More on primates and personhood in the context of the Amazonian Guajá:
Viveiros de Castro’s (1998) analysis of animism has been highly influential in the field of anthropology and is relevant to discussion of the Amazonian Guajá. Viveiros de Castro (1998:469) asserts, as does Bird-David, that “the classic distinction between Nature and Culture cannot be used to describe domains internal to non-Western cosmologies without first undergoing a rigorous ethnographic critique”, and he provides this critique in relation to Amerindian thought. In contrast to the multiculturalism of Western thought, Amerindians exhibit what Viveiros de Castro calls “perspectival multinaturalism” so that humans and all other animals have a spiritual unity but a diversity of physical forms. This unity means that the idea of personhood includes not only humans but all nonhumans. Cormier (2006:20) states that, “personhood might be thought of as an anthropomorphism of animality, but it is equally a zoomorphism of humanity.” However, Viveiros de Castro’s (1998:472-473) explanation of Amerindian stories of origin describes a “common condition of humanity” out of which all animals (humans and not) emerged, which results in “social continuity between nature and culture, founded on the attribution of human dispositions and social characteristics to ‘natural’ beings”: “to say, then, that animals and spirits are people is to say that they are persons, and to attribute to non-humans the capacities of conscious intentionality and agency which define the position of the subject”(1998:476) Viveiros de Castro (1998:477) then states that, “these non-humans placed in the subject perspective do not merely ‘call’ themselves ‘people’; they see themselves anatomically and culturally as humans.” He admits that this appears to reveal an integral anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism, but he then challenges this conclusion by defining the shared humanity of all beings as meaning the shared condition of being a subject (with each being having subjectivity); this results from the diversity of forms. At the same time, an underlying humanity unifies all beings culturally (or socially); spiritual unity means that “animals impose the same categories and values on reality as humans do” (1998:477) (underneath the differences of bodily appearance is the same spiritual essence). Viveiros de Castro gives examples for clarity, explaining that we see a jaguar drinking blood, but to the jaguar the blood is maize beer (and so on).
Keeping in mind Viveiros de Castro’s analyses of animistic thought, we can turn to the example of the Guajá of Brazil and their relationship to primates. The Guajá live in the western forests of Maranhao state (Cormier in Fuentes and Wolfe, 2005). They have been characterised as foragers/hunter-gatherers in transition to agriculture (they now live within three villages founded by the Brazilian Indian agency, FUNAI). Cormier (2003:83) asserts that the Guajá’s animistic views of nonhuman animals are consistent with Viveiros de Castro’s conclusions, and she notes that, “it is not merely attributing a spiritual nature or other anthropomorphic feature to nonhumans. Animism is fundamentally about social engagement.” All members of a Guajá community are given names from animals, plants or objects and these become their true siblings, with which they have a deep spiritual connection (Cormier in Fuentes and Wolfe, 2005). Cormier explains symbolic cannibalism and pet keeping, important facets of Guajá life. The Guajá’s cannibalism is considered symbolic because they do not eat other human beings; the Guajá “conceptualize all consumption as eating of related others” (2003:89), and “for the Guajá, it is the human nature that they share with howler monkeys that makes them the preferred prey” (2003:94). In Guajá myth, howler monkeys were formerly human, but were transformed into monkeys by a creator (Cormier 2006). By eating the body of the monkey, the Guajá facilitates a transformation, in which the earthly being becomes a sacred being that is able to travel to the sacred “celestial sky home” of their people (2003:89).