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): 127-143
Laura Rival
The materiality of life:
Revisiting the anthropology of nature in Amazonia
In what distinctive ways are lowland South American Indians ani-
mists? Is there a place in Amerindian thought for a conception of biological life
autonomous from social intelligence and its socially determined intentions? How
far can it be said that by viewing animals, plants and objects as subjective agents
endowed with consciousness and intentionality, native Amazonians construct a
way of knowing the world which is both culturally unique and antithetical to bi-
ology? In trying to provide ethnographically informed answers to these questions,
I critically review various theoretical approaches to animism, ontological animism
and perspectivism. In ending, I attempt to explain why these theories ultimately
discard or ignore the rich base of biological knowledge that underlies the natural
and cosmogonic classifcations oF native Amazonians.
Animism, ontologies, perspectivism, Huaorani, Ecuador, Amazonia,
¿De qué maneras distintivas son animistas los indígenas de las tierras
bajas de América del Sur? ¿Existe un lugar en el pensamiento amerindio para una
concepción de la vida biológica autónoma de la inteligencia social y sus inten-
ciones socialmente determinadas? ¿Hasta qué punto se puede decir que al ver los
animales, las plantas y los objetos los indígenas amazónicos como agentes subjeti-
vos dotados de conciencia e intencionalidad construyen una manera de conocer el
mundo que es tanto culturalmente única como antitética a la biología? Al tratar de
dar respuestas etnográfcamente inFormadas a estas preguntas, hago una revisión
crítica de las diferentes aproximaciones teóricas al animismo, el animismo onto-
lógico y el perspectivismo. Para concluir, intento explicar por qué estas teorías
acaban en última instancia por descartar o ignorar la rica base de conocimiento
biológico que sustentan las clasifcaciones naturales y cosmogónicos de los indí
genas amazónicos.
Palabras clave:
Animismo, ontologías, perspectivismo, huaorani, Ecuador,
Amazonía, siglos
Laura Rival obtained her PhD in Social Anthropology from the London School of Economics.
She is a Lecturer at the University of Oxford where she has been teaching and researching the
anthropology of nature, society and development since 2001. In addition to her position at the
Oxford Department of International Development (ODID), she is an active member of the School
of Anthropology (SAME), the Latin American Centre (LAC) and the Oxford Centre for Tropical
±orests (OCT±). Laura Rival has conducted ethnographic feldwork in Ecuador with the Huaorani
and the Chachi, and with the Makushi in Guyana.
Animism, whatever this term means after almost twenty years of renewed debate,
offers an excellent standpoint from which to measure or evaluate how far we have
moved towards theorizing nature as locally produced in Amazonian settings. With
the beneft oF temporal depth, we are now in a better position to appreciate how the
academic understanding of animism has evolved over time, and, with it, the use of
a number of other key concepts, such as agency, humanity, and intentionality (Rival
2012). Deconstructing animism has led to a multiplicity of new terms to cover every
concept involved, as well as slippery synonymy between them. “Agent”, for instance,
has multiplied into “agency”, “actant”, “agentivity”, “reactive agent”, and so forth.
For “humanity”, we now have terms such as “other-than-human”, “non-human”, as
well as “person” and “personhood”, terms which have renewed our understanding
of anthropocentrism and anthropomorphism. “Consciousness”, a word rarely used
today, has become synonymous with “mind”, “mindful”, “subjectivity”, “interior-
ity”, “soul”, and “intentionality”. Rethinking animism has produced in less than one
generation new analyses of ethnographic materials that have converged towards a
peculiar form of theoretical consensus regarding the discursive production of nature
as “after nature”. Thinking in terms of “after nature” or of “post-humanism” has
often led to a more or less happy marriage between the metaphysics of being and the
primacy oF direct experience, as well as to the avoidance oF scientifc and objective
attempts to understand the world on the ground that such “naturalist” analyses nec-
essarily distort or subvert indigenous ways of knowing (Bird David 1999; Descola
2005). Viveiros de Castro (2004: 468) puts it bluntly: whereas for Amerindian sha-
mans to know is to personify, moderns need to objectify – or desubjectify – in order
to know. Animist worlds, where there are no “things”, for “something” is always
also “someone”, cannot be understood with analytical tools designed to differentiate
“knowledge” from “belief”. Viveiros de Castro goes further: “A thing or a state of
aFFairs that is not amenable to subjectifcation [.
..] is shamanistically uninteresting”
(Viveiros de Castro 2004: 469-470). Would it be that apart from their metaphysics,
and the potential virtualities with which they enrich our repertoire of non-represen-
tational ontologies, Amerindian socio-cultural systems have nothing to contribute to
anthropological knowledge? What has happened to the Buberian contrast between
I-thou and I-it that initially informed perspectivism? Has it led to a new form of
dualism that radically differentiates the ontology of the jaguar-shaman-warrior-
See Harvey (forthcoming), which builds on his 2003 book to offer a general survey of animism
in contemporary thought. See also Viveiros de Castro (2009) for a philosophical debate based on
an examination oF Amazonian metaphysics. Amazonianist anthropologists have yet to re±ect Fully
upon the growing place occupied by perspectivist animism in general anthropological theory and
cultural theory (Turner 2009; Costa & Fausto 2010).
