The filter trap

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © David Rodgers. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau3.3.004

The filter trap

Swarms, anomalies, and the quasi-topology of Ikpeng shamanism


This article explores the first phase of shamanic initiation among the Ikpeng, an Amerindian people living close to the Middle Xingu River in southern Amazonia. Submerged in a nocturnal river or lake and staring up at the dark water surface, the initiate absorbs a swarm of water and forest beings, attracted by the potent aroma of jatobá tree resin, dripped onto the surface above his (or her) eyes, turning the novice’s body into a living container for these spirits. Attempting to unpack some of the topological complexity of this process, I introduce a series of concepts—swarm and anomaly, inoculation, plasma, quasi-events, entanglement, and multiple life—intended as improvised solutions to the contaminations, distortions, and alterations made to Western concepts when exposed to Ikpeng and Amerindian thought.

Keywords: Indigenous Amazonian ethnology, shamanism, insects, topology, conceptual anthropology

Introduction : Permeabilities

This article explores the conceptual topologies of the shamanic cosmology of the Ikpeng, an Amerindian group of southern Amazonia, focusing in particular on ritual initiation and multispecies relations. The concept of topology is employed here in two distinct ways. First, the article explores the Ikpeng topological mathematics of singularity and multiplicity, refracted through the concepts of the shaman as a species anomaly and the species itself as a pack or swarm. Second, topology is here employed to evoke the limits, potentials, and dynamics of a “fluid space” (Ingold 2011), a cosmological milieu in which we can imagine “a biology that starts from the fluid character of the life process, wherein boundaries are sustained only thanks to the continual flow of materials across them” (2011: 86); an idea that echoes Gilbert Simondon (2005), and subsequently much of the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (see Combes [1999] 2013).

Many of the ideas here have also been stimulated by the kinds of complex topological distributions of relations that have surfaced in recent anthropological explorations of multispecies containment, contagion, and composition, both within indigenous Amazonia and elsewhere. Anticipated and inspired by the myriad convolutions of topological forms and biological species found in Claude Lévi-Strauss’ epic Mythologiques and their sequels, more recent regional ethnographic examples include Eduardo Kohn’s immersive analysis (2002, 2007) of interspecies ecosemiotics among the Ávila Runa of Ecuadorian Amazonia, Dimitri Karadimas’ exploration (2008) of the transspecies fertilization and composite mixtures of wasps and other species implicated in the emergence of the Yurupari ritual-musical complex in northwestern Amazonia, and Mauro Almeida’s evocation of the topological formation of ant nests from local phenomena in his description of the dissipative structures generated by the indigenous societies of the South American rainforest ([1990] 1999).1

Elsewhere, other recent works can be cited that have a direct relevance to the insect-related themes explored in the present text: these include Giovanni da Col’s analysis (2012b) of a dense topology of containerships and hostings of vital and fortunate energies, poisons, and parasites among Dechen Tibetans, seen through what he calls the elementary cosmoeconomics of life (2012a), and Anne Kelly’s study (2012) of mosquitos, experimental huts, and hosting vectors in Tanzania. All the above-cited works can be perceived as part of a much wider attempt to open up anthropological research to alternative semiotics and transcodifications beyond the symbolic (Deleuze and Guattari [1980] 1987).

The article is structured as follows: in the next section I provide an ethnological overview of the Ikpeng, followed immediately by a recursive analysis of their self-depiction as an insect swarm. This leads into an account of the underwater initiation of the Ikpeng shaman and an extrapolation of some of its ethnological and theoretical implications. The next section expounds on the concept of the shaman as a filter trap for spirits by exploring the Ikpeng description of the cosmological origin of animal species from traps in the deep past, succeeded by the trap-like function of supernatural species anomalies, or yum, in the present: beings who alternately contain and release their animal progeny (our prey). Finally, in the last section I explore Ikpeng shamanic cosmology as an anticipation of future transformation into other species, and the idea of multiple simultaneous lives.

Ant-wasp swarm

Figure 1
Figure 1 : Ikpeng shamans waiting for the start of the moigu beer ritual. Photo by David Rodgers.

Today the Ikpeng number around 500 people split between two village sites in the Xingu Indigenous Park in central Brazil, a 26, 420 km2 area of transitional forest amid an extensive network of rivers and seasonally flooded lakes shared with fifteen other Amerindian peoples (see Franchetto and Heckenberger 2001). Prior to their transfer to this federally demarcated territory in the 1960s, they occupied a forest region to the immediate southwest of their present location, living in either malocas or mobile hunt camps situated mostly on small affluents of the middle and lower courses of the Jatobá and Ronuro Rivers. From these sites they launched seasonal surprise attacks on enemy groups in the Upper Xingu for many decades, what they describe as wasp raids (Menget 1977; Rodgers 2005). As the Ikpeng themselves trace back, their more remote ancestors came from much farther away, detaching at some point in time from a larger complex of Arara peoples— linguistically and culturally identified as a Carib subfamily (Menget 1977; Teixeira Pinto 1997; Meira and Franchetto 2005)—who were dispersed across an interfluvial region to the immediate south of the lower Amazon, a thousand kilometers farther north from their present location. Korotowɨ, one of the Ikpeng teachers, told me that based on oral history, he had managed to extend this trajectory back even farther to the valley of the Jari river, then and still today a region primarily home to peoples speaking Carib languages—along with Arawak, Tupi, Macro-Ge, Yanomami, and Pano, one of the major linguistic groupings of the Amazon region. Ikpeng culture contains numerous traces of these northern Carib and Arara connections. Like the Carib populations and other language groups of northern Amazonia, the Ikpeng are egalitarian, nonsegmentary, and primordially maloca-based with ideally equal relations between autonomous maloca or village settlements (Rivière 1984; also see Gallois 2005 and Albert 1988: 89 on a similar political structure among the nearby Yanomami). Subsistence activities involve a marked but not absolute sexual division of labor based around seasonally-defined short and long range hunting, fishing with small traps, weirs, and timbó vine poison, slash-burn swidden agriculture with a relocation of the main settlement every few years to avoid soil exhaustion, food and resource gathering over an extensively reconnoitered and gradually shifting territory, and, finally, ritual cycles that covered large networks of settlements and included distantly related groups as visitors in part responsible for catalyzing the initiation of local children (Jara 1996).

Culturally and linguistically the closest group to the Ikpeng today are the Arara of the lower Iriri River, the only other surviving population of the once much larger eponymous Arara complex (Teixeira Pinto 1997: 211–18; Menget 1977: 87–99). Similarly to the Arara, the Ikpeng produce a culinary synthesis of manioc and maize, including various kinds of breads, cakes, and beers from these crops, hold a roughly biannual ritual cycle focused on warfare, capture, and initiation (Arara, ieipari; Ikpeng, pomeri) and above all project a hunting and warrior ethos—shared by women as auxiliary participants—that includes or used to include the capture of animal and enemy offspring (egɨnom: pets): the prime motive for warfare, the Ikpeng say, was the abduction of young children to raise equally as their own as a substitute for dead kin.

Internal tensions can lead to the population splitting. However, as far back as the Ikpeng recall, they have always lived in either one or two groups, which would converge, mix, and split again after a few years. Notably this pulsation does not involve a doubling and later reabsorption of the identical, each cell an antagonized reflection of the other, but a symbiosis of the different that allows a certain elasticity: in the past, a split would leave one group continuing to live at a maloca site based around swiddens while the other would frequently become entirely mobile, living in shifting camp sites and focused on long-range hunting and warfare, exploring dense forest in search of populations of game and enemies, in periods lasting from months to several years (Rodgers 2005; also see Alexiades 2009 on the mobility of Amazonian populations).2 Today the same cellular division and reabsorption occurs in the run-up to the pomeri initiation ritual, held roughly every two years, when the entire Ikpeng population assembles and then splits again into a maloca-based section and a camp-based section that explores a sequence of hunting grounds and fishing sites for a period of one to two months. Unlike many egalitarian, semimobile, war-based indigenous peoples, therefore, the Ikpeng have so far always remained a cohesive block. This cohesion can also be traced to the Ikpeng solution to the difference and latent hostility introjected by the capture of enemies and the potential for inequality and segmentation to generate from this differential: as an equalization, all children, both Ikpeng-born and captives, are recaptured by warrior-hunters at the end of the pomeri ritual, prior to each

receiving the distinctive three-line facial tattoos and forming a bonded initiatory set (ukpomerin).

