Cultures and Religions

Ogni Cultura possiede le proprie norme per cio' che sia socialmente accettabile

Friday, March 25, 2011

An Unexpected Surprise (Sept 21 2006)


            Sicily is a fantastic land, rich with art and archeology. Many people colonized the island during the years, from Greeks to Romans, from Arabs to Normans. Today the island is one of the biggest archeological sites of Europe and discoveries are frequent in each corner of the island. During the 90s, working on my family lands, I found a strange piece of rock. A discovery of a fossil was something unexpected. I never thought that a simple day of work could be so exiting. This experience gave me a very important significance. The fossil’s discovery gave me the devotion to archeology.
            It was a simple Sunday of August, very hot even in the night, so that people were sleeping in the balconies of their houses. The sonorous callback of the birds was announcing that the night was ready to give space to a new day. Looking at the dark street, I was reflecting how beautiful life is in a quiet place like Casteldaccia. 

 Only a few thousand people live in the town and most of them spend their life in the camps, working on the agriculture. Production of oil and lemons are the most famous in the town. I had heard of some peasant who preferred going to the lands than staying home with their wives. How wretched are the people of my town! Like a lot of them, I was ready to spend my Sunday in one of my favorite places. The lands are quiet, and out of the city I can breath fresh air, write and be far away from the noise of the city. I was very excited to go to the lands, so I was the first to be awake that night. My grandfather came with his van, and he didn’t ring the bell of my house as usual, but he stopped to the corner of the street trying to fix something on the van. Hearing the noise of the vehicle, I ran outside. The last stars were about to leave the sky and the light of the sun was coming up with magnificence. My grandpa didn’t move from the van, but I noticed his surprised face when he saw me awake so early. Poor Grandpa! His white hair could approximately describe his seventy years and his adventures, and his blue eyes were giving me a sensation of beauty. He was leaning on a walking stick, and every time he was feeling a pain in his legs, he started to raise his voice blaspheming and cursing against the Germans who shot him during the Second World War. Since that day he never walked like before and he always needed the help of a nurse to take care of the incessant pain. He shouted:   “Come on Giuseppe, it’s time to go”, while Nino, my older brother, was coming out the door at the same time. He had always been a rebellious person. I liked his character because of that, or maybe just because Nino and I were too different. From the way he closed the door, he didn’t seem too excited to go to the lands. I think he was angry because he preferred to go out with his motorcycle instead of working. I can remember that he never wanted me to go out with him. That situation was hurting me so bad. ‘You cannot come with me today” was his famous phrase that he always used to repeat me. It was also the last phrase that he said to me two months ago, before having a car accident and passing away. Maybe his world was different than mine.

            While we were going to the farm, my Grandpa picked a topic just for the sake of having an argument. He was talking about the Germans who invaded Sicily during the Second World War, and he was forced to leave the town and go to the mountains to escape from them. Then he started to talk about the lands that were rich with products. My brother didn’t seem too interested in the conversation, so he was looking through the window at the fantastic landscape of the island. My old Grandpa then started to another discussion. This one attracted me mostly because he was talking about strange discoveries beneath our lands. The most important was a Roman funerary case with the skeleton still intact. The lands are rich with archeological treasures because centuries ago an old Roman city was situated there. The people of the lands prefer not to talk and hide the discoveries because they are afraid to lose their lands. Everybody knows a lost city is beneath our lands, but like good Sicilians, they prefer to keep their mouths closed to avoid possible confiscations from the State. The lands are the only thing they have, and loosing them would mean loosing their job. That’s why I admire my people. I was not surprised to hear about the discoveries, but the fact that was making me feel bad was that some people sold treasures that they found on their lands, treasures that didn’t belong to them. When we arrived at our destination, my Grandpa asked to my brother and I to collect walnuts and if we were able to fill a case of walnuts before lunch, he would give us mille lire each, approximately 50 US cents, that during the 90s were a lot for a kid. I was too young to listen to him; instead I started to look around me at some pieces of rocks. There were a lot of snails because it was a rainy day and it was fun watching those little animals crawling. While I was looking at the snails, something curious pushed my eyes to look at the ground. It was looking like a snail, but it wasn’t. It was a fossil, a fantastic exemplar of Ammonites, probably millions of years old. 