Laura Rival
hunter from all other ways of knowing and being? To what extent do we need to
territorialize modes of knowing? On what basis should we deFne the incommensu
rability of worldviews, or the continued production of radical difference?
Perspectivism (Viveiros de Castro 1998) has greatly facilitated the “ontological
turn” in anthropology, or, in other words, the systematic attempt to clear anthropo-
logical theory from all traces of ethnocentrism. By deriving modes of knowing from
modes of being, “ontologists” have systematically questioned the implicit separa-
tion of magic and belief as mere “cultural froth” from what is often considered to
be tangible, real, rational, or proto-scientiFc knowledge about the world (Carrithers
et al. 2010). Ontologists have sought to redeem anthropology from its colonial past
through the active transformation of anthropological concepts, especially “belief”,
which, in their analysis, reduces alterity to irrationality. Their
cheval de bataille
been nature/culture dualism, or what they see as the artiFcial separation of “mate
rial” from “immaterial”. By deFning ontology as an alternative to culture, they hope
to bring forth as many natures as there are cultures; and by celebrating the richness
of “multiverse” over the poverty of “universe”, they ask anthropologists to foster the
“conceptual self-determination” of the people they study. The language of ontology
replaced the language of culture in anthropology sometime in the early 2000s as a
response to a shift that had already occurred in Western philosophy in reaction to
“the crisis of representation”. As Mario Blaser told me recently: “You need ontology
as a concept to be anti-dualist. There exist other forms of knowledge. The key issue
is how do we know what the world is made of? We need a new metaphysics”.
To fully appreciate the impact of the “ontological turn” in Amazonianist anthro-
pology, we need to take into account, I wish to argue, that the Amazon region came
out of age ethnographically at a time when deFnitions of culture in terms of symbolic
meaning and semiotics were giving way to practice, agency, embodiment and per-
formance. In societies where cosmological forces, invisible qualities, and immaterial
properties loom large, the “ontological turn” was preceded by the “material turn”,
which offered plenty opportunities to look at the human body and its ornaments,
ritual and domestic objects, musical instruments, transportation devices and weap-
ons – and material culture in general, as an endless source of information on the
constitution of personhood and difference. Whether they engaged with the material
world of the whites or with the physical presence of plants, animals, topography
or other natural elements, native Amazonians were understood to equally consti-
tute, communicate and reproduce their own relational orders and speciFc modes of
knowing. With the “ontological turn”, whether under the guise of “perspectivism” or
Personal communication, September 2011. See also Blaser (2010).
The materiality of life
“animism”, a new generation of ethnographers revisited the centrality of corporeal-
ity in Amazonia, not so much in terms of embodied relatedness and its sociological
signifcance, but, rather, in terms oF native metaphysical concerns with the uncertain
and transitory nature of the human person, understood to be caught in a continuous
process of “Other-becoming”. As a result, there has been an uneasy move back and
forth between a focus on indigenous practices and a focus on native concepts, with
much conceptual confusion around the word “relation” and its derivatives (“related-
ness”, “relational”, and so forth). Costa & Fausto (2010), for instance, see no obvi-
ous difference in the ways in which Viveiros de Castro, Strathern, Latour and Ingold
conceptualise the ±ux oF social liFe or theorise embodied practices. As Far as they are
concerned, all these authors are equally engaged in questioning the great modernist
divide between nature and culture, and in debunking the reifed anthropological con
cept of society.
They are all helping anthropology to become more phenomenologi-
cal by moving closer to “relational becoming” and further away from “represented
substance”. However, undoing the nature/culture dualism requires far more than
“ontologising” structures and practices or “phenomenologising” perspectivism, as I
illustrate below with a short discussion of Ingold’s approach to animism.
1. Tim Ingold, animism and the meaning of life
I have recently discussed Ingold’s (2006) approach to the relationship between ani-
mism and the meaning of life (Rival 2012), as well as his proposition that animism
is a relational ontology founded on the human propensity to communicate, including
across species boundaries, which brings him to re±ect on the properties oF animation
in relation to the process of life. In this essay, Ingold contrasts the dualist thinking of
scientists and of modern people in general with the monist approach of indigenous
peoples whose animic ontology he sees as one version of the ontology of dwelling.
His interest in animism starts with a Piagetian question: Why do we see lifeless
things and events as alive? For Ingold, the only valid way of dissolving the culture/
nature dualism is to write ethnographies that restore the original truth and primacy of
direct experience. In the phenomenological approach he defends, the subject knows
the world through immersion. Life and social relations, like understanding, are emer-
gent properties of interactions between organisms. Given that life is the emergent
property oF a relational system in which everything is in perpetual ±ux and move
ment, it would be wrong to differentiate, as western scientists do, between organic
and non-organic life:
The sun is alive because oF the way it moves through the frmament, but so too are the
trees because oF the particular ways their boughs sway or their leaves ±utter in the wind,
and because of the sounds they make in doing so (Ingold 2006: 27).
