Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Gender in Amazonia and Melanesia

Gender in Amazonia and Melanesia: An Exploration of the Comparative Method

Thomas A. Gregor
Donald Tuzin
Copyright Date: 2001
Edition: 1
Pages: 402
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Gender in Amazonia and Melanesia
    Book Description:

    One of the great riddles of cultural history is the remarkable parallel that exists between the peoples of Amazonia and those of Melanesia. Although the two regions are separated by half a world in distance and at least 40,000 years of history, their cultures nonetheless reveal striking similarities in the areas of sex and gender. In both Amazonia and Melanesia, male-female differences infuse social organization and self-conception. They are the core of religion, symbolism, and cosmology, and they permeate ideas about body imagery, procreation, growth, men's cults, and rituals of initiation. The contributors to this innovative volume illuminate the various ways in which sex and gender are elaborated, obsessed over, and internalized, shaping subjective experiences common to entire cultural regions, and beyond. Through comparison of the life ways of Melanesia and Amazonia the authors expand the study of gender, as well as the comparative method in anthropology, in new and rewarding directions.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93581-5
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    Thomas A. Gregor and Donald Tuzin
  4. ONE Comparing Gender in Amazonia and Melanesia: A Theoretical Orientation
    (pp. 1-16)
    Thomas A. Gregor and Donald Tuzin

    Approximately one hundred years ago anthropologists identified what was to become an intriguing, enduring mystery of culture history: the question of the sources and the theoretical implications of remarkable similarities between societies in Amazonia and Melanesia. A world apart and separated by forty thousand or more years of human history, some of the cultures in the two regions nonetheless bore striking resemblances to one another. In both Amazonia and Melanesia, the ethnographers of the period found societies organized around men’s houses. There the men conducted secret rituals of initiation and procreation, excluded the women, and punished those who would violate...

  5. TWO Two Forms of Masculine Ritualized Rebirth: The Melanesian Body and the Amazonian Cosmos
    (pp. 17-44)
    Pascale Bonnemère

    Comparative anthropological analyses are difficult to undertake and a fortiori to complete successfully, for they require discovering certain laws that could account for similar modes of thought and symbolic structures beyond the diversity of social practices, representations, and discourses encountered. Although there is a recent trend in anthropology, stronger in the United States than elsewhere, that emits doubts concerning the possibility of making comparisons, given that cultures are so different from one another, many scholars in the discipline still share the idea that comparative analysis is part of the anthropological endeavor and even, for some, one of its main objectives....

  6. THREE The Variety of Fertility Cultism in Amazonia: A Closer Look at Gender Symbolism in Northwestern Amazonia
    (pp. 45-68)
    Jonathan D. Hill

    Male-controlled ritual cults provide one of the most striking points of similarity between Amazonian and Melanesian societies. Researchers in both areas (Hill 1984, 1989; Harrison 1985) have noted that constructions of male ritual hierarchy cannot be reduced to mere symbolic reflections of men’s dominance over women in secular contexts. Instead, male ritual hierarchy in both regions is better understood as the construction of a “counterideology” of gender-inflected hierarchy “existing in a permanent tension with, or antithesis to, an institutional and ideological bias toward egalitarianism in secular contexts” (Harrison 1985, 424). Like small-scale, horticultural societies throughout the world, those found in...

  7. FOUR Reproducing Inequality: The Gender Politics of Male Cults in the Papua New Guinea Highlands and Amazonia
    (pp. 69-90)
    Aletta Biersack

    Arnold Van Gennep (1960 [1909]) and Victor Turner (1967) envisioned socalled rites of passage as a “time out of time” symbolically marking the transition from one status or state in the life cycle to another. “For every transition in the life cycle,” Van Gennep wrote, “there are ceremonies whose essential purpose is to enable the individual to pass from one defined position to another which is equally well defined” (1960 [1909], 3). During the ritual, the participant is, as Turner’s famous encapsulation expressed it, “betwixt and between,” “interstructurally” suspended (Turner 1967, 93).

    Turner’s model assumes a rigid dichotomization of ritual...

  8. FIVE The Genres of Gender: Local Models and Global Paradigms in the Comparison of Amazonia and Melanesia
    (pp. 91-114)
    Philippe Descola

    Seen from Amazonia, Melanesia stands out as a sort of anthropological wonderland teeming with a bewildering diversity of social institutions that specialists of the South American lowlands view with discreet envy. Shamanism, head-hunting, secret men’s cults, cannibalism, ritualized feuding, dualist organizations, splendid feather paraphernalia, or sophisticated adaptations to tropical ecosystems—all these ethnographic features that the students of Amazonia would spontaneously consider as forming the characteristic landscape of their cultural area are also present in Melanesia, to which must be added an array of practices, cultural idiosyncrasies, and social systems that are either totally absent or barely sketched in Amazonia....

  9. SIX Age-Based Genders among the Kayapo
    (pp. 115-140)
    William H. Fisher

    Where gender is associated with natural substances ingested into and emitted from human bodies, the human body appears to have distinctly different gender attributes at different points in the life cycle. Amazonian and Melanesian accounts generally concur on theinconstancyof gender imagery associated with the individual human body, whether male or female, throughout the life course. Relationships defining of a particular socially defined age may therefore be said to be coincident with gender distinctions. If gender is conceptualized in terms of bodily potency and agency, as appears the wont in Amazonia and Melanesia, then one must recognize that both...

