ing groups of the Miriti-Parana and Apaporis Rivers (Yukuna, Matapi, Tanimuka,
Animism and perspectivism: Still anthropomorphism?
Letuama and Makuna: The latest two pertaining to the Tukano linguistic stock) and
to the Tukanoan from Vaupés. A very schematic distribution of these groups accord-
ing to three geographical areas is partially congruent with the linguistic blocs: The
Caquetá-Putumayo Rivers region, the Miriti-Parana and Apaporis Rivers area, and
the Vaupès area.
In a 2002 publication (Karadimas 2002), I presented an analysis of a Miraña
wind instrument made from a deer skull. The Miraña myth related to it tells a story of
two brothers, Deer-of-the-above and Deer-of-the-ground. Deer-of-the-above comes
down to earth to take revenge for the death of his brother, who is killed and eaten by
“the livings from earth” (supposedly humans). The stag goes unsuccessfully from
asking who has eaten deer, until he meets the inhabitants of a
longhouse who confess that they have eaten such meat.
To be sure that it was from his brother’s body, he asks them to bring him the
bones. He compares each bone with his own, until he reaches the head, saying, “this
was my brother, he was the same size as me”. Deer-of-the-above takes all the young
children of the longhouse, binding them together, one after the other, like prisoners
and, grasping his whip, starts to rise to the sky by whipping the children. A mosquito
woman tries to alert the parents but they tell her that, because they are such cowards,
it is better to let them go. She then shouts to the children that if they bite the deer’s
testicles he will release them. One of the children answers that he has already tried,
but that it tasted too much of “tobacco”.
Arriving in the land of Deer-of-the-above, the children escape thanks to a parrot
woman who changes some of them into young parrots by giving them feathers. The
stag eats the rest in the tradition of the Miraña cannibal ritual (boiling them in a pot).
Those who have fed have to climb a tree, peeling oFF the bark underneath them so
that the deer cannot follow them up the trunk (this bark is used to make masks in the
Miraña tradition).
In the second part of the myth, the stag returns to earth to eat a child that was left
behind in the longhouse. Inficted with a skin disease, the parents have hung his ham
mock on the central roof beam to keep him away of the rest of the children. As Deer-
of-the-above enters the
he asks the child why his hammock is hanging from
the roof. And the young child tells him that he will only answer the question if the
stag cuts away his own fesh. The myth ends with the “suicide” oF the deer, and the
creation of the wind instrument made out of the deer’s skull and antlers. Today, the
Miraña blow this instrument to call the inhabitants of a
working in nearby
gardens when a large amount of game arrives with returning hunters.
Dimitri Karadimas
Figure 2.
blowing instrument made out of a deer skull,
here of a gray brocket deer skull (
Mazama gouazoubira
(Miraña of Pt. Remanzo del Tigre, Amazonas, Colombia, 1993,
personal collection, photo Philippe Blanchot).
In my 2002 contribution, I proposed an analysis of the myth in terms of anthropophagy,
but also in terms of an association between bats (predators) and deer (prey) – where
the child hanging from the roof in his hammock was a visual metaphor of a bat and
the deer was the same prisoner of the cannibalistic ritual of the Tupian groups (as for
the Miraña). I left aside the Frst part of the myth, which is rather complicated, but
still interpretable thanks to the history of the slavery that existed in the area as of the
Two enigmatic elements of the narration were the identities of the two “brothers”,
both deer, one of the “ground”, the other of the “above”, this last name being a desig-
nation of the upstream territory, but also a reference to the sky.
A comparative analysis can be undertaken with groups that play the same
instrument in, for example, the Llanos de Colombia and Venezuela, but also in the
Andes. The Sikuani-Guahibo or Cuiva-Guahibo Indians of Venezuela use this wind
instrument during secondary funeral ceremonies. After a year, the bones of a de-
ceased person are unearthed to be cleaned and placed in a pot made especially for
Animism and perspectivism: Still anthropomorphism?
the occasion. People play the deer-skull instrument during the ceremony (Ales &
Chiappino 1997: fg. 32). This, obviously, has to be compared with the Miraña myth
where the deer examines the bones of his brother who was eaten by the inhabitants of
the ground.
The story of the myth and the collecting and comparing of the brother’s
bones can be seen in correlation with the Sikuani ritual and the unearthing of a
deceased person’s bones, now discharged From their ±esh. Contrary to the Sikuani-
Guahibo, the Miraña do not practice secondary funerals, but the idea still remains
that the instrument is linked to death and, most of all, to bones.
Figure 3.
Cuiva-Guahibo death song played with a deer skull during a secondary funeral
(drawing made by school-educated Indians (Ales & Chiappino 1997: fg.32).