Laura Rival
Animation may be imagined as a sign of intentionality, but it Frst and foremost
exists as a property of the world perceived through engaged action (Ingold 1992).
If animation is a matter of direct perception, Ingold’s contrast between his gener-
ic animist-cum-dwelling construct and other approaches becomes clearer. To the
cognitive psychologist, Ingold simply says that animism has nothing to do with an
innate, unconscious and evolutionary predisposition to act as if inanimate objects
were actually alive. He reminds the plant scientist, bent on attributing life to the tree
“because it is a cellular organism whose growth is fuelled by photosynthetic reac-
tions and regulated by DNA in the cell nucleus”, that the tree is perceived to be alive
because its branches move in the wind. He repeats to the cultural anthropologist that
the relational person does not behave “according to the directions of cultural models
or cognitive schemata installed inside his or her head”, for action and perception un-
fold “within a nexus of intertwined relationships”. To the post-humanist sociologist
and the material culture theorist he interestingly remarks that their abstract world
is “unbreathable” (Ingold 2007: 11). In this remark, he remains close to his earlier
vocation as an ecological anthropologist bent to look at biology from an anthropo-
logical standpoint, and at anthropology from a biological one.
Ingold’s approach to the properties of animation in relation to life is therefore
entirely different from that proposed by scholars in the Feld of Science and Technol
ogy Studies, despite superFcial similarities. At Frst glance, Ingold seems to share
a great deal with the conceptual project attempted by Bennett (2010) in
, for instance. To both authors, western dualism must give way to a heteroge-
neous monism. As the distinction between object and subject gets blurred, “nature”
dissipates in an encompassing “environment” composed of humans, non-human
persons, material objects and the dynamic relations between all these constitutive
elements. The objective and subjective lives of people, species, and things form the
total dance in which relational subjects “become with”. Being human involves the
process of becoming with non-humans, and “becoming with” the exploration of the
unfolding relatedness of humans with non-humans. It is indeed difFcult to distin
guish Ingold’s “meshwork” from Bennett’s “assemblages”. The key to the subtle
difference between the two concepts may be found in Bennett’s (2010: 53) claim
that we must “reconFgure life away from its mooring in the physiological and the
organic”. Whereas Ingold calls us to be much more aware of the world around us, in
all its historicity and relationality, Bennett declares that there is no nature left at all,
everything around us has already become “second nature” (Bennett 2010: 115), by
which she means that “the very extension of science, technologies and markets has
become almost coextensive with material existence” (Latour 2008). It is too late for
The materiality of life
moderns to relearn how to grow, live and reproduce with plants and animals; they
need to emancipate themselves from biology. As long as they
the technology
they create, moderns can harmlessly continue to invent and innovate (Bennett 2010:
61; see also Latour 2009). There is thus a sharp difference between Bennett’s “vital
materialism” and Ingold’s “meshwork of interwoven lines of growth and move-
ment”, which has to do with the reality of the world they envisage, as the following
quote makes clear:
Is it primitivist to acknowledge that we inhabit a world of earth, sky, wind and weather,
in which the sun shines, rain falls, trees grow and water can turn into ice? Life as we
know it depends on all these things. Throughout our lives we breathe the air, more or less
as we fnd it. I am not worried that it would be somehow inauthentic iF we ceased to do
so. I am worried that we would all be dead (Ingold 2007: 33).
If Ingold’s world is ecologically human, Bennett’s is not. In her “onto-tale”, “every-
thing is, in a sense, alive”. This indicates that she has redefned liFe as a generative
process of creativity emancipated from both God and biology, which she describes
as “the uncaused causality that ceaselessly generates new forms” (Bennett 2010:
117). In other words, post-human thinkers need to erase the biological meaning of
liFe to fnally achieve the dissolution oF the ontological diFFerence between living
organisms and things. Ingold, however, is at pains to explain how an ecological
awareness of the world can be maintained without
, collective values, in-
stitutionalized norms, and explicit rules. If the ontology of dwelling comes close
to Rousseau’s naturalism, it fails to address the importance of social reproduction,
without which natural society, as Rousseau was painfully aware, could not be passed
on from one generation to the next.
This brief encounter with perspectivism, direct perception and post-modern
vitalism highlights the fact that attributing life to the lifeless takes animism into a
sphere of conceptual complexity far more challenging than the mere attribution of
personhood or humanity to “other-than-humans” does. On the basis of my ethno-
graphic work, I wish to illustrate now that there is more to lowland South American
cultures than the animist and perspectival ontologies have so far revealed. I will then
conclude with a discussion of what can be gained by analysing Amazonian societies
without assuming from the outset that animist peoples do not reason in terms of eco-
logical properties, or that folkbiology is culturally irrelevant in shamanistic societies.
