Descent into the dark depths of empiricism

In the Society of Nature
May 31, 1996

In the Society of Nature the author sets out to describe and explain the relations between the Achuar Indians, who live on the upper reaches of the Amazon, partly in Ecuador and partly in Peru, and the physical environment in which they live.

Inhabiting a territory the size of Belgium, they number approximately 4,500. Their economy is based on a division of labour in which the women are in charge of horticultural production, while the men engage in hunting, fishing, and warfare.

The study was made to reveal the relations between a people and their environment and the author further explains that his ambition is "not so much to map the problem as to mark some of the trails leading to it". As a result, what we have is an account of one society's view of its place in the universe and its relationships with the forest world in which it lives, a world in which the boundaries between "us and them" or "culture and nature" are drawn up in surprising ways. For the Achuar the domestic sphere extends not just to those parts of the environment transformed by human activity, but far beyond because their social relationships serve to provide a model for their relationships with nature.

At first glance this appears to be a more or less routine cultural, ecological and economic study of an isolated people in a remote part of South America. It is, however, much more. The author finds that the Achuar manage to get along reasonably well without the chiefs, village communities, or unilineal descent groups which earlier Africa-based studies had taught were essential to the understanding of another society. He then goes on to reveal with considerable insight the nature of their relationships with the world in which they live.

On the surface the Achuar seem to represent a prime example of a society that is in tune with nature, at peace with itself and the world, and with no economic worries whatever. A striking feature of daily life, for example, is that an average of only three-and-a-half hours is devoted each day to subsistence production and a substantial proportion of the population is "systematically inactive". In other words, unemployment is part of the culture and yet this does not give rise to either social or economic problems.

The lack of economic worry among the Achuar is shown by the marked extent to which they fail to exploit many of the resources available to them. The main garden product is manioc (nearly 60 per cent of all production) and the returns from hunting and fishing provide from one to nearly two pounds of meat per consumer per day. The fact that a house is surrounded by a large garden has nothing to do with the food requirements of the family; it has everything to do with the family's concept of their social importance. The ease with which subsistence needs are met and the fact that only a small fraction of the economic potential of the area is exploited results in what the author calls an "elegant economy of resources".

But before you drop everything and rush off to this tropical paradise, pause to consider that among these people not only is internal conflict permanent, amounting to what the author calls "political anarchy", but that members of Achuar society live in a perpetual state of war. The author points out that "it is no doubt significant that their vocabulary has no term for peace". On the domestic front relations between Achuar men and their wives are sometimes marked by excessive brutality, particularly when the men are under the influence of drink, and that cases of wives being beaten to death are not unknown; even that "female suicide is not exceptional", as a dramatic protest against repeated ill treatment.

This is not a book designed to satisfy the light reading requirements of the average well-informed citizen; even those with a special interest in South America and arguments about its environment and ecological problems may find parts of it heavy going. It is very much a book for the anthropologist, written by a French philosopher who in his own words "had to take leave of the lofty community of philosophy and descend into the dark depths of empiricism" in order to take up his ethnographic studies. Anthropologists should be grateful that he took that step, for this book will serve to inspire other field studies.

Schuyler Jones is director, Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.

In the Society of Nature: A Native Ecology in Amazonia

Author - Philippe Descola
ISBN - 0 521 41103-3
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £45.00
Pages - 372
Translator - Nora Scott

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