Understanding why it seems important that an instrument made out of a deer skull is
part of the Cuiva-Guahibo mourning ceremony is an interesting question, as is com-
prehending the importance of the deer-skull instrument in a myth where it is linked to
both bones and ±esh.
In some way, both groups link the deer-skull instrument with
the ±esh/bones oF a dead person/animal. The “inhabitants oF the ground” who ate the
meat in the Miraña myth can be compared to the Cuiva-Guahibo “necrophages” who
eat the ±esh oF a deceased person. ThereFore, the vinculum between both groups is
On a cosmological level, this can also refer to the infra-world where the dead are supposed to go
before ascending into the sky.
This is also the case in the Sikuani ritual as it is the ±esh on the bones that the living people are
looking for.
Dimitri Karadimas
equivalent to the two types of anthropophagy that exist in the Lowlands: exocanni-
balism – eating an enemy as the ancient Tupinamba did, but also as the Miraña did
up until the 20
century – and endocannibalism – eating a dead person of one’s own
group – as is practised by the Wari (Vilaça 2002) or by the Yanomami.
A possible comparison between the two practices and between both groups may
therefore result in describing them as an act of revenge for the killing of a brother.
The murderers are rounded up like prisoners and the story ends in a cannibalistic-like
ritual. In contrast, within the burial theme of the Sikuani-Guahibo, the devoration
theme does not occur but the same instrument is blown when the bones of a dead
person are presented devoid of Fesh. Now, what is problematic about both occur
rences is that the same instrument mediates two different practices. What is the exact
mythological or ritual reference of a person playing the deer-skull instrument? And
why should it be important to produce a sound if the reference to the deer could have
been achieved with just the antlers, or antlers and skull, as, for example, in the deer
dance by the North American Hopi population?
The use of the deer-skull instrument also exists in the Andes, where, in the 17
century, Guaman Poma de Ayala gave a description of the Chinchaysuyus feast,
wawku taki
(Figure 4). It was used in the
, the feast of the
, the
onomatopoeic name for the deer-skull instrument. At this feast, men and women
faced each other, the women playing tambourine and the men blowing in the deer
skull. The dialogue given by Guaman Poma relates that the women were looking for
a “deer to dance with” and, if they were unsuccessful, they had to dance with the
on their noses (?). The men then responded by blowing the instrument saying
that the women had children in their bellies (Guaman Poma de Ayala 1615/1616: 321
[323]). Contrary to the lowlands, the reference here is not linked to the dead or to
the bones of the dead, but to some fertility rite (?) and, for Dedenbach-Salazar Sáenz
(2003: 111), to the fertility of the game or hunted animals. In this sense, it is related
to the game as in the Miraña myth.
The men playing the instruments were richly adorned and sections of their tunics
were decorated with silver coins and other silver adornments. On their heads, at the
front, was a crescent moon, accompanied by large, feathered diadems irradiating
out of their heads. There is no more to say about this feast, but it seems necessary to
go back to the Miraña myth to interpret the different practices linked to the use of
this instrument. We will return to the Andes with some Mochica iconography which
seems to be linked to this Chinchaysuyu feast.
In this case, the bones are burned and mixed to a beverage to be ingested.
Animism and perspectivism: Still anthropomorphism?
Figure 4.
wawku taki
dance of the Chinchansuyu using a deer-skull instrument
(Guaman Poma de Ayala 1515/1516: 322).
5. A deer made out of bones
In the Miraña myth, the names of the two brothers are rather enigmatic. “Deer-of-the-
above” is a designation that can be given to a “Sky-Stag” and “Deer-of-the-ground”
is equivalent to “Earth-Stag”. Sky-Stag is also a deer that can rise into the air and,
consequently, a deer that can fy. It is a “fying-deer” but real deer do not fy. In the
same narration, when this deer goes from
, he enters into a strange
dialogue with the children whom he will later take into the sky. When he enters
where the children have eaten his brother, he asks for some
which is a word that has no meaning in Miraña. The children present him with vari-
ous liquid preparations which he declines, repeating
mananako mananako
, until a
Dimitri Karadimas
little boy says to the other children, “some cockroaches are falling into my father’s
pitch pot!” The stag responds immediately with “Yes! This is
! This is
what I lick!”.
Miraña pitch is made from the sap of various trees that is boiled down to form
a mixture used for caulking canoes, and it is also used to form the faces of Miraña
masks. To put it in other words, this fying deer licks tree sap and boiled sap looks
like liquid tobacco to him. Furthermore, to escape this “deer”, the children, who have
transformed into young parrots, have to peel the bark off the tree so he cannot follow
them up the slippery tree trunk. By peeling off the bark, this “deer” is not able to hold
on while he climbs, which implies that he normally does. But here again: what kind
oF deer climbs trees? (Especially iF it can fy?). This question may seem unFair as
everything is possible in myths, but a certain logic of narration needs to be respected,
at least to prevent a slide into complete absurdity.