Laura Rival
2. Huaorani forest society
My ethnographic work with the Huaorani illustrates the ways in which this distinct
culture reasons about ecological relations and sustains diverse and dynamic land-
scapes in the Ecuadorian Amazon. I summarize below some of the generalizations
I have drawn over the years regarding the Huaorani system of “natural abundance”,
which is predicated on “putting the prey at the centre”.
For the Huaorani, the forest is a vital space they call
monito ömè
, “our land”.
Men, women and children spend a great deal of time slowly exploring the ever
evolving network of paths that becomes their homeland for as long as they walk
this part of the forest (
ömere gomonipa
), observing with obvious pleasure and equal
interest animal movements, the progress of fruit maturation, and vegetation growth.
Such routine explorations are guided by numerous ecological distinctions, and for-
est patches are named according to the age of trees and species composition. The
natural and the social worlds are ordered according to processes of maturation and
growth, which are not only considered to be key biological phenomena recorded
calendri cally, but also valued for their aesthetic qualities. However, there are no
words in
huao terero
(literally, “the true humans’ spoken language”) to say “nature”,
“ecology”, “religion”, “animals” or “plants”. Abstract, reifed categories that sepa
rate the body from the mind, belief from perception, or human society from the non-
human environment are absent from
huao terero
as they are from most indigenous
My ethnography of this unique Amazonian people could have been written
using the Ingoldian language of direct perception. Much of Huaorani trekking may
be understood as “lines of growth” that get “comprehensively entangled” to form
“meshworks” “like the vines and creepers of a dense patch of tropical forest” (Ingold
2012). However, such analytical language, with its narrow focus on the individual
experiencing her being entangled along a path of becoming, would not have allowed
me to engage fully with the wealth of ecological information exchanged by trek-
kers as they walk, while also keeping paths open through many small and careful
gestures, such as picking up thorny leaves fallen during the night, breaking bending
branches, or slashing invasive grasses. Nor would have such a language made it
possible for me to convey the fact that trekking through the forest is like walking
through a living book in which natural history and human history merge seamlessly.
This section refers to the following published ethnographic works: On Huaorani conception of the
forest, Rival 1998b and 2007a, b, and c; On their aesthetics of growth, Rival 1998a; On their crea-
tion myths, Rival 1997, 2005; On their hunting weapons Rival 1996; On palm groves, Clement,
Rival & Cole 2009.
The materiality of life
Not only do walkers converse endlessly about the traces left by animals or about the
material signs that evoke times long gone (especially deaths and spearing raids), but
they also communicate different messages about the world according to context and
circumstance. For instance, the same tree may be admired and poetically commented
upon for its brand new and shiny leaves one day, only to be feared the next day, when
a tempestuous wind animates it with a different, and much more dangerous, kind
of energy. However, to analyze the latter as a clear instance of ontological animism
that can – and should – be isolated from the rest of the ethnography of trekking, as
if the tree was culturally more signiFcant when perceived as dangerous, would be
mistaken. Knowing the forest through trekking involves various ways of knowing
at once, whether these are based on direct, individual perception and experiential
learning; derived from conversations about the objective properties of the world; or
related to conversations elaborating people’s cultural heritage and history.
For similar reasons, I could not bring myself to reduce Huaorani chants and myths
to the language of perspectivism. Myths, like ethnographic contexts, are far more
complex and idiosyncratic than perspectivism allows for. In my analysis of the
creation myth, I discuss the fact that the giant ceibo tree (
Ceiba pentranda
container of all life forms, expresses the fundamental characteristics of the Amazon
ecosystem, which largely depend on a delicate balance between heat and humidity,
and shade and light. According to this myth, all that was alive dwelled in the giant
tree. In those times of beginning, living beings, neither animals nor humans, formed
one single group. However, there were also birds (doves), the only game available
to hunters, and two dangerous individuals, Eagle (raw meat eater) and Condor (eater
of rotten ±esh), who preyed on people and doves alike. The differentiation between
prey and predator thus predated the differentiation between humans and animal spe-
cies. And it was the attempt by several primordial beings (in particular Squirrel and
Spider) to trick and kill the predators that caused the fall of the giant tree and the be-
ginning of the world as it is known today. Although correlating the mythical and the
social is far from a straightforward exercise, I have explained why there are grounds
for arguing that the Huaorani myth of origin expresses the fundamental characteris-
tics of the Amazon ecosystem. There would be no life on earth without trees, as they
provide shade, food and shelter, and prompt rain formation. The primordial tree is a
small ecosystem in itself, and the world expands when this perfectly self-contained
microcosm collapses, giving birth to a new ecosystem, which is as integrated and
self-generative as the primordial tree. If at the beginning of creation there was only
one single giant tree rooted in earth and tied to the sky, its transformation into a great
water system and a vast forest landscape through the dynamic inter-play of social
agency has caused the world to expand and exist with all its differentiation and
Laura Rival
biocultural diversity. The myth of origin thus articulates a powerful message, one
that associates social categories with two distinct natural processes, the aggressive
relation between predator and prey on the one hand, and the life-sustaining relation
between people and forest plants on the other.