The ammonite was one of the first living animals in the face of the Earth, and it was in my hands. My Grandpa, alarmed from the fact that I was yelling to get his attention, ran to me and he saw the Ammonite in my hand. He didn’t talk. Actually he was looking at me like I did something wrong, or maybe he just was mad because I was not doing my job. I was very excited and my eyes were reflecting that wonderful masterpiece. My brother was not so excited to see a piece of rock, but he was curious, so he was trying to take the Ammonite out of my hands. I was touching the fossil so carefully and my hands were shaking from my happiness. My dream to find something important in that land finally was true. I was not going to follow, of course, other people’s idea to sell their pieces of history, but I had like a sensation to understand that fossil, the meaning that it had. Fossils are pieces of art that people should respect. A fossil is the history of our Earth, the place were we are living.
            I didn’t want to continue my work that day because the sky was getting cloudy, so my Grandpa advised us to get into the van. While it was raining, we were leaving the lands. For the rest of the World, that Sunday was a normal day, but for me it was one of the most important days of my existence. The fossil was only the first piece of my collection that today I hold in my house in Sicily. The devotion to a new subject today is the reason for my studies.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Introducing the Yanomami Tribe of South America

The Yanomami (or Yanomamo)  form one of the largest remote indigenous tribe of Southern America’s Amazon forest, in the southern hemisphere, and they have been living undisturbed from any other society for several centuries, until the mid-1950s, when they had the first contacts with outsiders. During this time of isolation from the rest of the world, the Yanomamo have been able to be in charge of their fate (Chagnon, 1997). They had basically, the ability of adapt themselves into their environment according to their cultural standards. Anthropologists usually refer to this with the term “cultural adaptation”. The most important factors in the cultural survival of the Yanomamo deal with land and adaptation to it.

 Ecological approaches and perspectives will appear as the main points of this paper, that will discuss in a deeper analysis the physical environment in which the Yanomamo live, together with some aspects of technology, their skills used in the hunting and gathering techniques, and, of course, “warfare”.  It will be necessary also to look at the relationship between culture and ecology and how consequences of various actions taken from the villagers affected the environment that surrounded them. These aspects will describe with a relative cleanness the simple culture of the Yanomamo people, and the revelation of patterns of their cultural adaptation.  However, interference of missionaries, anthropologists and miners has brought among them new diseases and conflicts that can be defined as catastrophic for the survival of this indigenous groups.

The Yanomamo are well known for being one of the few tribes in the world whose existence was unknown until some recent decades. They live in the borders between Venezuela and Brazil, and their population is just about 20.000 people, distributed in different villages and separated by miles of uninhabited land. When the anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon visited this region for the very first time, the Yanomamo were living in some small villages, called shabonos, and they were speaking only their own language. According to Napoleon Chagnon, they fall into the category of “Tropical Forest Indians”, called foot people, and this refers to the villagers’ distribution over the landscape. The Yanomamo behavior includes a collection of characteristics that are connected among their groups that, throughout singular perspectives, control the complexity of relationship between the aspects of cultural, ecological, and biological activities. They rely for food and shelter on what they can gather on the rain forest.  They practice hunting and gathering, and the most common game animals are wild pigs, monkeys, tapirs, armadillos, birds and rodents. Caterpillars are considered a very desirable food, just like the grubs that live in the seeds of palm fruits (60). The do not rely much on fish, but they can take advantage of its abundance in certain periods of the season. Gathering is also common, and palm fruits, bananas, and honey are the most desired. Apart from their hunting and gathering activities, Yanomamo people are also considered in a certain way horticulturalists, because the majority of their food production comes from the domesticated plants of their gardens. They have a pretty sophisticated knowledge of crops. Among their domestic food, plantains are the most important. They also grow tobacco, to which every single Yanomamo is obsessed. They are aware also of the practices of “slash and burn cultivation”, the method of agriculture used in which vegetation is burned, land is cropped for a few years (2-3), and then the forest retakes its place. Hunters usually, during their time spent away from the village, discover the new potential areas that will be exploited for gardening, and eventually the region that will be used to built the new “shabono”.  Depending on these facts, and the necessity for Yanomamo people to move away their villages from an area to another, interactions with other indigenous groups are inevitable, as well as unpredictable. According to this specific information, the distribution of the population over the region is characterized by micro movements, as well as macro movements (Chagnon, 73).

