Ninth International Summer School on Mind, Brain and Education

2014 July 31 - August 03

Body, Brain and
Personal Identity: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives

Directors: Antonio M. Battro, Kurt W. Fischer and Fernando Vidal
Program officer: María Lourdes Majdalani

Abstract: Vanessa Elisa Grotti
Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Oxford, UK

Personhood, alterity and transformation: A native Amazonian perspective on the nature of being human
What does it mean to be a person among native Amazonian communities, and how does it differ from being human ? Why do anthropologists working on native Amazonia prefer to talk of personhood rather than personal identity, and how does the concept of the person translate into an Amerindian worldview ? In this presentation I will address the question of personal identity and its relation to the body from the point of view of Amazonian ontologies. Based on my own ethnographic fieldwork among three central Carib peoples who live across the triple border area separating Suriname, French Guiana and Brazil, as well as on a critical discussion of anthropological and historical sources on indigenous peoples of Lowland South America, this paper is an analysis of Amerindian personhood as a condition which is never given but constantly subject to transformation, and which is located in the body rather than in the mind or the soul. The unstable and transformative capacities of the human body have profound implications on how Amerindian people relate to the world which surrounds them, from the animals they hunt in the forest to the non-indigenous people they meet in their villages and in the city. People are not made at birth but rather constructed throughout their lifes by social and physical moulding of their bodies, and while kinship is an essential constituent of their making, personhood is also intimately tied to non-human others such as spirits, animals and potential enemies, whether these are distant Amerindian groups, gold-miners or politicians. Finally, I will present and discuss cases of culture contact and change through processes of ‘pacification’, sedentarisation and through native conversion to Christianity as perfect illustrations of the transformative and perspectivist nature of humanity in native Amazonia.