Figure 5.
“Dawson said he was a Hammer Head Shark…”
To ±nd out the identity oF this deer, it is necessary to have a quick look at naming
processes, or at the analogical system that is sometimes used to name things, plants
or animals, and how it enters into actuation. To do that, we will take an example from
Meaning “this is what I lick – like the Indians lick liquid tobacco”, a concoction made of freshly
boiled tobacco leaves and mixed with vegetal salt and sticky plants as thickening agents:
in Miraña.
Animism and perspectivism: Still anthropomorphism?
an Internet page where a father posted a picture of his son holding a hammer on the
top of his head and saying, “I’m a hammerhead shark”. The boy did just one thing:
he did not imitate the hammerhead shark itself, but was acting out – or miming – its
name. It is only at a second level that his “actuation” mimics the shark itself. And
without the naming system and the culture that goes with it (if a hammer was not
used in this cultural system then this name would not exist), it is not possible to inter-
pret this actuation because it mimics as much the name as the salient element which
provokes the name in the frst place. On a secondary level, it is immediately possible
to use an artefact like a hammer not to mimic a carpenter or, in French, to show that
somebody is mad
(Il est marteau!
: “He is hammered!”), but to mimic an animal that
has a hammer-shaped head, a perceptual salience that is a part of the animal’s name.
If this was done as part of a ritual to allow the hammerhead shark character to
participate, then the visual simile had to accommodate the images involved in the
name. And it would not be necessary to verbally name the fgure being enacted: some
spectators would grasp the visual pun and recognize the hammerhead shark, others
would see a ritual where a dancer enters with a hammer on his head and would still
wonder what this was all about.
Let us now return to our Amazonian ritual and myth. All the mythical and ritual
elements we examined could correspond to the same process of visual description
that points to a being in possession of all the characteristics. A being that climbs
trees, licks sap, that can Fy, and is a “deer”. In ±act, it seems to correspond to the
“Fying-deer” or “stag-beetle”, an insect o± the
family with hypertrophied
mandibles that make him look like a miniature deer with antlers. And, as it has an
exoskeleton, a being that has no Fesh.
I± we look at the various possibilities o± fguration, there are basically two options
according to Descola’s ontological quadripartition: A naturalistic portrait and an ana-
logical representation of the name, as in the example of the hammerhead shark, that is
to say, in our naturalistic ontology, what we call a visual pun. It is therefore possible
to draw a deer with wings (a chimera
that is motivated linguistically: “Fying deer”),
or a bug with the head of a deer. These are the modalities of representation in images
and it is clearly an intrusion of an analogical modality into the naturalistic ontologi-
cal system, which means they are not mutually exclusive. In today’s “naturalistic”
ontology, artists’ compositions are the places where these expressions can fnd a real
ity: through an anthropomorphizing understanding of reality, it is possible to give a
visual account of the analogical links created by the mental perceptual system. For
I use the term “chimera” in a completely different way from Carlo Severi’s so called
Principe de la
(2007); for me, a chimera is a visual composition that describes an existing reality or that
goes back to it (Karadimas 2010).
Dimitri Karadimas
example, “deer” can be expressed in a visual composition, the multiplicity of the
referents are created by combining a Fgure with different shadows – as illustrated
by the artist Chrissie Cool in a representation of the analogical link. Obviously, it is
a way to express, through images, the variety of links between different “deer”. The
body of the human model serves as a structuring
to demonstrate the artist’s
understanding of both the insect and the deer appearing as shadows.
Figure 6.
Contemporary artistic photocomposition; anthropomorphic and analogical
presence in a “naturalist” ontology. Stag Beetle by Chrissie Cool, photomanipulation, 2008
Today, the majority of Amazonian societies do not use iconography in pictures, con-
trary to the naturalistic systems, but principally express it in rituals to depict beings
that appear in mythology or in the belief system. They can use masks (Goulard &
Karadimas 2011) or they can mimic the being using any artefact that represents the
name or a recognisable analogical element.
In Greek mythology according to Pliny the Older, skiamorphing – drawing according to the outline
of a shadow on a surface – is at the origin of art.
Animism and perspectivism: Still anthropomorphism?
At this point, we must undertake an entomological description of the repartition
areas of various beetles that could be possible candidates for the Deer-of-the-above
character in the Miraña myth.
