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Families of the Forest

Families of the Forest: The Matsigenka Indians of the Peruvian Amazon

Allen Johnson
Copyright Date: 2003
Edition: 1
Pages: 275
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  • Book Info
    Families of the Forest
    Book Description:

    The idea of a family level society, discussed and disputed by anthropologists for nearly half a century, assumes moving, breathing form inFamilies of the Forest.According to Allen Johnson's deft ethnography, the Matsigenka people of southeastern Peru cannot be understood or appreciatedexceptas a family level society; the family level of sociocultural integration is for them a lived reality. Under ordinary circumstances, the largest social units are individual households or small extended-family hamlets. In the absence of such "tribal" features as villages, territorial defense and warfare, local or regional leaders, and public ceremonials, these people put a premium on economic self-reliance, control of aggression within intimate family settings, and freedom to believe and act in their own perceived self-interest. Johnson shows how the Matsigenka, whose home is the Amazon rainforest, are able to meet virtually all their material needs with the skills and labor available to the individual household. They try to raise their children to be independent and self-reliant, yet in control of their emotional, impulsive natures, so that they can get along in intimate, cooperative living groups. Their belief that self-centered impulsiveness is dangerous and self-control is fulfilling anchors their moral framework, which is expressed in abundant stories and myths. Although, as Johnson points out, such people are often described in negative terms as lacking in features of social and cultural complexity, he finds their small-community lifestyle efficient, rewarding, and very well adapted to their environment.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93629-4
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. List of Tables
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Preface
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  6. INTRODUCTION: Among the Matsigenka
    (pp. 1-10)

    No somos muy unidos aqui, “We are not very united here,” were nearly the first words Orna Johnson and I heard from “Maestro,” as the people of Shimaa called Pedro Vicente, their Matsigenka schoolteacher. His words, spoken on our arrival in the community in July 1972, were meant to be discouraging, not from any opposition to our doing research there, but from embarrassment. He assumed that we, like other outsiders, respected only communities of some size, where individual households could pull together in building a political entity capable of taking its place in modern Peru. He had learned in teacher...

  7. CHAPTER 1 Setting and History
    (pp. 11-37)

    Although the Matsigenka have, perhaps for millennia, occupied a historically important crossroads, their practice appears to have been to minimize contact with the larger world rather than to confront and try to control it. They have done so by remaining off the beaten path, in a marginal environment where their most favored foods, game animals and fish, are scarce. Good land for horticulture is ample, however, and the low population density and widely scattered small settlements have meant only minimal competition among family groups for what seasonal wild foods there are.

    In the beginning, say the Matsigenka of Shimaa, all...

  8. CHAPTER 2 Making a Living
    (pp. 38-90)

    A single Matsigenka household is capable of meeting all its own subsistence needs with few exceptions. A hamlet of related households may develop a division of labor integrating the households economically, but such integration is rarely necessary, and the dissolution of a hamlet into separate single-family households is always possible. There is no economic basis, therefore, for social aggregates beyond the family, and this is certainly one of the conditions for the existence and viability of a family level society.

    The members of a Matsigenka household potentially possess the complete array of skills needed to supply their basic needs. We...

  9. CHAPTER 3 Family Life
    (pp. 91-139)

    Judging from the favorite stories told around the evening fire, the main dilemma of Matsigenka family life is balancing the selfish and willful desires of the individual against the compromises required for life in household and hamlet (Johnson 1999b). Somehow, individual adults must be fully self-reliant and take independent action, and yet at the same time be unselfish and avoid the impulsive actions that can threaten even the strongest family ties.

    The Matsigenka emphasis on the independence of individuals and nuclear families runs counter to the common anthropological position that “individualism” is an egocentric, Western cultural bias (d’Ans 1974: 346;...

  10. CHAPTER 4 Society and Politics
    (pp. 140-186)

    In a family level society, the everyday social world varies between periods of dispersed nuclear-family living and aggregation in extended-family camps or hamlets. There is a larger social world, of course, but its structure is amorphous and ever-changing. Happenings beyond the household and hamlet are of great interest to family members. They want to know where some kin reside, where spouses may be sought, where trade goods and information come from, and so forth, but they do not experience the outside often. Interactions with this outside can be exciting but also dangerous and are usually for specific purposes and of...

  11. CHAPTER 5 Cosmos
    (pp. 187-222)

    For the Matsigenka of Shimaa,kameti, “good,” andtera onkametite, “not good,” are pervasive components of everyday conversation. In the semantic space generated by our “colors of emotion” experiment (Johnson, Johnson, and Baksh 1986: 677), the Matsigenka clustered “good” with “happy” at one pole and “not good” with “sad” at the opposite pole, as if the pleasure principle were operating in its most elemental form: “What makes me happy is good; what makes me sad is not good.” In much of their world this dimension has a pragmatic, utilitarian aspect: black soil is good, yellow soil is no good; sugar...

  12. CONCLUSION: A Family Level Society
    (pp. 223-228)

    Family level societies similar in their general characteristics to the Matsigenka are a basic form of human society (Johnson and Earle 2000: 41–53). They were the predominant form of human society for much of prehistory, but they have long been overshadowed in the eyes of anthropologists and historians alike by the larger, more complex societies that came to dominate the world landscape dramatically after the end of the Pleistocene. Certainly nineteenth-century social theorists had an unabashed enthusiasm for the rise of social complexity as evidence of “progress” (Johnson and Earle 2000: 2–3) or at least as a sign...

  13. Glossary
    (pp. 229-230)
  14. References Cited
    (pp. 231-242)
  15. Index
    (pp. 243-258)