Rereading versions of this myth today, I also see how it articulates the ritual
power inherent in natural fertility and regeneration (see also Hill 2009). Unlike
the Wakuenai who invoke nature to create culture as not only an autonomous and
abstract world but also, one may add, an entirely fabricated world, the Huaorani
celebrate in their myths and poetry the inherent power that biological organisms
have to grow themselves and be alive, which is especially visible in new leaves
that shine. Today, they say that brightly coloured brand-new clothes shine as young
leaves. The power of self-regeneration does not derive from human intentionality,
and the vitality and will to live such a power signals is not necessarily attributed to
a spiritual force; in any case, the cosmic force that causes plants and animal and hu-
man bodies to grow and live is neither singularised nor anthropomorphised. Another
creation myth involving the creative power of Grandfather and Grandmother (his
wife) shares even more similarities with the perspectivist cosmological deixis, for it
seems to suggest that animals were ex-humans. Yet, the myth’s rendering of the act
of creative transformation, which requires that Grandfather, having been murdered
by his grandchildren, be reborn by his wife, plays on the theme of self-regenera-
tion, while giving it a clear sociological content: gender differences are not only
prior to but also indispensable for speciation to take place. Therefore, I am reluctant
to argue that the Huaorani see a metaphysical continuity between present-day
humans and animal species. Rather than a dualist contrast between two mythologies,
one that sees animals as ex-humans, the other that takes humans to be ex-animals
(Viveiros de Castro 2004: 465), we have, it seems to me, two systems that attempt
to grasp expansion, change and diversifcation. For the Huaorani, the initial beings
from which both contemporary humans and animal species derive were not human;
only contemporary Huaorani are humans.
Another myth about the origin of blowpipes and the function of spears further
develops the fundamental importance of gender and kinship, this time by showing
the double nature of malehood. I have shown in my published work on these issues
that Huaorani hunting cannot be satisfactorily analyzed through a direct perception,
a perspectivist, or an ontological lens alone. Hunting with a blowpipe and with a
spear are two entirely different ways of socializing the environment and domesti-
cating nature. More importantly for the argument developed here, these two forms
of hunting embody two different ways of engaging and knowing the forest’s ecolo-
gy, and of using the signs that are internal to biological dynamics (Kohn 2007; Rival
The materiality of life
2012). It is for this reason that analysing hunting weapons as mere extensions of the
human body or within the partial relational feld created by the “mutual constitution
of things and persons” (Santos Granero 2009) seems to me entirely inadequate. By
isolating humans and their artefacts from the ecological and symbiotic spaces in
which species meet, contributors to
The occult life of things
perpetuate human ex-
ceptionalism (Schaeffer 2007). Moreover, they are left with little else than discussing
comparatively mastery and control, that is, the capacity to extract a voluntary action
from others (Fausto 2012). As “reactive agents”, objects are necessarily reduced to
a very low degree of agentivity (Santos-Granero 2009: 20). Culture built out of and
against nature can thus triumph again, as the biology of individuals, nuclear families
and the whole forest ecosystem gets subsumed and hierarchically encompassed by
“society” in the act of social reproduction (Turner 2009). It is as if both post-struc-
turalism and neo-Marxism are faced with the same theoretical void in their attempts
to overcome the structuralist asymmetrical dichotomy between nature and culture.
This is why I continue to view the Huaorani blowpipe as a regulatory instrument
inserted in webs of systemic relations through which the reproduction of society and
forest is ensured, even if my early analyses would now require some adjustment in
the light of the theoretical and ethnological developments that have occurred in the
last twelve years.
There are plenty examples in Huaorani myths, shamanic practices, chants and
other cultural expressions to illustrate the importance of predation, which, as the
myth of origin discussed above indicates, has always constituted one dimension of
the world. However, the call of predation is resisted, and limits are placed on the
potential for reversibility between human prey and powerful cannibal attackers. Per-
ceiving themselves as the victims of enemies or evil spirits in the shape of mystical
jaguars or harpy eagles who reproduce themselves by continuously snatching their
creativity, vitality and life-force, the Huaorani live their lives eluding the contagion
of contact with those who do not, like them, put the prey at the centre. Moreover, if
shamans have the power of making game animals stay close to humans, hence facili-
tating hunting, it would be wrong to understand shamanic power as more cultural
than the forest management practices through which people transform the forest into
a giving environment. Furthermore, by paying due attention to the range of more or
less intentional management practices through which the organic growth of useful
forest plants is encouraged and the forest anthropomorphised, it becomes possible
to discern in these practices a wealth of ecological knowledge that forms an intrin-
sic part of Huaorani culture and of their ecological view of the cosmos. Huaorani
ecology should be understood as ecology, as well as symbolic, historical and politi-
cal ecology.