Aegognathus spitzi
Cantharolethrus sp.
are two
stag-horn beetles that are located in the neotropical part of South America, and es-
pecially in the Andes. It seems that no equivalent beetle lives in the Amazonian
part, and the whitetail deer (
Odocoileus virginianus
) from the myth is not found
in this region. The whitetail deer is largely present in the Llanos and the Andes but
rarely enters the Amazonian forest: it is also in the Andes and Llanos regions that
the Sikuani-Guahibo and, in the past, the Chinchansuyu Indians, who performed the
ritual described by Guaman Poma, make and made the skull instrument from this
particular species of deer. The Miraña instrument is made out of the skull of the red
brocket deer (
Mazama americana
Miraña mythology seems to have made a few short cuts and assimilated a selec-
tion of beetles that could be linked or seen as a substitute for the “true” stag beetle
of the Andes. For example, the longicorn
Macrodontia cervicornis
stag horn”) has the same analogical element as the
Lucanus cervus
“deer lucane” in
Latin. Although both look frightening, neither is a true carnivorous beetle and cannot
correspond to the cannibalistic behaviour of Deer-of-the-above.
But a similarity in the distinctive elytra patterns does suggest a correspondence
Macrodontia cervicornis
Acrocinus longimanus,
also known as the
“harlequin beetle”. This beetle is of some importance to the Miraña as it lives and
nurtures itself on a variety of trees that produce a “lactating” sap, such as the Huan
Couma macrocarpa,
and apparently, according to Miraña sources, it also feeds
from trees that produce the bark used for masks
(Poulsenia armata, Castilla pana-
mensis, Ficus gummifera Bertol
). The “faces” of the masks, as I have already men-
tioned, come from the pitch produced by those trees. For the Miraña, the harlequin
beetle is a master of masks, which refers as much to the material as to the compli-
cated designs present on the beetle’s wings.
Effectively, when anthropomorphized, the patterns displayed by the elytra reveal
the image of an ugly face, a ferocious being with terrible teeth such as can be seen
in a Moche Fne line drawing of the back of a spider (±igure 7). But primarily, these
beetles have a special relationship with pseudoscorpions (
), a very small arachnid (2 to 8 millimetres long) that travels and lives in large
numbers (as many as 40 individuals can be found in a single longicorn) beneath the
elytra of the harlequin beetle. When the harlequin beetle ²ies away, they travel with
him: This association and behaviour could correspond to the “raising” of the “chil-
dren” to the sky by Deer-of-the-above.
Dimitri Karadimas
Figure 7.
“Harlequin beetle” (
Acrocinus longimanus
) presented to me (
a., b.
) by a Miraña
during feldwork (Puerto Remanzo del Tigre, Caqueta, 1993: Photo by the author),
the “ugly face” pattern displayed by the elytra compared with the same pattern
From the back oF a spider rendered in a fne line drawing by a Moche artist
as a predatory human Face (Donnan & McClelland 1999: fg. 3.44k).
But still, neither the harlequin nor the
Macrodontia cervicornis
beetles are carnivo-
rous. The vinegaroon or whip scorpion (
Mastigoproctus sp.
) looks like a scorpion and
is therefore mistaken by the children for the “grandfather”. Its moving tail, however,
is stingless and thin as a whip. This arachnid should be seen as a potential candidate
for the children-whipping cannibal “boogieman” character incarnated in the myth.
This Uropyge species seems to correspond to the character of the myth and its shape
is somewhere between the stag beetle and the scorpion. With its enlarged pedipalps
ending in pincers, it resembles the stag beetle’s “antlers”, but its long whip-like tail
is used as a sensitive organ to touch its future prey. It is therefore a “deer” character
that uses a whip, as in the myth. Secondly, it has another characteristic transcribed in
the mythical language: Its anal glands produce a vinegary substance – ascetic acid –
that is projected as a defensive substance onto its assailants.
Pisse vinaigre
, “vinegar
pisser”, or
in Latin, describe the feature that is mirrored in the Miraña myth
when the children are encouraged by a mosquito woman to bite the deer’s testicles.
Animism and perspectivism: Still anthropomorphism?
This action produces no result as they taste “too much like (liquid) tobacco”. Being
a true carnivore, the whip scorpion or vinegaroon is a good candidate for the young
children (pseudoscorpions) who mistake him (he resembles them) for their “grand-
father” – the harlequin beetle who transports them under his wings. Obviously, iden-
tifying these possible candidates and Fnding parallels with the characters of the myth
and their actions is speculative, as it is difFcult to be sure that this part of the myth
combines all the characters within the narrative.