The above are all historically traceable “cultural elements,” then, of the kind detected and emphasized by Western anthropology, but how do they combine—if at all—into a self-organizing cultural-social system? Answering this question requires us to shift to imagining how the Ikpeng themselves imagine (and project) themselves. In fact the Ikpeng provide a very clear self-image as a seasonally modulated population, including the binary pulsation identified above, but inflected through insect behavior. Their autonym Ikpeng also names a composite of what Western science classifies as two distinct hymenopteran species, arayo ants and turum wasps. The ant and wasp types making up this mixed phylum are distinguished not so much by their individual morphologies—the body plans of the two insects, including their stings, are described by the Ikpeng as virtually identical3—but by their distinct ways of exploring and molding the forest habitat. While the preparatory ant phase alternates between nesting and swarming periods on the forest floor, equated4 by the Ikpeng with their own maloca building, foraging, and short hunting trips, the climatic wasp phase alternates between tree nesting and air swarming periods, equated with hunting camps and the hunting excursions or war raids launched from these camps. There is also another phase, though. As well as naming this amalgam of wasp and ant modes, the term ikpeng also refers to the pupal transformation between them. Encapsulated and secluded, this phase evokes two periods of hidden nurture and growth: female gestation and shamanic incubation. The pupal phase is called tɨwonpɨam, “virtual-wings,”5 applied to chrysalides, larvae, and pupae, but also the term used for the soft bird down that covers the heads of women and male shamans during the pomeri ritual.

The ethnonym ikpeng therefore expands into a complex diagram of their activities as a people: a periodic “nested” interval of seclusion, maturation, and metamorphosis, and a seasonal alternation between two “out-of-nest” swarming adult phases of wasps and ants. These phases are called egrɨ, the term for any tinymultiple animal found in swarms, from bees to the bacteria seen in microscopes. The morpheme egrɨ also appears appended to the name of drinks, such as wonkinom-egrɨ, “spirit drink.”6 Swarms are a liquid state of being, just as fermented liquids are brews imbued with minute swarming bodies. I return to the question of the Ikpeng as a swarming multiplicity later.

The combination of ants and wasps is, in fact, a prominent cosmological-ritual theme in northern Amazonia, a region to which the Ikpeng now trace their first emergence as a people. Live insects are applied to young people in various forms and for various purposes. Perhaps the most in-depth analysis is found in Fabiola Jara’s 1996 account of ecology and ritual among the Akuriyó, which describes the application of various kinds of ants and wasps during a child’s maturation, primarily for boys to develop the ability to see and locate game in the forest and in dreams as they turn into hunters. These practices culminate in the malaké initiation festival, widespread throughout the region.7 In these uses, ants and wasps appear as interstitial beings, above all predatory and exploratory en masse, swarming almost invisibly through the different layers of the forest ecosystem (where they make up the largest animal or mobile biomass8) and connecting other animals and plants through their (momentarily) destructive trails. Another modality is possible, though, that of the solitary wasp: predatory and parasitic, producing the idea of a transspecies fecundation, as Karadimas (2008) explores in his remarkable analysis of the Yurupari ritual complex of Northwestern Amazonia.

Live insects are not apparently used as a form of initiation among the Ikpeng, either singularly or collectively. Given the prevalence among northern Carib groups, this suggests a reconfiguration of the function of ants and wasps in their cosmology. As clues to this shift we can note the following: (1) the Ikpeng themselves become the live insects, conceptualized as their own seasonal modulation; (2) dead insects are used: to induce warrior qualities in young boys, including anger, speed, and imperceptibility, the Ikpeng burn empty wasp nests and rub the ash into shallow cuts made in the children’s arms and legs with piranha teeth; alternatively, dead ants may be crushed into a paste applied to the unbroken skin: in this case the strong sour aroma (ebragru) and burning sensation of the formic acid functions as the active ingredient; (3) the initiation of youths using insects becomes an initiation of younger children applying stinging facial tattoos (as among all other Arara groups) with one key active ingredient in the Ikpeng version: jatobá resin, a honey-like fluid that often comes laden with trapped insects; and finally (4) live stinging insects are included in the epic sequence of venomous insects, snakes, and fish responsible for killing and then awakening (initiating) the first made shaman, Imere, the storm god.

As a boy, Imere has an insatiable desire for honey. His father, exhausted and driven to distraction by the continual work of extracting this food, abandons Imere and his mother in the forest on yet another trip to fetch more. His mother dies, her arm trapped in a tree hole occupied by a bee’s nest, and Imere is left to wander lost and alone until adopted by his maternal kin, a type of bee. These answer his calls for help by killing him with their stings and reviving him the next morning by bathing him in the river at daybreak and painting him with red annatto dye (a transformational process involving river submersion and the application of an aromatic-cosmetic surface paint). After the bees, Imere continues his forest journey, meeting and being stung, killed and awoken by an increasingly toxic series of wasps, spiders, scorpions, centipedes, snakes, and finally electric eel, who offers to kill the prone Imere by whip-lashing him with a branch. But the sacrificial platform shatters. Finally the eel picks up the pestle used by his wife to pound maize and this time strikes Imere hard enough to kill him forever, the explosion causing his death-transformation into thunder. Imere immediately returns from the sky to take revenge on his father and his people for killing his mother. After destroying them with rain and lightning—which incidentally unleashes the first seasonal rainfall and burns the first swiddens—Imere abandons the living to embark on an epic journey to the east where the earth and sea meet, trailing the Amazon river in his wake and scattering technologies to all the Ikpeng enemies. At the point of sunrise he ascends and unfolds the dome of the inner sky world, kabo, populating its outer surface with half of the forest world’s talim or passerine birds, whose eyes shine down at us now as stars.

The myth explicates Imere’s trajectory from his overconsumption of honey (a preservative: the Ikpeng say honey is the only thing that never perishes) and abandonment to a maximal accumulation of “tiny deaths” caused by all the forest’s stinging creatures in sequence and an absorption of their potency, which takes the form of pɨanom, tiny arrows (darts)—also the term for shamans and shamanic auxiliaries (spirits). As Jean-Pierre Chaumeil notes in an article on pathogenic substances among various indigenous Amazonian peoples, insects are just one of the projectiles absorbed or injected into the body and responsible for causing sickness, a list in which he also includes darts, thorns, splinters of bone and wood, hair, fur, blades, glass shards, fish scales, stones, quartz crystals, bits of metal, teeth, and small birds, adding, “These little arrows are usually associated with the viscous fluids . . . which softly envelope them (Yagua) or in which they bathe (Jivaro) and which constitute in either case their embryonic or matricial form . . . an embryo conserved in a sort of amniotic fluid” (1995: 68–69; also see Colpron 2005: 116). This nurturing of darts in a womb-like environment also applies to the Ikpeng shaman. First, though, the novice shaman himself has to become the projectile immersed in a birthing liquid: more precisely, the small streams or lakes in which fish are spawned.


The simplest organism, the most elementary, is that which does not possess a mediate interior milieu, but only an absolute interior and exterior. For this organism, the characteristic polarity of life is found at the level of the membrane; it is here that life exists in an essential manner as an aspect of a dynamic topology that itself maintains the metastability through which it exists.

—Gilbert Simondon, “Topology and ontogenesis.”

Preparation for initiation begins with the boy9 aged five to six years avoiding strong, hot, and fat-laden foods and substituting this intake with a few “mild” birds, such as tinamous, a watery porridge made from dissolved manioc, bread, and—the main ingredient—various kinds of pfugu, a generic term for phytotherapeutic concoctions, in this case, plant root infusions.10 If initiation is begun at a later age— adolescence or early adulthood—the shamans produced are almost always predicted to be dangerous since the initiatory process will coincide with increased involvement in hunting and, in the past, warfare expeditions, and thus the inculcation of anger and a desire for revenge. This slow-fermenting rage curbs any talent for curing as it tends to lure precisely the wrong type of spirits: it produces sorcerers instead. If the boy is older, sexual activity should also cease since the body aromas repel the forest and sky beings—a contraindication that also applies to an initiate’s parents and siblings. A few days before initiation begins, the initiate is taken deeper into the forest to inhale the fumes from a sweet-smelling bonfire of tree saps and fruits, including jatobá and copaíba tree resins, plus the fruits of the pequi tree and tucumã palm. At this point the neophyte is emptied, all extraneous contacts curtailed to a minimum, and his body covered and filled only with aromatic fumes. The boy is smoke-cured: like the preserved game and fish stacked on smoking racks in the Ikpeng wokponga hunt camps, the initiate is placed in ontological suspension.

