The elusive bridge

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Joana Miller. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau7.2.011


The elusive bridge

Joana MILLER, Universidade Federal Fluminense

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.

I became acquainted with Terence Turner’s work in 1998 while studying for the M.Phil. in Social Anthropology at the Museu Nacional. My dissertation reviewed studies of interethnic contact in lowland South America by taking Turner’s analytical model of the transformations of Kayapo social structure that followed from contact as a paradigmatic case. It would be fair to say that I learned Amazonian anthropology through my reading of Turner’s work, which is my justification for offering these comments on his 2011 Marett Lecture.

Turner began his research on the Kayapo in 1962, as part of a wider enterprise of ethnographic research known as the Harvard Central Brazil Project, coordinated by David Maybury-Lewis. Inspired by the pioneering studies of Curt Nimuendajú on the Gê-speaking people of the Brazilian savannah and by Lévi-Strauss’ (1963, 2012) writings on dual organization, the work carried out by the Project pointed to a common structural base upon which Gê and Bororo societies built their singular institutional arrangements (Maybury-Lewis 1979).

Buttressed by a robust ethnography, Turner developed a sophisticated model of Kayapo social structure based on the organization of relations on two levels: the domestic level, composed of extended matriuxorilocal households; and the collective level, manifested in communal institutions. Turner emphasized the linkages between these levels by identifying a recurring pattern of hierarchical relations that enabled the reproduction of society and by framing the process of socializing persons through the succeeding stages of the lifecycle.

In this lecture, Turner develops the model by focusing on the ceremonial system, based on the transmission of a set of names, ornaments, and ritual prerogatives. He [80]discusses the ambivalence of the notion of mêtch, which he translates as “beauty.” According to Turner, the question of “beauty” poses two problems for the Kayapo. The first is that the ceremonial system creates a new asymmetry between beautiful people and commoners (without thereby creating a class-based society). The second is that “beauty” is unequally distributed, both in Kayapo society and in the wide spectrum of humanity that characterizes Amerindian cosmologies (where the human species is not equivalent to the human condition).

One of the paradoxes that the analysis reveals is that beauty and bestiality share a “fearful symmetry”: those who possess more beauty, and who are hence more socialized (such as the “elders”), are more prone to displays of predatory ferocity. The Kayapo concept of aybanh attests to this convergence. It is a condition that results from killing jaguars and is, as Turner states in the paper, “caused by the penetration of the skin by the hairs or blood of jaguars, as when a hunter has contact with the body of a jaguar he has killed or brings its body into a village, to be roasted and eaten by boys of the junior age set.” Turner’s description of the aybanh condition immediately recalls ethnographic descriptions of homicide and posthomicide seclusion from other parts of Amazonia. As Viveiros de Castro (1992) famously showed, the Araweté killer is associated with the enemy—in fact, he adopts “the enemy’s point of view” — much like Turner says of Kayapo who are struck by the aybanh trance, becoming “violently, even murderously aggressive toward everyone without regard to identity, gender, or social relationship.” Indeed, it would seem that these are ethnographic variants of the same widespread phenomenon. It is no accident that the Araweté killer of jaguars is altered in the same way as the killer of persons (Viveiros de Castro 1992: 248), or that the Parakanã killer is, like a jaguar, a consumer of blood (Fausto 2012: 187–188). Seclusion and posthomicide rites then act to counter this alteration, allowing the killer to resume life as someone who has “conquered vitality” (Conklin 2001), who has acquired a “supplement” (Fausto 2007: 509), or who has a “condition of enhanced selfhood” (Taylor 1996: 209).

As the killer, having been subjected to the rites that follow from seclusion, becomes “enhanced,” so is he also attributed the creative capacities that Amazonian people associate with their own conceptions of “beauty.” The association between beauty and predatory capacity is almost universal in the region. As Van Velthem (2003) registered in the title of her ethnography of the Wayana, which we can translate as “Beauty is the beast,” or as Gow (2001: 120–122) showed for the Piro, people paint jaguar designs on themselves to look like dangerously beautiful “group-living jaguars.” The paradox of the Kayapo turns out to be the lot of Amazonian social life.

