Thomas Huanca L. Tsimane Oral Tradition, Landscape, and Identity in Tropical Forest

Tomas Huanca L. Tsimane Oral Tradition, Landscape, and Identity in Tropical Forest. La Paz, Bolivia: SEPHIS – South-South Exchange Programme for Research on the History of Development. 2006. Pp. iii+279, color and black and white photos, line drawings, and designs, color and black and white maps, index., glossary of indigenous terms.

Fredericka Schmadel
Indiana University

Tomas Huanca L., who lived with the Tsimane in Amazonian Bolivia for nine years, documented their traditions, oral history, and myths, retreating now in the face of outside pressure. He includes helpful chapter summaries, many photographs, maps, and charts, a glossary of Tsimane terms, a pronunciation guide, and a bibliography with extensive oral archival as well as scholarly sources. However, once the reader has found a useful section on a topic — a trickster figure, the use of tobacco and/or beer in healing ceremonies, or the Masters of the Game — compare-contrast material will be lacking. It is almost as if the Tsimane, alone among indigenous groups, incorporated tricksters, beer customs, and the like into their world view. This is most decidedly not the case. For this reason, readers who are familiar with other Amazonian indigenous communities will benefit from this ethnography more than readers looking for an introduction to the field.

Origin myths and the Tsimane cosmos – the starting point of the book – recur throughout the text as points of reference. As a result of the present-past dichotomy, Tsimane communities confront a host of other polarities, such as shaman / missionary, lowland (indigenous) / highland (Spanish), folk healing / medicine, barter exchange / money, and even ritually obtained salt / salt from the marketplace. Shamans disappeared when the Tsimane converted to Christianity, about twenty years before Huanca’s study began, but elders who remember shamanic practices still heal some afflictions, while other folk healers cure highland-related illnesses, diseases supposedly brought by the “colonists.” Throughout, elderly informants provide Huanca’s description of the former shamanic training, although he provides no vivid description of an individual informant’s involvement in it.

From there, Chapter 2 presents the creation myth of two brothers and a sister, all three powerful beings, whose first act is to create animals. They were at first human-like, these animals, and only later took on animal shape. Since myth portrays game animals hunted for food as descendants of human-like beings, the animals’ supernatural protectors are particularly important. Known in other indigenous cultures as the Masters of the Game, they punish improper hunting and fishing behaviors. Shamans not only cured the sick, but also called the game animals and fish, reinforcing a direct correlation between religion and nutrition.

In chapters 3 and 4, eschatology includes triple annihilation — by an all-consuming fire, by south winds so strong that they uproot crops and destroy everything, and by darkness, the kind of darkness that shelters jaguars and other predators. Plants, rocks, and other objects could become animate in this special kind of darkness, like the darkness of an eclipse, causing people to panic. Such millennial expectations may show why Tsimane were vulnerable to the Spanish and why they struggled unsuccessfully to join together to resist invasion and occupation.

Huanca moves from cosmology to the rituals of Tsimane daily life to describe crucial crops in addition to salt and the palm nut, namely manioc, known as yuca, and tobacco. Manioc becomes sweet beer, while tobacco appears in medicines and as a ritual intoxicant. Plantain, maize, and cotton arrived with the Spaniards. Social events without sweet manioc beer are unthinkable, as are formal ceremonies. A description of one day in the life of a Tsimane adult would have been very helpful to the reader in grasping the centrality of these and other foods and the rituals surrounding them.

Huanca provides his conclusions from archeological sites and artifacts are in chapter 6 and those from missionary documents in chapter 7. His reconstruction of shamanic culture and rituals relies on the memories of former shamanic assistants, now community elders, and on structural remains of a nearby community’s ritual house, analogous to those of the Tsimane. Meanwhile, Chapters 8 and 9 outline ritual and daily use of salt and the peach palm. A salt spring inspired a daunting sacred journey, which now exists mostly in memory. Ritual eating of the first fruits in the presence of extended family is to ward off starvation, but also leads to women’s fertility and to families rich with many children. In chapter 10, powerful beings, the protectors of animals, birds, and fish, grant or refuse hunting or fishing success. Tsimane boys receive precise training and undergo a lengthy apprenticeship in these fields. Meat and fish are major, important food sources; for that reason overhunting is and was a supernaturally penalized violation of custom and tradition. Finally, Chapters 11 and 12 portray how the Tsimane trade and conduct other exchanges with nearby forest communities and the highlands, while Chapter 13 urges the preservation of Tsimane language and oral history.

In this mostly retrospective account, Huanca does not present any Tsimane individual, whether storyteller or other community member, in enough detail for that person to become real in the reader’s eyes. This lack of specificity shows up in his sentences as well, for example – “One person interviewed said ….” (107), “San Pablo people….” rebel against the priest, or “Tsimane believe that big trees have spirit guardians…” (84). Thoughts may seem incomplete, such as “Most of the cotton myths do not include knowledge of weaving…” (67), because there is no explicit connection or rationale. As a result, readers may not feel they know Tsimane culture and people in an insightful way. Researchers will find in this book an abundance of detail, especially with regard to the oral archives, and a detailed description of the salt pilgrimage as Hunaca’s informants remember it. However, they will have to use their own experience to make comparisons with other field ethnographies, Amazonian or otherwise.

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One thought on “Thomas Huanca L. Tsimane Oral Tradition, Landscape, and Identity in Tropical Forest

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