The first immersions take place near to dusk during a new moon and ideally continue until the final sessions are conducted at midnight under a full moon, like an anti–midday-sun.11 After selection of a secluded and deep stream or lake, the initiate dives under the water and holds onto a pole driven firmly into the streambed, looking up at the stream’s surface a few centimeters from his face. While in this position underwater, already initiated shamans on the bank tip burning jatobá resin—katepo-egru—from a gourd-like container roughly hewn from the tree’s bark (katepo-pitu), allowing this pungent “drink” of liquid fire to drip and strike the water surface just above his eyes. The visual ingestion induces bursts of dream imagery from the tšibo-erem or “resin owners,” which are multiple: fish, terrestrial spirits, sky people, thunder, the sun.12 At intervals the initiate swims away to surface and breathe, warming himself by a fire before returning to the water. As the jatobá resin fizzles in the water, its aroma attracts numerous aquatic species and stuns them, leaving them to float near the initiate in the dark and cold liquid in a semitorpid state. The first named as arriving is the electric eel, the demiurge Imere’s final shamanic instructor, followed by anaconda, stingray, river turtle, piranha, alligator, and four tiny shamanic fish species. Apparently dead but actually tongnore, “drunk/comatose,”13 the various aquatic beings fill the inner ears of the initiate with their tumtankom or “other-language.” This din is compounded by the sound of the resin sizzling on the water surface and the approach of Imere, lured by the onset of initiation and angered by the killing of the river fauna, albeit temporarily.

The lightning also attracts another being: wot-imɨ, “fish-patrix,” the source of all fish, which are seasonally released and recaptured through his mouth. This inner populous is outwardly refracted in his multicolored shining scales, combining the colors and patterns of every piscine species. The fish-patrix also falls into a coma from the resin and is hooked out of the stream under his gills by the shamans on the shore. After scraping off and setting aside some of the sticky agyuru film covering his scales, they release him back in the water. The initiate surfaces to breathe and returns under the water in cycles for several hours, until finally emerging from the river, cold, exhausted, and now covered too in a translucent agyuru membrane, likened by the Ikpeng to the epidermal coatings of certain tree species and newborn babies (vernix caseosa). This is mixed with the pungent remnants of jatobá resin semidissolved in the water. Highly irritant, this fragile “fish-skin” (wot-pitu) is nevertheless left intact until the emerged initiate dries out in the night air. Contact with the initiate’s body surface is kept to a minimum, his limbs remaining semiparalyzed and outstretched, his body trembling, his eyes blinded with river water and resin, and his ears still deafened by the din produced by the aquatic beings and storm. The initiate’s emergence from the water is a birth after death (after life), the initiate almost dead—or more exactly almost dead still, just like newborn infants, his skin pale-yellow, sealed by a membranous film with all sensory input diminished and only the acoustic chaos in his ears still reverberating. The novice has become a container for noise, another kind of flute, hollowed out and echoing with inspiration from external agents.

The storm passes and the initiate revives, while the various species in the water also reawaken and disperse. Slowly the noise in the initiate’s ears distils into intelligible sound, musicalized language, the novice shaman’s first absorption of wonkin-eremrɨ, “animal-spirit-music.” Through this extreme somatic and sensory closure—with mouth and nose sealed, eyes filled with water and fire, and submerged in an alien element, the subaquatic world—the initiate becomes an instrument for auscultating the usually inaudible or unintelligible language of other species. In fact the submerged shaman also evokes another kind of instrument dispersed throughout indigenous South America: the “diabolical gourd” used by demons to capture humans (Lévi-Strauss [1966] 1973: 447–49). The initiate can be imagined, then, as an inversion of the dry funeral gourd rattle, whose hidden seeds store and reverberate with the anger of the future living Ikpeng and precipitate revenge warfare: the neophyte shaman becomes the trembling liquid container for the rage of hunted animals.14 This fervor is musicalized: here Melobo added: “His inner ears are full of people now.” After initiation, the shaman begins to be able to hear the spirits of various animal and fish species, allowing his first acquisition of eremrɨ, “songs/music,” a melodic contamination subsequently caught during dreams or overheard while wandering through the forest. The spirits and the shaman become acoustically transparent to each other.

The new shaman attains the function-state of a container or trap: a vacuum waiting to be filled. Floating submerged in the nocturnal stream—like an air-filled flute or gourd pushed down into the water, counteracting his buoyancy as a still living and breathing body—and wrapped in an unseen aquatic population, the novice emerges from the water inoculated by an invisible population of pɨanom shaman-spirits. This inoculation enables his capture in dreams of the voices/music and images emitted by populations of other beings in the forest and subaquatic layers, which in turn allows his interpellation of these beings: calling them and trying to persuade them to act as he wants. These inoculi15 now swirling in his stomach are a population of sting-like spirit eyes that allow him to see and kill game and enemies in the forest at a distance. Finally, shamanic initiation produces another capacity. After carefully removing the dried film on his skin, the initiate is bathed and then painted with shaman annatto, a fragrant concoction made from small quantities of annatto and other fruit extracts and tree saps, combined with the agyuru mucus scraped off wot-imɨ and the initiate himself. Application of this mixture anticipates the shaman’s future technique of spreading annatto paste over a patient’s skin, helping him to remove the alien elements—tiny darts, the pɨanom of enemy shamans, and other hostile beings—hidden deep inside the patient.

Blood supplement

In sorcery, blood is of the order of contagion and alliance.

—Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A thousand plateaus

One hot afternoon in 2006, as I was sat sharing the contents of a plastic jar of diluted wild honey with Karaiva, too drowsy to give much thought to asking anything in particular, we drifted into talking about the river lines on a satellite map spread out on the table in front of us, and from there to Karaiva’s close encounter with a demon glimpsed running through the forest, and then to the place where he had been initiated into shamanism. After locating the lake used in the Jatobá region, I asked him about female shamans, attempting to clarify a fuzzy notion I had picked up some days earlier that women could, perhaps, become shamans via water initiation too. Karaiva—one of the two living water-initiated (male) shamans— confirmed they could. What he added completely surprised me, though. Telling me about Atšipi, one of two female shamans who had lived in the Jatobá region, he explained that soon after her birth and the subsequent birth of her placenta-twin, after she had been bathed in water scooped from a gourd, her mother had dripped a small mount of blood from her placenta into her eyes. This was mixed with a plant root extract (pfugu) and squeezed from carefully soaked cotton, to avoid causing the blood to spill from the corner of her eye-lids and run down her face, which would have scalded her cheeks, marking her for life.16 The newborn Atšipi then slept for days. After opening her eyes again, she would—just like any other infant—see people around here unseen by her parents: wonkinom spirits. In her case, though, these other people/spirits did not eventually vanish into the invisible over time: the placental blood counteracted the effect of breast milk, and later solid food, in filtering out these spirits from her perception. She had started becoming— or perhaps not stopped being—a shaman.17

Dripping placental blood into a newborn girl’s eyes and using it as a shamanizing liquid echoes the fabrication of various kinds of sorcery poisons from menstrual blood, a pharmacology derived from Kantawo, the first sorcerer, in turn learned from hummingbird, mempui, with its dart-like velocity. As Luisa Elvira Belaunde shows in her survey of hematology in indigenous Amazonia (2006), blood is also conceived as a powerful aromatic intoxicant, luring predators and provoking the desire to kill or have sex—in Ikpeng, both the same verb: wo, “to shoot with arrows”—and a powerful catalyst, hinting at a kind of molecular cannibalism precipitated via the blood stream.


Every Animal has its Anomal. That is: every animal taken in its pack or multiplicity has its anomal.

—Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A thousand plateaus

Figure 2
Figure 2 : Jaguar spots (ocelli): eyes, paw-prints, swarms, and circled packs (or pack-circled prey). In Ikpeng cosmology, these patterns evoke akari-enman, “jaguar-path,” the Milky Way, the trail of stars leading to the inner sky world. Drawing: Nina West (in Stone 2011: 111).

