On jaguars and fish

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Peter Gow. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau7.2.009


On jaguars and fish

Peter GOW, University of St. Andrews

Comment on Turner, Terence. 2017. “Beauty and the beast: The fearful symmetry of the jaguar and other natural beings in Kayapo ritual and myth.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 7 (2): 51–70.

In this commentary on Turner’s lecture, I want to focus on a very specific claim by the author, which is that the Kayapo people make a clear contrast between humanity and animality that corresponds easily to Euro-American ones, or at least ones that are used in anthropology.

On one level, Turner’s claim is simply false. The considerable ethnographic literature on these people shows that their concept of mẽ, “people,” is clearly contrastive to their category of kubẽ, “enemies.” There is no evidence that Kayapo people spontaneously think of “people” and “enemies” as subcategories of each other or of some overarching category of “humanity,” and there is very ample evidence that they do not. In certain recent pan-indigenous political contexts, certain “enemies” can be reclassified as “people” (of a sort), but always with reference to another “people”/ “enemy” contrast. As such, the Kayapo concept of mẽ, “people,” clearly means something much closer to “us” than to “humanity,” and there is no point pretending that it does not. Unlike “humanity,” “us” is clearly a deictic.

On another level, Turner makes a much more interesting claim. Like the Kayapo people, certain fish species perform elaborate name transmission rituals. But in the latter case, the fish simply transmit their collective species name to new generations, while in the former case, Kayapo people transmit highly individuated names from specific categories of senior kinspeople to specific categories of junior kinspeople. The fish do not do that, but the Kayapo people do. Here, apparently, we have a genuine opposition between two ontological categories which we might, for want of any better terms, call “animality” and “humanity.” Further, the Kayapo people attribute the origin of fire, the essence of human culture, to the jaguar. [72]Turner has persuasively argued that the difference between the jaguar’s fire and human fire is that the former is nonreproductive while the latter is fully reproductive (Turner 2017).

Turner therefore argues for a basic contrast in Kayapo thought between “animality” and “humanity.” This contrast is based on the opposition between protocultural forms characteristic of animals and fully cultural forms characteristic of humans. The contrast is beguiling, for what contrasts animals and humans is not the tedious nature/culture contrast of Euro-American thought, but a much more interesting contrast within culture conceived of as a culturally variable concept. Meditating on the conceptual nature of culture, as cultural anthropologists should do, Turner suggests that the Kayapo people contrast animality and humanity not as nature and culture but, rather, as a nonreproductive culture for animals and a reproductive culture for humans. Fish have names and name transmission rituals, but they endlessly transmit the same name from one generation to the next. Jaguars had fire, but only in the form of a single burning log. Only human culture is intrinsically reproductive.

Turner was one of the very few Anglophone anthropologists who really understood Lévi-Strauss, and he presents a very interesting reformulation of the latter’s use of the opposition between nature and culture. The latter author was always very clear that the opposition between “nature” and “culture” was conceptual and hence necessarily cultural. After all, standard Euro-American exemplars of “nature,” such as fish or jaguars, can hardly conceptually distinguish themselves from standard exemplars of “culture,” such as ritual. Turner was aware of the actual meaning of Lévi-Strauss’ opposition and so avoided the vulgar trap of thinking that what Kayapo people think about fish or jaguars has much to do with how Euro-American people would think of these beings. For the Kayapo people, it is logically possible that both fish and jaguars have culture, but it is of a logically different order to human, that is Kayapo, culture.

Unfortunately, there is a logical problem here, at least for anthropology. Ancestral Kayapo people acquired fire from the jaguar, who possessed it in its primordial nonreproductive form; they made it reproductive, and, in the process, jaguars lost fire. Ancestral Kayapo people acquired important names from fish, made them socially reproductive, and, in the process, the fish kept those names and the name transmission rituals. There is an implicit asymmetry. Do jaguars have name transmission rituals, or do fish have fire?

The argument would be more persuasive if Kayapo people made some clear analogy between jaguars and fish as parallel forms of animality. Apparently, they do not. Indeed, it would be really surprising if they did. After all, most Euro-American people would probably have a hard time thinking of “jaguars” and “fish” as having much in common with each other as against “humans,” outside of certain highly constrained contexts involving overt concepts of “humanity” and “animality.”

Do jaguars and fish have more in common with each other than either do with humans? Who would ask that question? You would have to be an anthropologist committed to a cognitivist program, with its peculiar universalist (i.e., natural) commitment to the nature/culture opposition, to do this. Presumably, with a sufficiently supple research methodology, an anthropologist of such a persuasion could elicit from a Kayapo person the requisite division between “humanity” and [73]“animality,” that is, that jaguars and fish have more in common with each other than either has with Kayapo people. If a Euro-American anthropologist can think it, then it is logically thinkable by anyone. But I am reasonably sure that you would have to spend a very long time indeed living with Kayapo people to meet anyone who did so spontaneously.

What really characterizes Turner’s thought is its extreme analytical rigor and his commitment to systematicity. As a human culture, for Turner, Kayapo culture must necessarily be systematic. It can and has changed, but it necessarily does so in systematic ways, as Turner has shown. I fully agree with Turner about this and find his approach infinitely preferable to forms of anthropological analysis that celebrate the unsystematic nature of human cultures, which fly in the face of all that we have come to know about human history, psychology, sociology, etc. Turner was relentlessly hostile to postmodernism, which he dismissed as politically-motivated woolly thinking. But if you are going to be systematic, you have to be seriously systematic. For that, in anthropology, what the Kayapo people actually say comes first.

References Cited

Turner, Terence S. 2017. The fire of the jaguar. Chicago: HAU Books.


Peter GOW is a professor of social anthropology at the University of St Andrews. His main research is with the Piro (Yine) and other peoples of the Bajo Urubamba river in Peruvian Amazonia. More recently, he has worked on social transformation in the Central Highlands of Scotland.


Peter Gow
Department of Social Anthropology
University of St. Andrews
Fife, U.K.