Another possibility is to trace the appearance of the stag beetle in ethnographic
accounts and to look at how they were depicted in Amerindian art. There is also the
option of taking into account the different theoretical constructions regarding the
various ontological Fgurative modalities which I outlined at the beginning of this
6. Stag beetles in Amerindian art
The Frst example comes from the Huichol art of
where the artist constructs
cosmologically constrained “shamanic” visions with different coloured yarns. Vari-
ous beings appear, in the same vision, with deer horns. In the Huichol belief system,
the deer incarnates the major transformational paradigm of humans/corn/prey/pe-
yote/ants/etc. Therefore, each one of them is shown with antlers in the yarn pictures
and should be considered as visual compositions of the fact that they are “deered”. If
we now consider each of these characters separately, it is possible to see that most of
them are Fgurative: The human Fgure with deer horns is no exception as he could be
referring to a deer dancer or the dance of the ancestors. Thanks to the omnipresence
of the deer Fgure in Huichol tradition, it becomes apparent that the small winged
insects are also shown with antlers and that sometimes the same insect is shown
without wings, then resembling a spider or a pseudoscorpion. In the case of the latter,
the antlers reference the pincer-like pedipalps.
To give an example for this last assertion, in one of the Frst
shown to the
general public, which was created by Cresencio Perez Robles in 1970, a scorpion
featured in the central part of the yarn picture. Instead of depicting the scorpion’s
pincer-like pedipalps in a naturalistic way, the artist took the analogical perspective
of depicting them as antlers. This is only possible if the scorpion is anthropomor-
phized in such a way that the elements present on the front of its head are placed on
top of a vertical being and thus transformed into horns or antlers. ±or the Huichol
then, the analogical point of view is more pertinent that the perspectivist
construction which seems to be irrelevant in this case. But the analogical option
is only generated if the artist Frst undertakes the anthropomorphic modality, in the
same way as the artist Chrissie Cool constructed her contemporary image of “deer”.
Dimitri Karadimas
Figure 8.
Scorpion painted with antler-like pincer.
Huichol yarn painting by Cresencio Perez Robles, Nayarit, Mexico, c. 1970s
Regarding the deer/beetle association, let us now look at other Amerindian artistic
compositions that are more directly “perspectivist” and anthropomorphic. The mo-
tive of this piece of Zuni pottery shows a connection between a schematic depiction
of a bat forming an arch, under the centre of which rests a deer, a deer whose heart
can be very clearly seen. This thematic is a classic in Zuni imagery and is often
described as the “Deer in his house”. The point is that the same “house” motive is
frequently repeated in the reverse position, as if it was a “hanging” house, but with
the deer remaining in the same standing position. The hanging motif is not a com-
plete mirror picture of the Frst house. It is more a bat Fgure, with ears, that appears
in both positions; at ±ight and at rest, hanging from the roof beneath the earth (or in
a tree, etc.). If the deer remains “in his house”, then this house has a bat aspect.
If the depiction is understood in a “naturalistic” manner, then it is a giant bat
on top of a common deer (something like a “supernatural” bat enclosing the deer
as its prey). In this Frst approach, it is necessary for the naturalistic ontology to
develop the “supernatural” category to explain the respective size differences within
the same image. The perspectivist solution would explain it in a different way: It is
not the bat that is oversized but the deer that has been reshaped according to the bat’s
Animism and perspectivism: Still anthropomorphism?
Figure 9.
, circa 1880s, classic heart-line deer in cartouche
What the Zuni artist painted is the relationship between an insect presented in the
form of a deer – the prey
par excellence
– and its predator, the bat. The perspectivist
theoretical approach would claim that it is the point of view of the bat that is visu-
ally presented. But a problem still remains: If it is the point of view of the bat that is
presented, then the bat should have been depicted as a human (as in the perspectivist
theory where bats see themselves as humans), and this composition would then have
been that of a human person hunting a deer (a predator/prey relationship). But where,
then, is the bat? Where is the insect? It is therefore not the bat’s perspective that is
presented here, but the humans’ – the Zuni – understanding of the relationship that
exists between a bat and an insect that is described as the “deer of the bat” – “for
the bat, the insect is the same thing that, when hunting, the deer is to humans”. It
is therefore through “humanising” a relationship – anthropomorphising it – that the
predatory/prey relationship is mentally apprehended. And this visual composition
is the same modality as the descriptive naming of the “antlion” (the “lion” of ants).
More than a perspectivist fguration, it is an anthropomorphised relationship
based on the analogical closeness of a prey that looks like a deer.