What is interesting about the Kayapo is that predatory beauty is a function of age. The most beautiful people, those who may fall victims of the aybanh trance, are the elders who exercise control over social processes in Kayapo society. For the Mamaindê, a Nambikwara-speaking people among whom I carried out fieldwork, there is no sort of statutory distinction that confers on elders a hierarchically superior position, as Lévi-Strauss (2012) showed in comparing them to the Bororo. However, old people are associated with the dead, both being called by the same term, and the dead are associated with alterity. This alterity needs to engaged in order to create kinship among the living; it is from the dead, for instance, that the body ornaments that index humanity are drawn (Miller 2009). Old people are hence intrinsically ambiguous; poised between the living and dead, they are neither [81]one nor the other. In fact, they are very much like animals—like the jaguars, for instance, whom the shaman must marry in order to obtain shamanic knowledge. In this sense, if there is any relation between old age and native concepts of “beauty” for the Mamaindê, it is less about statutory differences, as Turner claims for the Kayapo, and more about ontological differences between the living and the dead and their actualizations at different moments of the life cycle. It seems that what indigenous notions of “beauty” have in common is that they convey the constitutive instability of the human condition.

Amazonian anthropology has long been dazzled by the odd set of differences and similarities between the Gê of Central Brazil and the societies of Amazonia. The Gê are different from Amazonian peoples in their kinship systems, modes of subsistence, social organization, and stress on hierarchical relations; at the same time, however, these seem to be elaborations on a common cultural base that straddles the two regions. As Viveiros de Castro (2002: 90) has argued, “both intuition and common sense suggest that we should be able to discover a bridge between them, one that would allow us to describe the passage from one region and social form to the other.” A search for this bridge once dominated Amazonian anthropology, although it has become less fashionable of late. By showing how the Kayapo life cycle reveals “a fluctuating and variable process of transformation of basic animal powers into human cultural forms,” Turner also reveals how the Kayapo skew onto a vertical axis what Amazonian people situate on the horizontal axis of interspecific differences. Perhaps this lecture can inspire us to once again look for that elusive bridge.

References Cited

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Fausto, Carlos. 2012. Warfare and shamanism in Amazonia. Translated by David Rodgers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———. 2007. “Feasting on people: Eating animals and humans in Amazonia.” Current Anthropology 48 (4): 497–530. doi: https://doi.org/10.1086/518298

Gow, Peter. 2001. An Amazonian myth and its history. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1963. “Do dual organizations exist?” In Structural anthropology, translated by Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf, 132–166. New York: Basic Books.

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Maybury-Lewis, David, ed. 1970. Dialectical societies: The Gê and Bororo of central Brazil. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.[82]

Miller, Joana. 2009. “Things as persons: Body ornaments and alterity among the Mamaindê (Nambikwara).” In The occult life of things: Native Amazonian theories of materiality and personhood, edited by Fernando Santos-Granero, 60–80. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Taylor, Anne-Christine. 1996. “The soul’s body and its states: An Amazonian perspective on the nature of being human.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (n.s.) 2 (2): 201–215. doi: 10.2307/3034092

Van Velthem, Lúcia. 2003. O belo é a fera: A estética da produção e da predação entre os Wayana. Lisbon: Assírio & Alvim.

Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. 1992. From the enemy’s point of view: Humanity and divinity in an Amazonian society. Translated by Catherine V. Howard. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

———. 2002. ‘O problema da afinidade na Amazônia’. In A Inconstância da Alma Selvagem e Outros Ensaios de Antropologia, pp. 87–180. São Paulo: Cosac & Naify.


Joana MILLER is associate professor at the Department of Anthropology of the Universidade Federal Fluminense. She has carried out fieldwork among the Mamaindê (Nambikwara) of Mato Grosso, Brazil, since 2002.


Joana Miller
Department of Anthropology
Universidade Federal Fluminense
ói, RJ, Brazil