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(P41) Situations, contexts and prospects of hunter-gatherer societies of the Amazon region 

Wednesday 25th July, 1:30 – 2:30 PM. Room: SK201

Convenors: Louis Forline, University of Nevada, Reno; Renato Athias, Federal University of Pernambuco, Brazil 

Ethnographically, South America was once referred to as the “least known continent” (see Lyon 1974). Lowland South America (Amazonia), in particular, was little known until recent works in the area of indigenous ethnology gave it more visibility. Today, a number of scholars call into question the use of ‘hunter-gatherers’ to accurately portray some of this region’s indigenous societies. Some of these communities practiced mixed subsistence strategies in the past before shifting to their current status as foragers in response to unbridled development. “Isolation”, “contact”, and engagement with neighboring indigenous groups and mainstream society have also stimulated much debate with regard to Amazonian foraging situations. A number of indigenous communities of the Amazon avoid contact with mainstream society and other indigenous groups. “Isolation” is often employed as a category by governments to impose policies on indigenous societies from different ethnic backgrounds and historical trajectories. Large-scale development projects undermine their natural resource base and their territories are diminishing; subsistence based on customary means is becoming unfeasible; and voluntary and involuntary contacts with the outside world usher in health problems. As such, this session examines the challenges related to the right for self-determination of different peoples in voluntary isolation and early contact both from practical and theoretical perspectives. We aim to scrutinize questions related to territory and contact processes, and problematize the terminology used in speaking about these peoples and about contact. Additionally, the implications of inter-ethnic contact between foragers, foragers and settled indigenous societies, as well as with members of national society are explored. Despite recent revisions in state policies, many Amazonian foraging societies are still regarded as state wards whose affairs are administered under a program of tutelage. We conclude with a critical view of this approach and offer recommendations, deferring to the societies covered in this session. 


1:30 – 1:45 PM. How to contact the invisible? Attempts to proselytize the Sirionó of Bolivia in the early 1920s

Alexander Zanesco, University of Innsbruck and City of Hall in Tirol, Austria

The Sirionó were one of the last hunting and gathering people of Bolivia subjected to proselytization in the 20th century. New archival research helps to model this process and put it in relation to similar developments in other regions.

Long abstract: Recent archival research reveals unknown attempts by Austrian Francis-cans to attract a group of Sirionó to their mission in 1920 in Chapacura, Dep. of Beni, eastern Bolivia. Although information is still limited, their letters provide speculative insights on the strategies used in contacting rambling hunter-gatherers. These documents also reveal patterns of response from their counterparts. At the time, these people were taken as a serious threat to colonizing efforts in the Bolivian Amazon region. The experiment remained ephemeral but can be seen as a preliminary attempt to more “successful” encounters from 1926 onwards. What the padres did not fully realize, however, was the fact that the Sirionó were under heavy pressure from neighbouring groups and natural disasters. From the Sirionó perspective, they chose the lesser evil, finally accepting contact and succumbing to the mission regime. Ethnohistoric research can assist in modelling transitions from hunter-gatherer lifestyles to a more sedentary life under certain external conditions. The Sirionó of Bolivia are one of the indigenous hunting and gathering groups that survived until nowadays.


1:45 – 2:00 PM. Isolated by will, hunters by vocation: the Mashco Piro indigenous peoples from the Amazonia of Peru and Brazil

Luis Felipe Espinoza, Museu Nacional - Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro

Through the review of the Mashco Piro case, this paper reflects on the lines of thought that influence the analysis of the condition of isolation and of hunting and gathering maintained some Amazonian indigenous groups.

Long abstract: “Mashco Piro” refers to a group of hunter-gatherers residing in a contiguous territory of tropical forests of approximately 8 million hectares along the border between Peru and Brazil. Because of their persistent refusal to establish relations with outsiders, the Mashco Piro have been recognized by these countries as indigenous peoples in “isolation”. Official studies indicate a total population of approximately 1500 people; however, their isolation undermines efforts in making accurate population estimates. This paper reflects on the concepts influencing analyses of the condition of isolation and foraging that persist among some indigenous groups in the Amazon. In this sense, I review different approaches that, for the last few decades, have discussed different ways of prioritizing environmental, social and cultural factors. In particular, I reflect on the dichotomy established between a state of “sedentarization, agricultural production and exchange”, and that of “nomadism, hunting-gathering and isolation”. Finally, some implications of this analysis are raised in regard to the Mashco Piro, specifically about their territorial rights, the exercise of their self-determination and the processes involved in contact.


2:00 – 2:15 PM. Reinventing ourselves and others: a transitional focus on the Awá-Guajá experience of isolation, contact and transformation

Louis Forline, University of Nevada, Reno

This paper addresses situations of isolation, contact, and engagement among the Awá-Guajá and Brazilian mainstream society contemplating how they and other foragers of the Amazon envision their engagement with national players in a globalized world.

Long abstract: The Awá-Guajá of Brazil’s eastern Amazon region came into permanent contact with Brazilian mainstream society in 1973. Questions arise regarding their origins and subsistence practices as some observers speculate that they practiced farming in the past. Linguistic evidence corroborates this view but other scenarios are also possible as they may been a fringe group of their Tupi-Guaraní neighbours, the Tenetehara and Ka’apor. Since permanent contact with Brazilian national society, the AG were settled into five separate communities by Brazil’s Indian Service, FUNAI. Currently, the settled AG number almost 500 individuals and each community experienced unique contact situations, with varying degrees of intensity while encountering different members of mainstream society. As regional development encroaches on their land area the AG face new challenges as they engage with loggers, poachers, mining companies, missionaries, and government officials. Engaging with these players presents both challenges and prospects as the AG define and redefine their current situation and negotiate their future. I submit that global forces impacting the AG can also bring new insights to their community to reflect on their well being.


2:15 – 2:30 PM. Discussion



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