The idea of catalytic blood appears too in the myth of bat and stingray, archetypical blood consumer and blood container in the Americas (Lévi-Strauss [1971] 1981). The Ikpeng also refer to this narrative describing the first emergence of animals as wonkinom muran, “spirit talk.”

Bat and Stingray (rere tšiwan muran)

Bat and his accomplices are fascinated by his mother-in-law, Stingray, owner of a pendulously large and enticing vulva. [Here the narrator cups his hands and places them between his legs, slapping them together while making a sloshing sound, causing his listeners to laugh out loud.] He decides to kill her in the forest. Leaving the maloca secretly, he heads off to a distant camp. There he fakes various signs of lots of people having occupied the site: bits of honeycomb, burnt-out fires, fish bones, and so on. He then returns to the maloca. Everyone else has actually hidden, but he tells his mother-in-law they have all left on a timbó fishing trip and that they will catch up with them later. Bat and Stingray leave and eventually arrive at the specially prepared forest campsite. There she looks, puzzled, at all the debris. Bat tells her all the other people will return soon enough. Meanwhile he promises to catch lots of fish for her while she makes them some manioc bread. Bat goes off to set his ensorcelled kanai traps in a stream nearby. As he sets each trap, he imitates the sound of an animal and tells the trap to repeat it. Eventually a long line of traps extends all the way downstream to a canoe port where he sets the final trap, this time in silence. He returns at dusk, empty-handed. They eat the bread and settle down to an uneasy night. Stingray is nervous about sleeping in an isolated tract of forest. As she begins to fall asleep, the traps start to emit their animal cries one by one. Bat shakes her awake, shouting “wonkin, ime!” “spirits are here, mother!” She opens her eyes, startled, and hears the weird animal sound for the first time. After a while the night falls silent and she dozes once more. All quiet. Then another cry: this time, a jaguar roar. Bat shakes her again and she listens. Again the trap falls quiet and Stingray eventually drifts off to sleep. All night long, the traps yell out the squeals, cries, and roars of all the future animals, as yet unseen until, finally, Bat shakes his mother-in-law but she fails to awaken. She lies in an exhausted deep sleep. He smiles. Lighting a small fire to illuminate the camp, he takes a snake tooth (mori) and slices off Stingray’s big vulva, killing her instantly. Deliriously happy, he cups his bloody trophy to his nose [elated despite being alone, as the narrator explains]. He can’t wait for morning to rush back to the maloca. He places the vulva over a fire to smoke dry.

Dawn soon arrives. He buries Stingray and heads off back to the maloca. There he tells his wife, Stingray’s daughter, that her mother choked to death on a fish. She is angry, guessing what really happened, but everyone else is delighted. They decide to make paint from Stingray’s vulva. So they collect annatto dye, inajá palm oil, charcoal, and so on, and mix all these up with the pulverized and bloody vulva. It makes a big vat full of paint. Dusky titi monkey says he will apply the designs. Whitelipped peccary is the first in line. He is painted all over and then he swallows some of the paint. Yabuga cries “koga, orukuka, kinenpom!” “transform, try it out, show me!” and then startles peccary. As he takes flight, he runs around, squealing and crashing about in the undergrowth, enjoying all this greatly: “it’ll do!” As the first to be designed, he also acquires a special dorsal gland emitting a strong smell, produced by rubbing Stingray’s vulva over his haunch. Next come tayra, coati, otter, agouti, paca, dove, and all the other animals and birds, each acquiring its special paint design, behavior, aroma, and dung (from the swallowed paint). Then each animal has its teeth implanted using arrow tips. The last in line is capybara. He is scared of the pain and, unable to persuade him to be brave, the others fetch manioc stalks and stick them in his mouth (explaining why capybara’s teeth break easily). Finally they make a strong brew of bitter plant roots to drink. This explains why animals take a long time to die. Parrots, though, vomited up their potion and so keel over very easily.

The emergence of animals makes explicit the differentiation of their bodies through designs, behavior (or affects in the Deleuzian/Spinozian sense), aroma, and dung: all induced by the blood paint, either applied on the surface or eaten, metabolized, and excreted. The stingray vulva paint functions as a catalyst for transformation: a “menstruum” or “universal solvent,” in the ancient alchemic sense. As Eduardo Viveiros de Castro notes in a widely cited section of his seminal text on perspectivism (1998: 478), the body throughout indigenous Amazonia appears to be differentiated not through morphology (form) but through precisely these affective qualities. And this makes these differentiating qualities highly transmissible and potentially contagious, especially across species. We return to this point later. For the Ikpeng this “paint affect” involves the shaping of a kind of proto-species body mass: imnu, flesh, pulp, a plasma in the cellular sense (cytoplasm, ectoplasm, and so on). Macro body structure—skeletal form—is not taken as a differentiating factor of species: instead it also indicates a panspecies potential, but here as a woven architectural assemblage, like a maloca, basket, or nest, which secures divergent elements under tension: what the Ikpeng call an ebru. Not coincidentally this term for tensile nesting structure is also applied to the Ikpeng maloca leader who works (via his voice) to keep its population from dispersing. Traps, baskets, woven pouches, nests, and malocas or other kinds of shelter, generically labeled ewrɨ in Ikpeng, all invoke the body as the container of a multiple population, a trap space with the potential to acquire other bodies: indeed this is another prominent Carib theme (see Guss 1989; Matarezio Filho 2010). This is not merely a symbolic connection: Ikpeng shamans also make yukutpot baskets to be thrown into the river to turn into either fish or predators.

But what about the traps in the myth? Invisible in the dark, supposedly empty but emitting the hollow cries of wonkin spirits, they have a distinctly haunting air. Like the novice shaman and the Ikpeng bamboo flutes, the traps filter the river to produce sounds, an opening and closing mouth. In this respect they are also just like the supernatural owners of species, who the Ikpeng describe as continually capturing and releasing their progeny through their mouths (a kind of being found across the indigenous South American lowlands: see Fausto 2008). One of the most prominent species owners is abiana-imɨ, white-lipped-peccary-father, a minute version of a peccary who contains all the new peccaries within him, releasing them (or gathering them) with a cry of his mouth. All the species owners named by the Ikpeng appear as strange versions of their offspring, a feature that approximates them to other kinds of species anomalies. The Ikpeng possess an extensive body of knowledge concerning the rainforest, cerrado, and river ecosystems and their fauna. Nonetheless, sometimes new species variants are encountered. When this occurs, the species is usually approximated to an already known species and named through the addition of the suffix -yum (as in terengyum, the name given to the European honey bee, only recently arrived in the Xingu region). The suffix functions, then, as a filter for absorbing new variants into the Ikpeng lexicon. However this suffixation also carries a deep sense of danger: all other kinds of yum beyond these new additions (which are held in suspicion) refer to highly dangerous predators, such as tunan-yum, “capybara-monster,” or malula-yum, “giant-armadillo-monster.” The convergence of these two suffixes, imɨ and yum, becomes clear when we compare them with cognates from other Cariban languages, where curiously they seem to be the opposite way round. The Wayana suffixes, for example, are the symmetrical opposites: yum indicates a “species-father” (Hurault 1968: 16), while imɨ denotes an “enormous” or “monstrous” form of a certain species (van Velthem 1995: 41). Lévi-Strauss in the example cited earlier notes that the Carib-speaking Kalina call the stingray ereimo, which breaks down as ere, liver + imo, “used to form the names of dangerous animals” ([1971] 1981: 550–51), associating the liver and menstrual blood, and reflecting what he calls the stingray’s “uterus function” in Amerindian cosmologies (see also Waiwai imo, “epic,” “huge”: Fock 1963). Condensing these types of anomaly, therefore, we can identify a particular sequence of qualities: new and unknown, anomalous, shamanic, dimensionally volatile (alternately tiny/looming scales), and paternal or sometimes maternal.