The other pottery motive comes from the Mimbres culture and this time it shows
a completely anthropomorphised “Fying deer” in an analogical reshaping, where the
mandibles are pictured as antlers, or alternatively, the antlers could be the fanned
antennae of the cockchafer beetle. Unlike the stag beetle, the cockchafer beetle has
Dimitri Karadimas
a well-developed pointed underpart detached from the abdomen that is presented
in the composition as a complementary element that looks like a tail, and is placed
between the legs of the character.
Figure 10.
Mimbres pottery, Mogollone tradition,
1000-1150 A.D., New Mexico (Penney 1996: 136).
What this Mimbres pottery represents is probably not just a fying human Fgure with
antlers, but the analogical transcription of a real being, an insect whose body parts
can be transcribed with images coming from anatomically more “obvious” sources
(such as deer, for example).
The visual parallel between the insect and the deer also seems to have been rec-
ognized by other South American cultures, as shown in Moche art (North Coast of
Peru, 100-800 A.D.). In this image for example, the Moche artist depicted an anthro-
pomorphised deer with a spear in its hand, a salient tongue, facing another character
that appears enigmatic at Frst glance, except ±or the ±act that he exactly mirrors the
anthropomorphised stag. He has the same open mouth with a salient tongue, the
In my 2002 article, I interpreted this Fguration as that o± a fying bat, basically because bats are
common representations in Mimbres pottery. Even if it were the case, the problem of the antlers is
better solved in combination with the stag beetle or the maybeetle if the anatomical element of the
“tail” or the end of the abdomen in taken into account.
Animism and perspectivism: Still anthropomorphism?
spear placed in the same position, adornments copying the stag’s spots, and a curved
tail just like the deer. In other words, they are identical, but each element that makes
them similar is shown as being different, a simile that only the global composition
allows us to compare. They look familiar to one another as two brothers would, in
the same way as the Miraña myth has one brother comparing his bones with those
of his sibling. Strangely, these two Fgures correspond to the “brothers in arms” of
Miraña mythology.
Figure 11.
Moche anthropomorphic representation of two “deer” as “brothers in arms”
(Peruvian coast, 100-800 A.D., Donnan & McClelland 1999: Fg. 3.14).
The big curving elements that are on the head of the enigmatic character seem to
represent the distinctive mandibles of the stag beetle, or of other beetles that have
“ornamented” head structures. If this representation shows a stag beetle that is being
compared to the anthropomorphised deer, then we have the same way of recognising
that beetles and deer can share the same shape, and that the human perception is, in
this case, producing similar cultural constructions. This analogical Fgurative process
is also a result of a description where the simile is given through names: although we
do not have access to this information, stag beetles were probably named in refer-
ence to the deer in the Moche language.
Finally, it should be noted that the body of this second character is covered with
metallic plates, reminiscent of the Chinchansuyu deer-skull players in Guaman
Poma’s account. If the Chinchansuyu deer-skull players decorated their clothes with
metallic plates, it should be interpreted using the same reference as in this Moche
Dimitri Karadimas
drawing. The metallic elements were a visual reference to the “shiny” property of the
exoskeleton of some beetles, a metallic shine that was reproduced on the costumes.
The use of the deer-skull instrument is most probably a reference to the mouth of the
beetle, and a simile to evoke the stag beetle as it is explicitly played in front of the
mouth, or “on the nose”, as the Chinchansusyu women, according to Guaman Poma
(Guaman Poma de Ayala 1615/1616: 321 [323]), were chanting to the men. In this
sense, it is most probably equivalent to the lowland ritual or myth where the Deer
brothers played the role of two kinds of “deer”.
But this is not always the case. For example, the forked elements of the deer ant-
lers can be described using other visual references. In the text that accompanies the
following picture (Figure 12), a contemporary North American hunter describes the
antlers of the deer he has just killed by saying that the Fnal fork has the appearance
of a “Fsh tail”. In this description, the hunter only makes a reference to the shape of
the antlers, not to their essence. Ontologically, he does not claim that the essence of
the antlers is Fsh-like or that a Fsh was at any moment involved in the construction
or shaping of the antlers. He just describes their shape in an analogical way.
Figure 12.
Contemporary North American hunter making an analogical description
of the deer’s antlers by describing the Fnal fork as resembling a “Fsh tail”
If I give this example, it is because the same analogy occurs in another Amerindian
case, a Paracas tapestry depicting a fantastic being, sometimes recognized as a sha-
man with Fsh or with a Fsh mask (²igure 13).
Animism and perspectivism: Still anthropomorphism?
Figure 13.
Paracas (800-100 B.C., Peruvian coast) textile representing an
anthropomorphised stag beetle with fsh as antlers (Lavallée 2008: fg. 84).
