Hunter Gatherer Research

‘Therefore their parts resemble humans, for they feel that they are people’

Ontological flux in San myth, cosmology and belief

Hunter Gatherer Research (2015), 1, (3), 277–315.

Abstract

Despite resurrecting its central concept from one of the discipline’s Founding Fathers, the so-called ‘New Animism’ is very much a current branch of symbolic anthropology. With its focus on the rituals and beliefs and modes of thought specifically of simple hunters, hunter-gatherers, hunter-herders and hunter-horticulturalists, it is concerned with how humans conceive of their being in relation to non-human beings, in particular animals. Studies of the relational ontologies of such peoples in Amazonia, sub-arctic America, Siberia and south Asia have revealed a number of commonalities, chief of them human-non-human ontological instability and continuity, and deriving from it, the attribution of personhood to non-humans. This article is concerned with the first aspect, ontological flux, which pervades San (especially /Xam) cosmology, manifested in myth, ritual and hunting, through such ontological and experiential processes as hybridity, transformation, mimesis and sympathy, as well as tranceinduced transcendence.

The schema of relational ontology of the San is compared to that of small-scale hunting peoples of Siberia and Amazonia and South India and sub-arctic North America. The cosmologies of these people have been examined in terms of the ‘classic’ relational ontology paradigms of Philippe Descola, Eduardo Vivieros de Castro and Tim Ingold of the 1990s, in either a structuralist or a phenomenological cast. The San pattern, pervaded with ontological instability and ontologically ambiguous mythic and spirit beings, differs from the Amazonian and Siberian schemas, which do not give sufficient ontological space to preternatural and mythological beings and states. ‘(S)animism’ is closer to the ontologies of the other two peoples (exemplified by the Nayaka and Ojibwa) wherein spirit beings and mythological characters, respectively, impact closely on the people’s relational ontologies. In introducing an animistic schema from a hunter-gatherer group and continent hitherto not considered in the comparative analysis of such ontologies the paper underscores the diversity of such patterns among small-scale societies.

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Guenther, Mathias