Whatever their gender, which may simply be ambiguous and variable, these anomalous species-parents are encountered elsewhere in Amazonia in various guises identifiable under formulae such as “the owners of species” or “masters of animals.” As Luiz Costa and Carlos Fausto observe (2010: 99), the ethnological literature on human and supernatural owners, “a position involving control and/or protection, engendering and/or possession,” is now expanding.18 Although the Ikpeng do not use their own term for owner (oro) for these beings, the Portuguese dono is freely used and clearly the Ikpeng shamanic anomaly can be included as another example of the same kind of owner. However, my present interest is not in pursuing either a sociological or a sociocosmological analysis of the (species) owner. Instead I wish to reverse the polarity of the analysis and try to extrapolate the cosmological dimensions of all owners as shamanic or shaman-like beings, a concept for which the term anomaly seems to me more adequate. In particular, it helps stress the emergence of the anomalous owner from a population of equals, a pack, or swarm, including the multitude of beings in the primal cosmological time from which all the species anomalies (owners) first emerged: as the Ikpeng insist, these beings were all pɨat-pe, shamanic. Throughout Amazonia, these anomalous owner beings display a highly complex topology often linked to the placenta or uterus (the latter in Ikpeng being tenpano ewrɨ, “people nest”). Writing about the Jivaro, for example, Taylor observes, “during its life, game . . . assumes a male or female form derived from a closed and in principle permanent stock of singular recyclable appearances. Here this reservoir takes the form of a shapeless creature called the ‘game mother’ (kundiniu nukuri), a kind of prototypical exouterus where the temporarily vacant silhouettes cluster” (2000: 323; also see Descola 1986: 124 and 317). Inside, the being is a swarm, a multiplicity peering through the porous boundary of a singularity. In fact, this image recurs throughout indigenous Amazonia, an enveloping container-like structure with multiple internal/external components (the inner-outer ambiguity is intrinsic) that works primarily by filtration, an idea that in turn implies immersion in some kind of fluid ambient: the river-spanning dam made from the mythic-ancestral body of Dokoyi with his catch of multitudes of fish (Enawene Nawe: Mendes dos Santos 2006); the “exo-uterus” of the mother-of-game filled with her recycling stock of prey-progeny (Jivaro); the terrestrial Ayaraetii being with his giant gourd rattle filled with captured souls, doomed to eat honey for eternity (Araweté: Viveiros de Castro [1986] 1992: 82); the vagina-glove-spirit-woman filled with ants used to sting initiates (Sateré-Mawé: Figueroa 1997); the ayahuasca designs of the anaconda woman, owner of the drug, outside and inside the drinker’s stomach like the fetus containing itself with its own bodily contents (Piro: Gow 1999: 236–37); the fish-patrix with his skin glittering with the scales of all possible fish species (Ikpeng). Examples can be readily found throughout the South American lowlands. Each can be conceived as an anomaly containing a pack or swarm of elements immersed within a fluid ambient, the outer surface of the filter trap covered with brilliant and complex designs of the contents within (see too Fortis 2010 on “amniotic designs” among the Kuna). All these examples imply that sexual reproduction is inserted within a much more ample biocosmological notion of any population’s inception and continuation, founded primarily on abduction and adoption. Put otherwise, biological reproduction of the species is always preceded by capture of the exotic, the absorption of another species or kind, a viral element that can contaminate and reconfigure the whole and function, design-like, as its outer limit. This is what Deleuze and Guattari describe as the anomal, the border or limit of a multiplicity ([1980] 1987: 244–45). And it is precisely this anomal(y)-pack configuration that seems to me absent from the repertoire of concepts for what ethnology labels social organization.

Pets and evolution

Like most other Amazonian peoples, the Ikpeng population is continually supplemented by an influx of pets or captives19 (the name is the same, egɨnom): these are stray, abandoned, and orphaned samples from other populations, caught and raised from a young age, an influx of “ready-mades,” including parrots, macaws, monkeys, cats, enemies, flutes, researchers, ducks, and chickens, shamanic paraphernalia composed of stones, rodent skulls, and bits of pelt, glass, and mirror, owls, turtles, gulls, and occasionally other less tamable exotica, such as jaguar cubs, spirits, and capybaras—the latter examples suggest a kind of testing of what is already anticipated as impossible. In fact, capture and taming are inherently mutual, two-way attempts at living together. Not only do these captives have to become accustomed to their new people (in Ikpeng: uku: to taste, experiment, adapt, become), the latter have to prove compatible with the captive—a double flow of affective-behavioral adaptation that reveals the dynamic instability of the captorcaptive encounter. Failed and aborted attempts at taming actually seem to equal or outnumber the successful. This failure can indeed be taken as an inevitable quality of “pet-ness” since even long-term captives only ever remain provisionally so: pets remain wild for life, always prone to turning feral or escaping—and, as various myths illustrate, capable of turning the entire captor population into their own kind in their wake through a process of contagion.

One afternoon one of the women in the maloca where I was staying, Agiwo, called me over to see her pet owl and, laughing gleefully, pointed out how it was walking backward across the ground like an Ikpeng dancer. As she explained another day, though, the Ikpeng dances are themselves traceable to tayra (a weasel-like animal that races along logs and up trees), oropendola (a bird that weaves its nests to hang upside down from branches in large colonies) and especially coati (a raccoon-like animal able to climb down trees head first), the latter having shown all the other animals how to dance. As the mythic narratives on the first appearance of various animals exemplify, these distinctive bodily traits emerge from desires rather than vice versa. For example, it is not the anteater’s body that contains and induces the desire to eat ants: it is the anteater’s excessive hunger for ants—excessive to us— its relish or craving for the insects, that instills a sensibility to ant smells, habitats, and movements, and produces the animal's long snout and sticky tongue for scooping up ants and termites, along with its large claws for uprooting tree trunks and breaking down nests. I deliberately use the present tense here, “instills” and “produces,” since this is an on-going evolution of a body adapted—or still adapting—to a primal desire (for ants). In fact, the Ikpeng explicitly formulate this evolutionary theory as the antithesis of the Western biological theory of speciation. At a forest camp on the Jatobá River, one evening in 2006, Aire, an elder woman, was rapidly butchering three spider monkeys with a knife, having first hurled the bodies to the ground like a clutch of dispatched enemies. Watching Aire, Yakuma suddenly turned round and remarked: “You tupi think we evolved from animals. But you’re mistaken: the animals evolved from us.” The animals have left us behind as green, raw people, untransformed, unborn as yet to the future.

If pets are captured as isolates of other populations (and samples of the future), we too can be lured and caught in similar fashion, especially when alone. Singularized people exude a kind of connective vacuum and thus a highly seductive systemic potential: the isolate is a potential captive—mathematically not a one but a minus-one. As numerous Ikpeng myths illustrate, lost beings act as strange attractors. Isolation entails exposure to the risk of being abducted and absorbed by others of any kind (as Taylor 1993 writes on the Jivaro). This exposure through isolation coexists with the desire for autonomy, exemplified by the solitary hunter—but it is precisely this reduction to a pure singularity alone in the forest that appears to maximize the danger of a catastrophic loss of volition. Although this danger is in some senses diffuse, hunters often mention their close encounters with a forest siren called Enoy. Living in the bole of a tree, she lures isolated hunters toward her with her weird, compulsive singing. Yet these incidents are not exactly accidents: her arrival in the vicinity of the hunter is induced by his daydreaming about a lover as he treks through the forest in pursuit of animal tracks. More often he hears just her haunting voice and returns to the settlement or camp site immediately, recounting this near event to others with a kind of wry trepidation: ɨwompɨn enoy, “I almost encountered Enoy.” But if he actually responds to her allure and approaches, he finds her lying beneath a tree with her legs apart, displaying her large vulva and abundant pubic hair. If he attempts to have sex, the hunter discovers too late that her body is in disarray: she lacks a vagina, and in place of a navel, she has another mouth that consumes the hunter, turning him into a being “just like her,” living in her tree-world. A reverse birth or implosion. The hunter’s deathly absorption is thus not into a singularity, but into a plurality which manifests as singular. Consequently, although Enoy appears as a single female—petkom arak, “woman-like”—she actually conforms to a species phenomenon, a latency in the forest.

