Size Matters!: The Scalability Of Modern Hunter-Gatherer Animism

Evening class

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Nurit Bird-David

Size Matters!: The Scalability Of Modern Hunter-Gatherer Animism

Tuesday, June 20, 2017 - 18:45

Cultural anthropology has for decades been committed to the multiculturalist tenet that all cultures should be equally approached, regardless of their population and community size. In this talk, I will highlight the unintended distortive effect of this approach when studying modern hunter-gatherers. I argue that the miniscule size of hunter-gatherer communities, shaping how they scale their world and imagine it, is a cardinal factor that should not be overlooked. I will examine the distortive effect of scale-blind studies of indigenous animistic beliefs, a long-studied topic that now enjoys much renewed interest. Key terms in the analysis of animism too often derive from large-scale modern social ontologies, as a result of which we fail to appreciate the intimate nature of interpersonal and interspecies relationships prevailing in the miniscule communities of hunter-gatherers.

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Evening class information

Our evening talks include discussion, are free and open to all.

Next evening class

Rosalyn Bold

The End Of The World? Amerindian Perspectives On Climate Change
Tuesday, March 20, 2018 - 18:45
Daryll Forde Seminar Room, Anthropology Building, 14 Taviton Street, London WC1H 0BW. Tube: Euston Square. map

Rosalyn will be talking about her time spent in the Callawaya communities of North Eastern Bolivia, where diviners cultivate subsistence crops on the skirts of mountains still considered deities. The narrative leads the reader into an animate landscape where climate change is borne by winds that are simultaneously collections of gases and conscious deities; where change is expected and small scale farmers swiftly adapt a centuries old system of cultivation to the changing humours of the mountain they inhabit.

Catastrophic change is occurring in the region as young people are drawn away from the fields and flocks that sustained their forefathers by desire for commodities and especially western clothes, which transform them into western consumers. As they make this transition, eating processed foods rather than the nutritious fruits of exchange relationships with the mountain, both they and the mountain become weaker. The landscape is contaminated by the litter they throw away. It suffers from the lack of sustaining agricultural work fed into it, as well as the absence of rituals where once their ancestors played music to mountain and weather deities. Some people suspect that soon the mountains will become volcanoes and bury them all beneath a stream of lava. Climate change refers here to this entire phenomenon of change.

This is a local view of climate change, within a landscape simultaneously mythological and scientific, connecting the everyday action of the consumer to changes in the world we inhabit through connections hidden within the western scientific cosmos.

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Contemporary mythological accounts of climate change among indigenous peoples in Latin America connect changing weather and conditions to the actions of telluric spirits, inherent in the elements, or the source of valuable resources. Until recently, people were mindful of these spirits and worshipped them; yet now, tempted by migration to cities and extractivism, are ceasing to depend on these landscapes for their subsistence.

Interestingly, mythologies across several societies tell us that it is when we stop revering these spirits, and humans stop sharing with each other, that the world ends, considered to be underway. In some places spirit worship has been reinstated in an attempt to combat climate which is change, considered inseparable from mining, logging and other disrespectful practices, reanimating the landscape to contest capitalism.