Here, a character with menacing teeth and a multiplicity oF fsh is holding a trophy
head in one hand and a kniFe in the other. What resembles a mask are two fsh whose
tails are facing each other on top of the head, their eyes joining to become the eyes
oF the central fgure. The dorsal and tail fns seem to represent the diFFerent elements
that make up the mandibles of the stag beetle. Both of the elements shooting out of
the head laterally, and curving to the top where they end as dog or fox heads, are
situated where the antennae would have been in a naturalistic depiction of the beetle.
The arms and legs oF the fgure reFerence those oF the beetle, except the central pair
which are styled as a kind oF belt, and mixed with the fsh. Once again, the spiny
dorsal fns are visually reminiscent oF the thorns present on the legs oF the beetle and
the elongated succession of tarsus is depicted in the composition as a kind of tongue
coming out oF the fshes’ mouths, ending in smaller fsh For the terminal hooks oF the
beetle’s legs. As Paracas is a culture at home on the Pacifc coast oF Peru, the main
analogical fgures are fsh but the global shape oF the character remains identical. It
Dimitri Karadimas
most probably refers to a beetle, the analogical composition to Fsh, but the overall
motivation comes from an anthropomorphic process that enables the creation of the
target hybrid or fantastic being.
With the presence of the trophy head in the composition, the stag beetle is, once
again, linked to death and/or to predatory behaviour against humans.
7. Conclusion
We may now understand why the two stags are associated with bones and death as
much in the Miraña myth as in the Cuiva-Guahibo funeral ritual: by examining the
bones, “Deer-of-the-above” creates a certainty of death – individual death – which is
linked to the absence of ±esh. This certainty is attained by a being that is perceived
as a familiar of prey, that confers meat on the group (humans therefore play the
role of “necrophages” in the eyes of the game, as they eat the ±eshy parts and leave
the bones – behaviour that would be reversed in the case of a human cadaver). But
simultaneously, as shown in the Chinchaysuyu dance, the deer skull is played to cre-
ate fertility within the prey and, to a certain degree, to assure the prey’s continuity.
In this sense, the stag beetle seems to participate as a creator of “living bones”, in
the same way that he incarnates them (he is himself a living skeleton). Ultimately,
blowing into the skull also imitates the loud buzzing/roaring of the beetle’s ±ight,
subsequently delivering a complete anthropomorphised image.
Looking through the different approaches to representing, Frst in myth, then
in ritual and in iconography, different expressions of the same character, it appears
that the modalities of presenting an analogical association between the deer and the
beetle are given in such a way that it is always possible to Fnd the source species of
the metaphor. This is possible due to the ability of human perception to create links
between shapes and to project anthropomorphic behaviour or forms onto beings in
the environment (Karadimas 2005).
What does all this change for Descola’s
and for Viveiros de Castro’s
? ²irst of all, the relational deFnition (the beetle as “stag” for the bat,
for example) is not an ontological modality that is restricted to Amazonian cultural
systems. We can Fnd it in a lot of other Amerindian as well as in “naturalist” ontolo
gies (using, here, concepts elaborated by Descola).
This relational/perspectivist deFnition of beings and relations can hardly, if ever,
be put into images for a precise reason: in order to create the image of a relation, a
“third eye” becomes necessary, to qualify the relation and thus make a description of
it in terms that can be mentally grasped by another person (or by another being, as
non-humans, Indians say, see the world with other eyes).
Animism and perspectivism: Still anthropomorphism?
theory is thus a way of presenting an imputation of human behaviour
made by some Amerindian cultures – but it is not exclusively theirs – to something
that is not human: this is called anthropomorphism.
On the other hand,
has challenged the discussion between Nature and
Culture to reinforce the distinction that relies on the ontological modality recognized
by every culture. The “anima” – the “spirit” – the interiority that exists as conti-
nuity between things or beings is something that can also be found in “naturalist”
ontologies. There, it is only acceptable if it enters the “art” category (the
Stag Beetle
photocomposition of artist Chrissie Cool, for example), but is rejected as a scientiFc
deFnition of “stag” or “beetle”, since the shape of a species does not enter the scien
tiFc categorization used to deFne species. But this, too, is an illusion: Latin scientiFc
names do this all the time.
Macrodontia cervicornis
is nothing more than saying
that this beetle has “big-toothed antlers”, a deFnition that derives from the shape the
mandible shares with antlers, as in Amerindian iconography or mythology (and this
is perhaps why it remains in Latin). This latter characteristic is neither its “physical-
ity” nor its “interiority”: it is the image that the shape of this species displays to a
human observer, something like its essence, what we, anthropologists, would qualify
as “spirit” if we came across such a deFnition in another culture. Thus, on a certain
level, what Descoa labeled “naturalist” ontology relies on an “animistic” process
which is kept cryptic (Latin), or separated (art) from the consciousness of people
sharing this ontology.