Laura Rival
The fundamental problem with Descola’s ontological animism and Viveiros de
Castro’s perspectivism, as a Huaorani would see it, is that they present the world as
a giant cosmic food web (Arhem 1996), that is, as it is imagined
by their enemies
The Huaorani vision of life is not limited fertility, but natural abundance. It is in the
nature of trees and other plants of the forest to give continuously to humans without
asking anything in return. Far from being a pristine environment external to society,
the forest exists as the product of the productive and consumptive activities of past
living beings and people. In other words, the forest’s natural bounty is understood to
result from the interlocking of animal, plant and human life cycles. It is by “doing”
) and “living” (
) in such and such part of the forest that people “make the
forest grow” (
ahuene tei tei què
), exactly as people who lived in the past did, and as
people in the future will almost certainly do as well. People are vaguely aware that
today’s activities are making similar activities possible in the future, but such aware-
ness has little to do with planning for the beneFt of future generations. ±urthermore,
the future is never conceptualized in terms of expansion – i.e. more growth. The idea
that future generations could be wealthier, taller or more numerous than present-day
people is totally alien to the Huaorani, for whom trees offer natural models of life-
cycle growth and developmental transformation. A child who learns how to walk, a
youth who gets married, a man who kills, a dreamer who lets the jaguar in, an old
woman who lets herself die, or a house-group that splits are all irreversibly changed
in the process. Of such transformations, only those that are associated with devel-
opmental processes are talked about in terms of plant growth, for they ensure that,
overtime, both the forest and society will be regenerated through the business of
ordinary life without need for accumulation, surplus, stealing, or the unequal trans-
fer of life energy from one sphere to another. By living in close association with
forest groves, where they grow, reproduce and die along with fruit bearing trees,
birds, monkeys and other species, people can thus forge long-term intergenerational
relationships beyond genealogical amnesia (Chaumeil 2007). Contrary to Ingold’s
(1996: 22) interpretation, the Huaorani do not transform the forest in a huge garden,
for establishing the right ecological conditions for growth requires that humans terri-
torialize their activities over time in a way that respects the continuity of autonomous
reproduction of social others, both human and non-human.
In stressing the counter-discursive quality of Huaorani representations of growth,
my early work may have given too much importance to people, whether past or
present, enemy or kin, hunter-gatherers or horticulturists. I needed to show that by
anchoring their society within the forest ecosystem and its cycles of growth, decay
and regeneration, the Huaorani had found ways of countering the timeless trans-
formational whirlpool that engulfed their predatory enemies. In the value system
The materiality of life
I was trying to interpret, the “true humans” or “real people” (literal translation of
) consciously assume the subjective identity of “prey at the centre” in their
continuous battle against those who take rather than give. Today, I would pay more
attention to the interweaving of moral and ecological reasoning that underlie the
Huaoranis’ eco-cosmos, in particular when it comes to understand relations between
plant and animal species. As Scott Atran reminds us, the science of ecology is rooted
in popular science, or common sense (Atran 1988), and it is at that level that we
need to understand cultural particularisms (Atran 1999). This is why the approach
I have attempted in more recent publications has fully endorsed a more integrated
and holistic anthropology such as that advocated by Roy Ellen, who proposes that
we seek “to answer the large questions about human distinctiveness and diversity”
without shying away from engaging biology positively and critically, or forgetting
that culture must be taken seriously (Ellen 2010: 393). And this is where perhaps my
work goes against the grain of the styles of analysis discussed here, for despite real
differences in their theoretical approaches, Ingold, Descola and Viveiros de Castro
equally agree that whatever animism is, it is antithetical to modern scientifc knowl
edge. Such a rejection of biology disregards the fact that it is over-simplistic to treat
science as an objectivist knowledge system predicated on a binary opposition be-
tween nature and culture (Richards 1993).
3. To conclude
While accepting that discontinuities between humans and non-humans do not just
organise the way people living in different cultures think about life and represent it
but also the way in which they experience the world, I have stressed in this paper
the need to acknowledge that the discontinuities recognized by the Huaorani and
other native Amazonians may not be as radically different from our own as they are
some time portrayed to be. This is an important fact to consider in an era when the
contradictions between economic development and the preservation of biological
and cultural diversity have become so acute that they not only represent the greatest
political challenge of our times, but also call for a cultural revolution in the way we
think about nature.
As capitalism reinvents itself and its relation to nature, new speculations about
vital processes, animated matter, and the living power of the earth are surfacing
(Bennett 2010). Such interrogations have led to the fragmentation and the weakening
of “naturalism”. Monist attempts to blur the distinction between objects and sub-
jects have dissolved “nature” into an all-encompassing “environment” composed of
barely differentiated humans, non-human persons, material objects, and the dynamic
Laura Rival
relations between all such constitutive elements. Resulting currents of thought,
such as, for instance, “post-humanism”, seem undecided as to whether “the very
extension of science, technologies and markets has become almost coextensive with
material existence” (Latour 2008, 2009), or whether the
twenty-frst century will see
the constitution of a new covenant to sustain the “human-earth-system” (Chapin et
al. 2009). In the context of such uncertainty, studies of how marginalized communi-
ties around the world envisage life in the land and understand life processes acquire
new signifcance. As the instant success oF
La chute du ciel. Paroles d’un chaman
(Kopenawa & Albert 2010) illustrates, indigenous ontologies of becom-
ing are acquiring an unprecedented political credence. The need to interrogate the
longing for “the ecology of others” (Descola 2011) and to rethink anthropologically
the attribution of life, animacy, agency, and relationality has thus never been greater.