The formula used for this kind of weird near encounter is iwompɨn, “to almost meet.” The term is frequently used to describe near encounters with other dangerous but elusive beings, wonkin, including jaguars, snakes, anacondas, and an assortment of predatory species anomalies (capybara-yum, opossum-yum, armadillo-yum, and so on). As a noun rather than verb, iwompɨn is also the term for the placenta and umbilical cord (conceived as a single continuum), while the navel of the newborn is called iwolɨ, “encountered.” The name reflects the placenta’s twinlike approximation to the newborn’s body: the placenta is buried in the same way as any twin was in the past (always the second to be born) and for the same motive: both twin and placenta imply a dangerous exposure of the newborn’s soul. The placenta is buried in the blood-stained birthing hammock, directly beneath the mother’s sleeping area, where it remains buried long after the Ikpeng have moved on, but also remains susceptible: any interference or destruction of the placenta can cause harm to its living half, implying a kind of entanglement in the quantum sense, an instantaneous communication of effect or affect between the split elements. This connection between the placenta and the living body persists throughout life and, in this sense, the placenta merges with the dream. Dreams (ongyetum) are anticipations of future events, the future irrupting into the present.20

Our waking lives are just one of the potential after-echoes of our dream experiencees. Dreams therefore involve the same kind of almost-meetings or quasiencounters, iwompɨn, as forest skirmishes with jaguars and other wonkin. This dreamed future is also almost always assumed to be imminent. As among the Ávila Runa (Kohn 2002: 187), the looming of this dream-presence—like sensing a twin in the darkness of the womb—involves a particular temporal sequence: night-to-day or dream-to-awake, which can be contrasted, for example, with the awake-to-dream sequence found in the classical and contemporary Western explanations of nocturnal dreams as the after-glow, or “residual cognitive echoes,” of daytime events.21 As we can note, the dream-awake sequence also matches the sequence of nocturnal river flow and the emergence of differentiated animals from the fish traps in the Stingray and Bat myth, hinting at the subliminal ongoing evolution of animals and other beings from ourselves, made pointedly explicit by Yakuma as another cosmological science to our own.

So what does this (to us) apparently back-to-front temporality imply? Here a moment of linguistic analysis is required. The formula “almost meet” contains the suffix -pɨn, which typically implies an event that almost happened (translated by the Ikpeng into Portuguese as “quase aconteceu”). Applied to nouns, the same suffix can indicate “ex,” as in etšit-pɨn, an old campsite, or panana ewrɨ-pɨn, an empty banana crate, but it can also indicate “virtual” or “future” as in tɨwonpɨam, the term for bird down, tɨ+won+pɨam [plural form], “future wings.” So as a temporal-modal marker, pɨn translates as both past and future state, suggesting that these modalities can be more accurately assigned to the virtual or almost, something nonactualized but still actualizable. This state of the quasi-event—taken as an event that seemed would or will happen but has not (yet)—is echoed by the anomaly (yum) as a strange species variant, a specimen that seems like a typical example of a species but diverges in some slight but telling way: in both instances, we are dealing with a kind of haunting prior to abduction, or what the Ikpeng would describe as potential soul-loss (see Vilaça [2006] 2010 on accounts of jaguar abductions among the present-day Wari’).


So far I have used the terms body, soul, and world unremarked. Undoubtedly one of the main points of consensus in indigenous South American ethnology since the 1980s has been the centrality of the body in indigenous sociocosmologies (already delineated in the seminal text by Seeger, DaMatta, and Viveiros de Castro 1979). As Aparecida Vilaça (2005) observes, two images of the body seem to emerge from the literature: on one hand, the body as a point of stabilization and connection between kin, the nucleus of a local group, with shared food becoming shared substance and fabricating an extended body of kin; on the other hand, an image of the body as a point of destabilization, containing a undesired potential—or a desired capacity—for metamorphosis. This is what Vilaça describes as the chronic instability of the Amazonian body, a condition that, as she emphasizes, is implicit in the idea very of ceaselessly making bodies: “the [Amazonian] idea of a body under continual fabrication contains in itself the notion of transformation” (2005: 459).22

This analysis of stabilization and the ever-present possibility of metamorphosis obviously applies perfectly to Ikpeng accounts of their future selves and other beings. A problem arises here, though. While trying to develop my linguistic research a bit more systematically than usual by compiling a lexicon, a number of the Ikpeng told me that their own language has no word for body—or for world: referring here to the Portuguese corpo and mundo. This seems to imply the (desired) absence of any kind of organic totalization.23 At the same time, the Ikpeng have very readily appropriated and adapted two other concepts from Portuguese— alergia (allergy) and vitamina (vitamin)—to refer, respectively, to the effects of contraindicated foods and behaviors, and to their own remedies (pfugu). Both of these examples involve what we would identify as a molecular interaction between body and world. The apparent conceptual gap identified by the Ikpeng themselves in remarking on the absence of these two concepts could be simply ignored as trivial, or filled with what seems a near-equivalent in the other language and the problem assumed to be adequately resolved. Taking my cue from the Ikpeng, though, what interests me here, and in general in terms of trying to produce ethnographic theory (da Col and Graeber 2011), are the concepts that can emerge as provisional and improvised solutions in the absence of our own metaconcepts (Strathern 1988: 11). Here I propose the following partial solutions to the (positively marked) absence of body and world, which filter through four Ikpeng concepts:

Figure 3
Figure 3 : No body, no world.

(1) Our totalizing concept of world turns into an enveloping but limited combination of a shamanic anomaly and a surrounding milieu (etšit), the zone of influence of this shamanic being: in effect, an open (boundless) world with multiple population containing-and-emitting singularities: what Deleuze and Guattari call a nomad, supple, or smooth space ([1980] 1987; also see Ingold 2011 for discussion of these terms); (2) The concept of the body turns into a two-phase notion of plasma. The Ikpeng in fact sometimes use imnu as a translation of body, especially in relation to medical treatment, indicating the body (flesh) as a passive receptor. However as the Ikpeng imply by declaring the absence of the concept of body in their language, there is something else missing from our own concept: the Ikpeng body as an active multiplicity. I therefore suggest the term plasma as a translation of the Ikpeng terms imnu and egrɨ (liquid swarm) since the biological and physical associations of plasma—either as a viscous cellular and intercellular fluid, or as a high-energy state of matter (after the states of solid, liquid and gas)—together imply precisely this kind of dual modality: the Ikpeng population as a kind of low-energy body of kin, visible, life-size, molar, formed through food sharing, especially the distribution of game meat, fish, and manioc products, comparable to the bulk and slow speed of tapirs and sloths (both of which are tenpano, or people, to us too, rather than just tenpano to themselves); and the Ikpeng population as a high-energy, molecular state, attained in ritual, warfare, and shamanic trance: a nearinvisible swarm. As we have seen in the exploration of the autonym ikpeng, this is precisely how they project themselves.

Quasi-topologies and multiple life

Although the river or lake submergence involved in the Ikpeng initiation of the novice shaman appears to be unique in indigenous South America, and perhaps way beyond, the idea of transformation following immersion in flowing, turbulent, or effervescent water, and the application of a new, vibrant skin surface after emergence, does appear in the cosmologies of many other Amerindian peoples, especially the entry of the dead into the afterlife: the Wari’, for example, describe the cooking, eating, recomposition, and revitalizing bathing of the dead after their arrival in the subaquatic world, from where they subsequently climb up to the water surface and into the forest as peccaries (Vilaça [2006] 2010: 157). Among the Araweté the dead arriving in the sky are cooked by the gods and the remains of the soul-body later revived in a bath of effervescent water (Viveiros de Castro [1986] 1992: 211 ).24 Ikpeng thanatology is a little different since while the cannibalism remains, the revitalization is absent: the inner sky, the postmortem destiny of all nonshamans, is inhabited by spirits who eat the dead as they arrive, both ourselves and tapirs (also people like us), transforming us people (tšimna) into the same amorphous spirit-mass as themselves, a celestial hell where everyone is a stranger to everyone else, forever. Notably the inner sky is described as rotten under foot, as though in a permanent state of biological decomposition: the dead spirits have to walk around on tree trunks to avoid falling into the litter and slime.25 This ceaseless putrification amounts to a disconnection: unlike on the forest floor here below, nothing new, however alien, ever emerges from this process and there is no communication between the aimlessly wandering celestial spirits and the terrestrial Ikpeng.

If death is an informational black hole, prebirth is comparable to the other side of the depths of a whirlpool. These are identified by the Ikpeng as portals into and out of the subaquatic world, itself inhabited by new/green (enu) beautiful spirits, once taken to be the source of their enemies and thus many of those people captured by the Ikpeng during warfare in the past (Menget 1977; Rodgers 2005), as well as being the adobe of numerous kinds of other spirits. It is these beings and the forest spirits that the Ikpeng say a newborn infant continues to see after birth, becoming invisible only with parental feeding and the fixation of the infant’s volatile soul in its slowly nurtured and molded body (at least while awake: when asleep, everyone’s soul wanders again, recollected or experienced lucidly as dreams).