Perspectivism as much as animism is a modality that can be included in a more
general ontology involving anthropomorphism – everything is questioned and per-
ceived in terms of human reference – that also occurs in “naturalistic” as well as in
“animistic”, “analogical” or “totemic” ontologies, after the typology established by
Descola. This human cognitive ability cannot explain all the occurrences of interac-
tions between living forms, but it can certainly help to understand why some ritual
and iconographic forms are shown in a similar way even though no contact can be
found between the cultural traditions that created them. It is therefore an anthropo-
logical invariant.
Our “naturalistic” tradition mainly leaves the expression of these analogical
ways of bringing together beings that are separated in different taxa to the arts, which
interrogates the nature of such similitudes more profoundly. Amerindian ontologies
express it in a more distinct way as they reintroduce them into their myths and rituals.
One of the changes that probably occurred in this Miraña myth, with pre-Colum-
bian ramiFcations, is the intrusion of history linked to the rubber boom and, before
that, to slavery. Binding the children one after the other so that they all walk together
is typical of the slavery era as recorded by Spix and Martius, two Bavarian explorers
Dimitri Karadimas
of the 18
century, during their journey through the Miraña territory. During this
time, the Miraña people were engaged in the human trading of neighbouring groups
– as were their victims – the practice of taking prisoners that was already linked to
the anthropophagic ritual described in the myth.
The probable change to a sap-eating character such as the harlequin beetle can
certainly be accredited to the intrusion of slavery and the massacres linked to the
rubber boom period at the end of the 19
century and beginning of the 20
, where
indigenous people of the area had to produce rubber by cutting the bark of trees to
get “milk” for the white men. Considering the thousands of tons that the region pro-
duced, and the number of deaths linked to it, the white man’s seemingly insatiable
greed for this material can only have been interpreted by the indigenous workers as
an aliment for the white people – rubber as a necessary source of sustenance – hence
the association with this sap-licking beetle that brings death.
Bibliographical references
Wile E. Coyote’s gravity lessons
. Landoll: Warner Brothers.
Ales, Catherine & Jean Chiappino (eds.)
Del microscopio a la Maraca
. Caracas, Ex Libris.
Dedenbach-Salazar Sáenz, Sabine
Die Stimmen von Huarochirí. Indianische Quechua-Überlieferungen aus der Kolonialzeit
zwischen Mündlichkeit und Schriftlichkeit. Eine Analyse ihres Diskurses.
Amerikanistische Studien, 32. Aachen: Shaker.
Descola, Philippe
Par-delà nature et culture
. Paris: Gallimard.
Donnan, Christopher B. & Donna McClelland
Moche fneline painting: Its evolution and its artists
. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Mu-
seum of Cultural History.
Fausto, Carlos
Feasting on people: Cannibalism and commensality in Amazonia.
Current Anthropology
48(4): 497-530.
Goulard, Jean-Pierre & Dimitri Karadimas (coord.)
Masques des hommes, visages des dieux: regards d’Amazonie
. Paris: CNRS éditions.
Guaman Poma de Ayala, Felipe
El primer nueva corónica y buen gobierno
. København, Det Kongelige Bibliotek, GKS
Animism and perspectivism: Still anthropomorphism?
Karadimas, Dimitri
The Miraña deer skull, cognitive and mythological implications of a Miraña
communication object (Colombian Amazon). In: Cipolletti, María Susana & Thomas
P. Myers (eds.):
Artifacts and society in Amazonia/Artefactos y sociedad en Amazonia
Bonner Amerikanistische Studien, 36. Markt Schwaben: Anton Saurwein, 63-94.
La raison du corps. Idéologie du corps et représentations de l’environnement chez les
Miraña d’Amazonie colombienne
. Société d’études linguistiques et anthropologiques de
France Series, 412. Paris/Dudley: Peeters.
Animaux imaginaires et êtres composites. In: Descola, Philippe (ed.):
La fabrique des
images: visions du monde et formes de la reprEsentation
. Paris: Musée du quai Branly/
Somogy, 184-191.
Lavallée, Danièle (ed.)
Paracas, trésors inédits du Pérou ancien
. Paris: Flammarion/Musée du quai Branly.
Penney, David W.
L’art des Indiens d’Amérique du Nord.
Köln: Könemann.
Severi, Carlo
Le principe de la chimère. Une anthropologie de la mémoire
. Paris: Rue d’Ulm.
Vilaça, Aparecida
Making kin out of others in Amazonia.
The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute
8(2): 347-365.
Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo
From the enemy’s point of view: humanity and divinity in an amazonian society
. London/
Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.