We therefore need to build upon recent anthropological discussions of animism,
personhood and the meaning of life to interrogate the attribution of life and death in a
wide range of social and cultural contexts. Animism is the capacity to appraise plants,
spirits, objects and animals as other-than-human persons, that is, as volitional, sen-
tient, sensitive, aware, and intelligent beings. Much recent ethnography of lowland
South America illustrates the creativity and agency of the other-than-human world,
as well as the rich communication that takes place between human and other-than-
human social persons. However, the limits of extending personhood as a category of
human-like subjectivity to non-humans has also been amply demonstrated (Santos
Granero 2009; Brightman, Grotti & Ulturgasheva 2012). Recent scholarship gives us
a good understanding of which objects, animals or plants acquire human-like quali-
ties, and when; what the relationships between humans and non-humans consist of;
or what humanity or subjectivity actually mean as trans-species qualities. However,
we know very little about what life qualities humans share with non-humans, or what
images, metaphors, techniques or experiences are mobilized to express culturally
what organic life is about. There seems to be enough evidence to suggest that life is
often apprehended as a relational process; but what about conceptions of death as a
process that regenerates life? Are the indigenous concepts of life and death related
to those of animation and non-animation? Which practical actions best describe the
workings of vital processes? Can things be alive? Is loss part of life? Is matter life-
less? Is the earth thought about as a living organism? Can there be life or death with-
out transformation? How does biological life relate to human life? Is life a limited
good unequally distributed among beings? Do indigenous cultures contrast wild and
anthropomorphic landscapes? Is human wellbeing in any way connected to nature’s
ecological functions?
The materiality of life
In asking and answering such questions, it is extremely important that we
bring forth ethnographies that do pay equal attention to the level of individual
experience and consciousness; the cultural norms and values that give rise to distinct
communities; and the invariants of the human condition as they are expressed in the
way people in all cultures question human existence, and communicate about across
cultural boundaries about it. Only then can we hope for a future when the reassuring
boundaries between nature and culture will have blurred for good, opening, one can
only hope, an era when an emerging cosmopolitan human reason will have brought
forth new ecological values and shared normative practices.
Bibliographical references
Arhem, Kaj
The cosmic foodweb: Human-nature relatedness in the Northwest Amazon. In: Descola,
Philippe & Gísli Pálsson (eds.):
Nature and society: Anthropological perspectives
London: Routledge, 185-204.
Atran, Scott
Du savoir populaire au savoir scientifque sur la nature. In: Cadoret, Anne (ed.): “C
le naturel
…”. Cahiers des Études rurales, 5. Paris: Ed. de l’École des hautes études en
Sciences sociales, 145-157.
Itzaj Maya folkbiological taxonomy: Cognitive universals and cultural particulars. In:
Medin, Douglas L. & Scott Atran (eds.):
. Cambridge: MIT Press, 119-204.
Bennett, Jane
Vibrant matter. A political ecology of things
. Durham: Duke University Press.
Bird-David, Nurit
‘Animism’ revisited: Personhood, environment and relational epistemology.
40, Supplement, 67-91.
Blaser, Mario
Storytelling globalization from the Chacó and beyond
. Durham: Duke University Press.
Brightman, Marc, Vanessa Grotti & Olga Ulturgasheva
Animism in rainforest and tundra: Personhood, animals, plants and things in
contemporary Amazonia and Siberia.
Oxford: Berghahn.
Carrithers, Michael, Matei Candea, Karen Sykes, Martin Holbraad & Soumhya Venkatesan
Ontology is just anther word for culture. Motion Tabled at the 2008 Meeting of the
Group for Debates in Anthropological Theory, University of Manchester.
Critique of
30(2): 152-200.
Chapin, F. Stuart III., Gary P. Kofnas, Carl Folke & Melissa C. Chapin
Principles of ecosystem stewardship. Resilience-based natural resource management in a
changing world
. New York : Springer.
Laura Rival
Chaumeil Jean-Pierre
Bones, futes and the dead: Memory and Funerary treatments in Amazonia. In:
Carlos & Michael Heckenberger (eds.):
Time and memory in Indigenous Amazonia.
Anthropological perspectives
. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 243-283.
Clement, Charles R., Laura Rival & David M. Cole
Domestication of peach palm (Bactris Gasipaes Kunth): The roles of human mobility and
migration. In: Alexiades, Miguel (ed.):
The ethnobiology of mobility, displacement and
migration in indigenous lowland South America.
Oxford: Berghahn, 117-140.
Costa, Luiz & Carlos Fausto
The return of the animists: Recent studies in Amazonian ontologies.
Religion and Society:
Advances in Research
1(1): 89-109.
Descola, Philippe
Par-delà nature et culture
. Paris: Gallimard.
L’ecologie des autres
. Versailles: Editions Quae.
Ellen, Roy
Theories in anthropology and ‘anthropological theory’.