The whirlpool as an effervescent source of spirits and enemies, the shaman’s initiation with jatobá resin in the spirit-infested river or lake, and the first appearance of animal voices and bodies from the combination of fish traps and stingray blood all implicate a set of cosmological factors for the emergence of any population within a constant flux of differential elements. This image seems to me highly evocative of Simondon’s formulation of the “topology of ontogenesis” (2005), the biophysiological processes involved in the simultaneous individuation of a singularity and a contained population—such as a multicelullar organism with other cells captured inside—from a preindividual milieu of elements and forces, but reimagined within the parameters of an Amerindian transformational cosmology (Désveaux 2001). Adapting Simondon’s ideas, then, the river birth of the shaman can be seen to involve a strange (for us) kind of genesis: an ontogenesis were the individual organism’s development leads to a sudden phylogenesis (the shaman becoming the anomalous container of a new mixed phylum) and the shaman’s own capture by the original phyla of these captured elements: the shaman’s soul is itself captured by the spirits from the forest and aquatic worlds, living with them, through a process of entanglement (see above).

Figure 4
Figure 4 : Shamanic transformation (inoculation and entanglement)

Obviously Simondon’s description of ontogenesis itself emerges completely transformed by its transplantation into an indigenous Amazonian milieu. As the split in the diagram above indicates, one factor in Ikpeng cosmology—and perhaps in Amazonian cosmologies in general—completely alters the conditions of this schema of individuation: we can live multiple lives simultaneously.26 As we have seen, the internalization of forest spirits within the shaman’s body demands an extreme input of differential elements, combined with intense catalytic ambiental conditions, and produces a complex output of topological (encapsulating) forms or populations connected by the same process apprehended from different points: inoculation, the containment and nurture of a swarm of tiny pɨanom, “shamandarts,” that combine the functions of visualization (as forest eyes) and predation (as arrows), and entanglement, the live capture of elements as pets from another population that still live with their source population. Both of these—inoculation and entanglement—form part of a two-way process that involves the spirit living with the shaman’s people or the shaman living with the spirit’s peoples. Although entirely exotic to Western cosmological science and philosophy, this kind of dual or multiple-living is actually a pervasive feature of shamanic cosmologies in Amazonia and beyond, manifest either in the form of animal doubles, or their equivalent. As among the Yanomami, this may be all pervasive with everyone having an animal double (Albert 1988: 91),27 or it may appear more sporadically and incidentally through soul capture and alliances between shamans and spirit spouses,28 which often include the production of “swapped offspring” between both these entangled populations: animal spirit children born and living among us people (see L. Costa 2007: 335 on spirit children among the Kanamari), or our children been fathered by shamans (or captured) and living among animals and other beings (see for example Belaunde 2006: 145 on dolphin children)—in sum, an interspecies fertilization (Karadimas 2008) and a transversal genetics. In all cases these multiple lives involve the capture of soul-bodies: called egaronpɨn in Ikpeng, meaning shadow, reflection, echo, reflex, the soul is also defined as imnu eram, “true flesh,” echoing a description made by Iokore, an Ikpeng teacher, of spirits as the “true living beings.” And it is precisely these soul-losses that the Ikpeng shaman works to recapture, enabled through his or her own spirit inoculation and entanglement: the shaman functions as a metastable system, a quasi-topology of connections and recaptures composing and containing a local population.

In this article I have tried to allow the influx of Ikpeng concepts and ethnographic-analytic theorems to reach a certain saturation point in order for the milieu of “coconcepts” linked to any particular concept to begin resonate with their own connections (Deleuze and Guattari [1991] 1994). One of the problems in a lineal exposition of Ikpeng shamanic initiation is precisely how to conjure the flow and combination of elements involved in what is simultaneously a climatic process and a mere moment in the shaman’s evolution (see Perrin 1986: 109, 119–20; also Losonczy 1990). These catalytic elements would be something like the following: darkness, moon glimpsed underwater, burning jatobá resin, seeping residue, electric eel, storm, fish anomaly, congealing skin, and so on. Stunned by the jatobá resin, thrown in the nocturnal lake water like timbó poison, the new shaman feels what it is like to be killed as a fish. And then what it is like to wake up as the container for a swarm of other people.


This article explores the concepts of the Ikpeng anomaly, insect swarm and shamanic initiation originally contained in a text published in Portuguese (Rodgers 2002) and some of the ideas contained in a more theoretical paper presented at ANPOCS 2004 (Rodgers 2004), kindly read for me in my absence by Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, who I also thank for a later conversation on the topics introduced in these papers, including the idea of almost/quasi explored in the final sections of the present article. My special thanks to the HAU reviewers and editors, as well as Patrick Menget, Bruna Franchetto, and Rosângela Tugny for their support at various critical moments. Finally my unbounded thanks to the Ikpeng for their own boundless welcome and patience with a very slow tupi. The research is based on fieldwork conducted in 1996–1999 and 2005–2006 with financial support from the ESRC in the United Kingdom and UNESCO/FUNAI and FAPEMIG in Brazil.


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Le filtre piège. Essaims, anomalies, et la quasi-topologie du chamanisme ikpeng

Résumé : Cet article explore la première phase de l’initiation chamanique chez les Ikpeng, un peuple amérindien vivant à proximité du cours du moyen Xingu dans le sud de l’Amazonie. Immergé dans une rivière ou un lac nocturne, les yeux fixés sur la surface de l’eau sombre, l’initié absorbe un essaim de créatures aquatiques et forestières, attirés par l’arôme puissant de la résine d’arbre jatobá, tombée goutte à goutte sur la surface au-dessus de ses yeux, transformant le corps du novice en un contenant vivant pour ces esprits. L’article s’efforce de saisir la complexité topologique de ce processus, et présente une série de concepts—essaim et anomalie, inoculation, plasma, quasi-événements, enchevêtrement, et vie multiple—conçus comme des solutions improvisées aux contaminations, distorsions et modifications imposées aux concepts occidentaux lorsqu’ils sont exposés à la pensée ikpeng et amérindienne.

David RODGERS is an anthropologist currently based in Brazil. Since 1996 he has conducted research in southern Amazonia (Xingu Indigenous Park, Mato Grosso state, Brazil) with the Ikpeng, focusing on cosmology, ritual, mythology, politics, and shamanism, as well as coordinating and producing a series of technical studies and reports for the Ikpeng land claim in the Jatobá region.

David Rodgers


1. Also see Almeida (2012) on accounts by indigenous peoples and rubber tappers in Amazonia of the metamorphosis of ants into vines and the intervention of parasitical fungi (and Peruvian biologists).

2. Gonçalves on the Pirahã (1993), Clastres on the Aché (Guayaki) ([1972] 1998) and Rival on the Hourani (2002), for example, all provide superb monographs on highly mobile peoples, while Fausto (2012) provides a unique historico-ethnological analysis of the splitting of the Parakaná into a mobile, warfare-based block and a more fixed, agriculture-based block, defying the essentialization of either mode as a default state.

3. As Surrallés observes among the Candoshi of Peruvian Amazonia, this seems to apply more generally: ethology not morphology is the determinant factor in speciation (2003:37). Amerindian bioscience is nonhylomorphic: I return to this point later.

4. The term used by the Ikpeng to formulate this equation is arak, which translates as two, double, twin, alike. This likeness is not so much symbolic as symbiotic, indicating a potential and often actualized transfer or transduction (Simondon 2005; Combes [1999] 2013) of behavioral affects between the equalized (doubled) entities. I intend to develop the idea of analogic transduction in another paper.

5. The word breaks down as tɨwon [won, wing, in the fourth person possessive form, indicated by the nominal prefix tɨ-] plus pɨam, the plural form of pɨn, which I translate variously as virtual/ex/potential/quasi (this temporal-modal uncertainty is discussed later). “Fourth person” is a subject position embedded at syntactical level as noun and verb prefixation, which—following the explications of the Ikpeng themselves—refers to the absent and remote other, or the other of the other. As in this case, it is often used as a generic or universal.