  10. SEVEN Women’s Blood, Warriors’ Blood, and the Conquest of Vitality in Amazonia
    (pp. 141-174)
    Beth A. Conklin

    One of the strongest resonances between the native cultures of Melanesia and lowland South America (especially Brazil) is a shared emphasis on the relational basis of personhood—the idea that the person “knows himself only by the relationships he maintains with others” (Leenhardt 1979 [1947], 153), and that the capacities of the self are activated through interactions with others. As Marilyn Strathern notes (Chapter 10), native peoples in both regions recognize that it is in relation to persons different from oneself that one develops creativity and vitality. Out of a conjunction of differences come generative possibilities.

    One context in which...

  11. EIGHT Damming the Rivers of Milk? Fertility, Sexuality, and Modernity in Melanesia and Amazonia
    (pp. 175-206)
    Margaret Jolly

    The metaphor in my title plays on that of Christine Hugh-Jones’s brilliant ethnography of the Barasana, From the Milk River (1979). Through this absurd image of damming rivers of milk, I query a hydraulic¹ theory of desire and its radical separation from reproduction. As many other ethnographers have shown and as is amply attested in this volume, in both Melanesia and Amazonia, sexuality and reproduction flow into each other and are part of a broader confluence of indigenous philosophies about the cosmic sources of life, health, and growth and of death, decay, and degeneration. But implicit in my comparison of...

  12. NINE Worlds Overturned: Gender-Inflected Religious Movements in Melanesia and the Amazon
    (pp. 207-220)
    Michael F. Brown

    Those who survey gender regimes in a range of societies are invariably struck by their ability to color nearly every aspect of social life. As other contributors to this volume have shown, societies bring to bear powerful forces—ranging from child-rearing norms and sexual codes to the hidden messages of myth and ritual—that replicate particular gender arrangements in each new generation. The multidimensionality and pervasiveness of gender regimes make them stubbornly resistant to change.

    When these sturdy configurations do begin to stir, perhaps destabilized by changes in settlement patterns, labor relations, or demographic trends, they usually do so slowly....

  13. TEN Same-Sex and Cross-Sex Relations: Some Internal Comparisons
    (pp. 221-244)
    Marilyn Strathern

    The sexes have different destinies, especially marked in the early years of marriage. A young man may leave home to find employment, perhaps returning from time to time, but expecting to travel over a wide area before eventually taking up residence at either his own place or his wife’s. A young woman may stay with her parents, perhaps making visits to her husband’s settlement to bear children there, lest misfortune be laid at the door of her own kin, while maintaining gardens and residence at her natal home. If later the two have a joint household, much will depend on...

  14. ELEVEN The Gender of Some Amazonian Gifts: An Experiment with an Experiment
    (pp. 245-278)
    Stephen Hugh-Jones

    Any attempt to compare two large, internally varied, historically unconnected, and geographically remote ethnographic regions is fraught with epistemological problems. Are the apparent similarities significant and interesting, do they result from similar causes, or are they merely the product of evidence carefully selected and removed from context? Are the differences really “there” or are they simply a product of different regional ethnographic traditions informed by differences in theoretical bias?

    Let us begin with what, at first sight, might look like some relatively straightforward differences. In Melanesia, descent, both matrilineal and patrilineal, is widespread; in Amazonia, patrilineal descent is rare and...

  15. TWELVE “Strength” and Sexuality: Sexual Avoidance and Masculinity in New Guinea and Amazonia
    (pp. 279-308)
    Paul Roscoe

    It is often noted but less often discussed that, in many parts of the world, war and hunting are associated with sexual taboos (e.g., Frayser 1985; Hays 1964). This chapter presents data drawn from a larger set to discuss sexual avoidances in Sepik and Highland New Guinea (hereafter “New Guinea”) and the Amazon.¹ The relevance of these avoidances to the study of Amazonian and Melanesian gender is the role they play in constructing a type of masculinity conceptualized in terms of “strength,” where this may mean not just physical but also social and/or spiritual “strength,” an active quality in which...

  16. THIRTEEN The Anguish of Gender: Men’s Cults and Moral Contradiction in Amazonia and Melanesia
    (pp. 309-336)
    Thomas A. Gregor and Donald Tuzin

    For almost a century anthropologists have been aware of the similarity of men’s secret organizations in many tribal cultures of Amazonia and Melanesia (e.g., Schurtz 1902; Webster 1968 [1907]). Typically, these organizations are associated with meeting grounds or men’s houses, where men conduct secret initiations and feasts. The cults recount similar charter myths, address similar spirit entities, conceal similar paraphernalia and sound-producing instruments, and similarly punish female intruders with gang rape or death. That this combination occurs in both regions is noteworthy. More striking is that the details of the cults also bear close comparison.¹

    In both cultural regions, the...

  17. FOURTEEN Reflections on the Land of Melazonia
    (pp. 337-344)
    Thomas A. Gregor and Donald Tuzin

    How can we explain the compelling similarities between various sociocultural features indigenous to Melanesia and the Amazon? Along what dimensions might they be studied? Are the similarities “real,” or merely artifacts of method or even imagination? More broadly, how can we construct a comparative method that could encompass cultures separated by half a world of space and at least 40,000 years in time? Separately and in aggregate, the preceding studies shed light on these questions. Most of them focused on the interregional comparison in the context of specific societies or relatively circumscribed ethnographic themes or theoretical models. As in all...

    (pp. 345-376)
    (pp. 377-380)
    (pp. 381-386)
    (pp. 387-392)