Journal of the Royal Anthro-
pological Institute
16: 387-404.
Fausto, Carlos
Too many owners: Mastery and ownership in Amazonia. In: Brightman, Marc, Vanessa
Grotti & Olga Ulturgasheva (eds.):
Animism in rainforest and tundra: Personhood,
animals, plants and things in contemporary Amazonia and Siberia.
Oxford: Berghahn,
Harvey, Graham
Shamanism: A reader
. London: Routledge.
Handbook of contemporary animism
. Milton Keenes: Open University Press.
Hill, Jonathan
Materializing the occult: An approach to understanding the nature of materiality in
Wakuénai ontology. In: Santos-Granero, Fernando (ed.):
The occult life of things. Native
Amazonian theories of materiality and personhood
. Tucson: The University of Arizona
Press, 235-262.
Ingold, Tim
Culture and the perception of the environment. In: Croll, Elisabeth & David J. Parkin
Bush base: Forest farm. Culture, environment and development
. London/New
York: Routledge, 39-56.
Growing plants and raising animals: An anthropological perspective on domestication.
In: Harris, David R. (ed.):
The origins and spread of agriculture and pastoralism in
. London: UCL Press, 12-21.
Rethinking the animate, re-animating thought.
71(1): 9-20.
Materials against materiality.
Archaeological Dialogues
14(1): 1-16.
Being alive
. London/New York: Routledge.
Kohn, Eduardo
How dogs dream: Amazonian natures and the politics of transspecies engagement.
American Ethnologist
34(1): 3-24.
The materiality of life
Kopenawa, Davi & Bruce Albert
La chute du ciel. Paroles d’un chaman yanomami
. Collection Terre Humaine. Paris: Plon.
Latour, Bruno
‘It’s development, stupid!’ or how to modernize modernization?
<> (15.10.2012).
Will non-humans be saved? An argument in ecotheology.
Journal of the Royal
Anthropological Institute
15: 459-475.
Richards, Paul
Cultivation: Knowledge or performance? In: Hobart, Mark (ed.):
An anthropological
critique of development. The growth of ignorance.
London: Routledge, 61-78.
Rival, Laura
Blowpipes and spears: The social signifcance oF Huaorani technological choices. In:
Descola, Philippe & Gísli Pálsson (ed.):
Nature and society: Anthropological perspectives
London: Routledge, 145-164.
The Huaorani and their trees: Managing and imagining the Ecuadorian rainforest. In:
Seeland, Klaus (ed.):
Nature is culture. Indigenous knowledge and socio-cultural
aspects of trees and forests in non-European cultures.
London: Intermediate Technology
Publications, 67-78.
Domestication as a historical and symbolic process: Wild gardens and cultivated forests
in the Ecuadorian Amazon. In: Balée,
William (ed.):
Principles of historical ecology.
New York: Columbia University Press, 232-250.
Preys at the centre: Resistance and marginality in Amazonia. In: Day, Sophie, Euthymios
Papataxiarchis & Michael Stewart (eds.):
Lilies of the Feld: Marginal people who live for
the moment.
Boulder: Westview Press, 61-79.
Soul, body and gender among the Huaorani of Amazonian Ecuador.
70(3): 285-
Proies meurtrières et rameaux bourgeonnants. Masculinité et féminité en terre Huaorani
(Amazonie équatorienne). In: Mathieu, Claude-Nicole (ed.):
Une maison sans Flle est
une maison morte. La personne et le genre en sociétés matrilinéaires et/ou uxorilocales
Paris: Ed. de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, 125-154.
What kind of sex makes people happy? In: Astuti, Rita, Jonathan P. Parry & Charles
Stafford (eds.):
Questions of anthropology
. London School of Economics monographs on
social anthropology, 76. Oxford: Berg, 167-196.
Domesticating the landscape, producing crops, and reproducing society in Amazonia.
In: Parkin, David & Stan Ulijaszek (eds.):
Convergence and emergence: Towards a new
holistic anthropology?
Oxford: Berghahn, 72-90.
Animism and the meaning oF liFe: Re±ections From Amazonia. In: Ulturgasheva, Olga,
Marc Brightman & Vanessa Elisa Grotti (eds.):
Animism in rainforest and tundra:
Personhood, animals, plants and things in contemporary Amazonia and Siberia.
Berghahn, 69-81.
Santos Granero, Fernando (ed.)
The occult life of things. Native Amazonian theories of materiality and personhood
Tucson: University of Arizona Press,
Laura Rival
Schaeffer, Jean-Marie
La fn de l’exception humaine
. Paris: Gallimard.
Turner, Terrence
The crisis of late structuralism. Perspectivism and animism: Rethinking culture, nature,
bodiliness and spirit.
7(1): 3-42.
Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo
Cosmological deixis and Amerindian perspectivism.
Journal of the Royal Anthropological
4: 469-85.
Exchanging perspectives.
Common Knowledge
10(3): 463-485.
Métaphysiques cannibales. Lignes d’anthropologie post-structurale
. Paris:
Presses Uni-
versitaires de France.
The materiality of life