6. The suffix -grɨ seems to be a variation on -gru, “liquid,” appended to the terms for blood, spit, aroma, and smoke, for example. The Arara cognate is kuru: Teixeira Pinto provides an excellent description of how the liquids with this suffixation compose a recycling flow of vital substances (1997: 159–64). Barros (1994) describes the operation of the cognate term, ekuru, in the cosmology of the Bakairi, another southern Carib people. As far as I know, this idea is not elaborated by the Ikpeng (though see Menget [1981] for an analysis of Ikpeng theories of hot and cold food substances): it may be that the increased mobility of the Ikpeng after their differentiation from the Arara block led to the fading of the idea of egru/kuru being obtained primarily through the subsoil and swidden-cultivated plants, and thus a rupture in a terrestrial recycling of liquid body substance, transferred instead to the cosmic intensification of a insect-warfare thematic.

7. See also Matarezio Filho (2010) on the use of ants in initiation among the Waimiri Atroari and other groups. Among the Wayana, ant stings create a new skin (epidermis) for the initiate, then worn until death (van Velthem 1995: 182; Fock 1963: 63–65).

8. As Kohn notes in relation to Ávila Runa descriptions of interspecies ecosemiotics (2002), plants and trees are also mobile, just at a much slower pace. The mixtures of plants and insects therefore amounts to a combination of the two extremes of velocity, a topic to which I return later in relation to the Ikpeng themselves. It is also worth noting that the symbioses and parasitisms involved in plant-insect convergences revolve around the toxicity of plant defense compounds and insect responses.

9. Or sometimes a girl: most people said that only boys could withstand the physically exacting process of becoming a shaman, but see below.

10. This description is based on a recorded account told to me in Ikpeng in 1998 by Melobo, the most experienced Ikpeng shaman. Awato kindly helped me with transcribing, translating, and understanding the narrative. Told to me (and Awato) in an instructive mode—that is, in the second person: you do X, then Y, and so on—it closely matches Melobo’s own initiation in a small but deep lake, said to contain subaquatic jaguar spirits, feeding into the Jatobá river, which took place prior to the Ikpeng transfer to the Xingu Indigenous Park. Another boy, Karaiva, was initiated simultaneously and some information is added from an informal talk with him in 2005. Other attempts have been made to initiate new shamans since and some may well be ongoing right now, but because training is highly volatile and dangerous to the novice, it is also ideally kept secret for years from anyone except the older shamans involved and the initiate’s immediate kin. The Ikpeng population is also filled with many “little shamans” who become so through other methods: primarily a hyper-intake of tobacco smoke until fainting, accompanied by temporary reclusion, a practice learnt and adapted from Upper Xingu shamans.

11. As in the cosmologies of numerous other Amazonian peoples, the sun is said to shine down at night onto the inner sky (the world of the dead). Emphasizing this link between the moon and the antisun, the halo surrounding the full moon on nights with thin cirrus cloud is described as a lunar burial hole, a sign of imminent death: like the lunar or solar eclipse, the full moon is a hunter of people.

12. Hymenæa courbaril. Jatobá resin is also called animé (from French), “so called because it often contains so many insects as to be, figuratively, animé or animated” (OED). This resin is usually found congealed under earth at the base of the tree. Left there for millions of years, it forms amber. This conservation of “catatonic insects,” their undead suspension in a congealed liquid within a forest container, clearly anticipates the future shaman as a container of pɨanom darts. Jatobá trees are also among the oldest and tallest in the rainforest and frequently attract lightning strikes, suggesting an implicit link to Imere, the storm god, though I never heard this connection elaborated.

13. Compare tönnye in Panare (Carib), which describes the intoxicating effect of fish poison (Dumont 1972: 60).

14. Ikpeng amengo flutes, made from the aerial roots of the stilt palm, Socratea exorrhiza, are likewise stored underwater—returned to the flux of the river—for the timespan of the pomeri ritual season when not being played by the Ikpeng flautists (which suggests they are being played by other people as the river flows through the tubes).

15. “Inoculation” comes from the Latin inoculāre, to implant or graft (composed of in + oculus eye, bud): extrapolating this idea, exposure to forest spirits can be seen to lead to an implantation (via the stinging jatobá tree resin) of tiny “eye grafts.”

16. Fausto (2001) also provides a detail from Parakanã sorcery techniques that resonates strongly here: “In dreams it is also possible to learn how to prepare extremely potent poisons; these are equally associated with blood and the –pyji’o smell: one such venom is produced with the placenta of a newborn; another with the sap of the Brazil nut tree, which, they say, ‘is just like blood.’” Ikpeng mythology associates Brazil nuts with a cannibalistic toad, pfuron, living in the extreme west, a swampy region where earth, water, sky and the sun meet.

17. This suggests that shamanism is more like a reopening or reexpansion of capacities lost or blocked during the infant’s adaptation to its new life with parents and other kin: I interpret the latter feeding and nurturing process as a slowing down, a congealment, which eventually begins to dissolve with age (and fat loss).

18. See for instance Erikson (1987); Fausto (1999, 2012); Bonilla (2005); Kohn (2002); Cesarino (2010); Costa (2010); the central text here being Fausto (2008), which focuses on the political economy of Amerindian ownership.

19. On pets in indigenous Amazonia, see Erikson (1987); Fausto (1999); Cormier (2003); and Kohn (2007).

20. See Basso (1987) on what she calls a “progressive theory of dreaming” among the Kalapalo. Amazonian ethnology is filled with indigenous accounts of dreaming as a form of precognizing the future: more precisely, encountering and experiencing a possible future, one that can be actualized or perhaps avoided (Chaumeil 1983: 220–23; Fausto 2001: 277–85).

21. This night-to-day transition involves dawn, awakening, and sunrise as the cusp of Ikpeng cosubjectivity when the dreamer wakes up within a simultaneously awakening population (the Ikpeng suffix X-ninkɨn used to designate a cluster of people associated with a particular maloca leader derives from the verb root inkɨ, to sleep, and implies “the people who sleep-and-awaken with X”). The concept of dawning/awakening as a people appears throughout Amazonia: the Muinane, for example, use ritual techniques to ensure animals “dawn” as prey rather than as predatory spirits (Londoño-Sulkin 2000: 181).

22. See also Taylor (1996: 207) and (1998: 318).

23. In his account of the body among the Candoshi, Surrallés writes “among the Candoshi the idea seems to prevail that the body is substance in development. The notion of vanótsi does not refer to the body as an autonomous organism but rather to the dynamic of matter” (2003: 37). The autonomous organism can also be taken to be the individual qua formal origin, an idea explored in Simondon’s critique (2005) of hylomorphism: I return to this point shortly.

24. Viveiros de Castro adds here, “the immersion of dead Araweté in a body of circulating water signifies a process of initiation” ([1986] 1992: 211).

25. Just about everyone I spoke to about the sky dead intensely disliked even mention of this subject, avoiding it wherever possible. This is in sharp contrast to the frequent and good-humored anecdotes about near misses with forest and river spirits. In fact even staring at the night sky too much is considered inadvisable.

26. This multiple life theory is not the same as a multiple world (or multiversal) theory, though to an extent they converge. The possibility of multiple simultaneous lives— effectively a theory of simultaneous reincarnation through soul capture, splitting, and the entangled multiplication of soul-bodies—may help explain what Descola identifies as the perspectival variant of animism (Descola [2005] 2013: 138–43; Viveiros de Castro 1998). Conceived nonhylomorphically, I suggest, it is the capacity to split into multiple lives—by being captured and absorbed—that allows the emergence of double (or triple, or multiple) soul-bodies as (in)dividual forms, not the other way around. These questions will have to be explored more comprehensively elsewhere.

27. The connection described by Bruce Albert is precisely one of entanglement: “The fate of the animal and that of the person are indissociable: the killing of one inevitably entails the death of the other” (1988: 91).

28. Among just some of the many possible examples, see Vilaça (2002: 349, [2006] 2010:310) on the spirit families of Wari’ shamans in southwestern Amazonia; A.M. Costa (2010) on the shaman’s spirit-wife among the Nambikwara; Colpron (2004) on the spirit spouses of male and female shamans among the Shipibo-Conibo; or elsewhere Hamayon (1990) on spirit spouses among the Buryat peoples of Siberia.