Another ecological approach can be made by taking in consideration Yanomamo rituals and beliefs. Like the majority of the indigenous groups of South America’s Amaziona, their religion is based on the principles of animism. They believe that the forest does not only permit to find plants and food, but that a spiritual existence is present in it.  The spirits are present in the entire flora and fauna, and they mostly have animal’s names. These spirits are called “hekura”. The shamans of the villages take appropriate hallucinogen drugs to get in contact with the spirits (ebene), and they usually paint themselves to have a good appearance, because hekura requires beauty (Chagnon, 117).  The ebene is taken by blowing it through a tube into the nose of a person. It also indicates the passage of the energy from a body to another. When the ebene takes effect, shamans start to intonate chants, and talk to the spirits, that give him a particular power, that in certain cases is used to harm their enemies. The hekura have their residence in the hills, the trees, and sometimes the live also under the rocks of the forest. Some of them carry weapons, others are considered cannibalistic. The shamans believe also that some of them are suspended at the edge of the universe, and they come to earth when they are called by the rituals, entering from the feet of the human body, and getting out from the mouth. Different hekuras appear in different periods, depending on the season.
On the basis of the seasons the Yanomamo people construct their life. Their region is characterized mainly of a wet and a dry season (Chagnon, 7), that sometimes can result critical to these people. Heavy precipitations can have a serious consequence on even the biggest streams, and the Yanomamo in those cases prefer to avoid larger rivers, selecting inland sites and gardens. On the other side, during the dry season, they conduct trade, feasts (in which they usually establish their alliances), and political relations with other villages. This is the time also when Yanomamo mostly practice warfare, an observable fact that characterizes every single aspect of their group organization, settlement models and everyday’s life cycle. Chagnon describes warfare as not only a “ritualistic war”, but a true and unique phenomenon that gives the Yanomamo the attribute of “waiteri” (fierce people). What caught my attention is the explanation that some “unokai” (killers) gave to Chagnon when he asked why they practice warfare so intensively. One of the men from the Bisaasi-teri village answered that “they go to war to revenge the killing of a man from their tribe”. It is so interesting how the same reasons are given from another indigenous group that we studies in class: the “Dani” tribe of New Guinea. A death in one Yanomamo village can be attributed to the “hekura” sent by a shaman from another village, and in this case the two groups will eventually raid each other. Depending on this position, it is understandable assume that the desire of revenge, for Yanomamo, is a natural way of expressing themselves in which they believe that warfare has a military function. Among the various ideas formulated by anthropologists, Chagnon came up with the idea that warfare has to do with socio-biological matter. According to anthropologist, in fact, those who are involved in warfare and are successful warriors have a greater reproductive success, than the ones who do not fight. In this case also, human sexual behavior takes position, in which individuals come into competition between males to have access to females. In warfare, Yanomamo behavior is often considered aggressive, but at the same time it is also thought to be useful, because it regulates in a certain manner their population growth.
Several changes today are taking place into the Yanomamo area, since their first contacts with outsiders.  Disease and armed conflict reduced the number of the Indians to a few thousands. First contacts brought an epidemic of influenza, which destroyed entire villages, and a recent gold rush has brought miners into their lands. Since 1987 over a thousand miners have invaded their territory in search of gold, and Brazilian Government has not been able to stop it (Chagnon, 227). A landing field was constructed from the missionaries in the 70s in that area, and today is still utilized by the miners. The noise of the aerial traffic scares away the game animals that the Yanomamo people hunt. In addition, mercury is used in mining, and this is polluting the watercourses, poisoning also the fish. Other changes taking place between the Yanomamo are the consequences of the Salesian missionaries trying to convert these people. They also took some children away from their families, forced them to wear clothes and sent them to schools (Hicks, 209). It is a very grave situation that may have serious cost regarding the existence of the Indians. Nevertheless, the negative pressure of missionaries and miners goes past physical conditions of the Yanomamo, because their society is next to vanish. The “Time” magazine in a recent article criticized the authors of this embarrassing extinction of a society, by asking a question: What have we done to them?  Investigators, miners, missionaries, and government officials all have contributed to this state of damage. Those are the real waiteri by which Yanomamo should stay away from.