South American Indian Religions: History of Study

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Systematic study of South American indigenous religions began with the arrival of the first Europeans. Almost immediately after landing in the New World, scholars, priests, scribes, and soldiers began describing and assimilating the Indians' peculiar and, to them, outlandish practices for their Old World sponsors and public. The confrontation between these early explorer-chroniclers and their indigenous subjects established the basis of a religious opposition between Christian reformer and "pagan" Indian; and it is no exaggeration to say that these early accounts set the stage for all later scholarly and scientific studies of the continent's diverse religious traditions.

All early accounts of religion were driven by the practical needs of empire. For the Spaniards, the political importance of understanding and analyzing native religious belief first arose through their encounters with the powerful Inca state of highland Peru. Chroniclers such as Juan de Betanzos (1551), Pedro Cieza de León (1553), and Cristóbal de Molina (1572) among others provided vivid accounts of imperial religion and Inca state mythologies. Two concerns tempered their descriptions and choice of subject matter: the spectacle of Inca rituals and the parallels they imagined to exist between their Christian millenarian and apostolic traditions and the natives' own beliefs in a "creator god" whose prophesized return coincided withand thus facilitatedthe initial Spanish conquests in Peru. Similar messianic beliefs among the Tupi-Guaraní of eastern Brazil attracted the attention of the explorers Hans von Staden (1557) and Antonie Knivet (1591). Their writings provide fascinating accounts of Tupi religion as part of an argument intended to prove the presence of the Christian apostle Thomas in South America long before its sixteenth-century "discovery." Such early accounts inevitably strike the modern-day reader as ethnocentric. The tone of these writings is understandable, however, since their purpose was to make sense of the new cultures and peoples they met within the historical and conceptual framework provided by the Bible. Within this framework, there was only one "religion" and one true God. All other belief systems, including those encountered in the Americas, were judged as pagan. For some early theologians, the pagan practices of the South Americans placed them well outside the domain of the human. Others, however, believed the Americans were humans who had once known the true God and then somehow fallen from grace or were innocents with an intuitive knowledge of God. Early accounts of religious practices were driven by this desire to uncover evidence of the Indians' prior evangelization or intuitive knowledge of God. Catholic writers thus often interpreted the indigenous practices they observed by comparing them to such familiar Catholic practices as confession. In what is perhaps the most sympathetic account of a native religion, the Calvinist Jean de Léry made sense of the religious practices of the Brazilian Tupinambá Indians by comparing their ritual cannibalism to the Catholic Communion, in which Christians partook of the body and blood of Christ. De Léry's account suggests the extent to which all early inquiries into South American religions were inevitably colored by the religious and political lines drawn within Europe itself by the Reformation.

For Iberians, however, it was the Reconquista or Liberation of Catholic Spain from Moorish rule that lent the study of religion an urgent, practical tone. If Indian souls were to be recruited to the ends of the "one true religion," it was necessary to isolate and eradicate those aspects of the indigenous religions that stood in the way of conversion. Priests had to be instructed, catechisms written, and punishments devised for specific religious offenses. The ensuing campaigns to extirpate idolatries produced the first true studies of religion in the Andean highlands. Combining knowledge of Christian doctrine and missionary zeal with an increasing practical familiarity with indigenous life, theologians and priests such as José de Acosta (1590), José de Arriaga (1621), Cristóbal de Albornóz (c. 1600), and Francisco de Ávila (1608) set out to define in a rigorous and scholarly way the parameters of indigenous religion.

A few indigenous and mestizo writers sought to vindicate their culture and religion from the attacks of these Catholic campaigners, in the process contributing greatly to the historical study of Andean religion. Among the most interesting of the indigenous chronicles is an eleven-hundred-page letter to the king of Spain written between 1584 and 1614 by Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala, a native of Ayacucho, Peru, who had worked with the extirpation campaigns. Other native accounts include the chronicle of Juan de Santacruz Pachacuti Yamqui Salcamaygua (c. 1613) and the monumental History of the Incas (1609), written by the half-Inca Garcilaso de la Vega. These native writers defended the goals but not the cruel methods, of Christian conversion and defended many native beliefs and practices as more just and rational than the abuses of the Spanish colonizers.

Other chronicles record European reactions to religions of the Amazonian lowlands; these include among others the travel accounts of Claude d'Abbeville (1614) and Gaspar de Carvajal, a priest who accompanied the first exploratory voyage up the Amazon River system in 1542. But if what the Europeans understood by "religion"that is, hierarchies, priests, images, and processionsfit in well with what they found in the Andean state systems, it differed markedly from the less-institutionalized religions of the tropical forest region. Accounts of lowland religions were accordingly couched in an exaggerated language stressing atrocity, paganism, and cannibalism. Such emphases had more to do with prevailing European mythologies than with the actual religious beliefs of tropical forest peoples.

This early literature on Andean religion provided irreplaceable data about ritual, dances, offerings, sacrifices, beliefs, and gods now no longer in forceincluding, in the case of Guamán Poma's letter, a sequence of drawings depicting indigenous costume and ritual and, in the chronicle of Francisco de Ávila, a complete mythology transcribed in Quechua, the native language. But these colonial writings also provided a powerful precedent for religious study thereafter. From the time of the extirpators on, religion was the salient element or institution by which indigenous peoples were judged in relation to their Christian or European conquerors. Religion, in short, became the principal index for defining the cultural and social differences separating two now adjacent populations. Such religious criteria helped shape as well the unfortunate stereotypes applied to Amazonian peoples and cultures.

Nineteenth-Century Travel and Expeditionary Literature

The interval between the seventeenth-century campaigns against idolatry and the early-nineteenth-century independence period was marked by an almost complete absence of religious studies. In Europe itself the accounts of Garcilaso de Vega, de Léry, and others provided the raw materials from which eighteenth-century philosophers crafted their highly romanticized image of the American Indian. While Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778) and others looked to the Tupinambá as a model for the "noble savage," other French philosophers held up Inca religion as an example of what an enlightened monarchy and nonpapal deist religion could look like. Although far removed from South America itself, these writings continued to influence the study of South American religions for many future generations.

With their independence from Spain in the early nineteenth century, the new South American republics became once again available to the travelers, adventurers, natural historians, and scientists who could provide firsthand observations. Whereas earlier colonial observers had approached the study of religion through the political and theological lens of empire and conversion, these nineteenth-century travelers used the new languages of science and evolutionary progress to measure the Indians' status with respect to contemporary European cultural and historical achievements. While none of these travelogues and natural histories was intended as a study of indigenous religion per se, many of them include reports on religious custom. Among the most important of these are the travel accounts of Ephraim George Squier (1877), Charles Wiener (1880), Friedrich Hassaurek (1867), and James Orton (1876) for the Andean highlands and Johann Baptist von Spix and Carl von Martius (1824), Henri Coudreau (18801900), Alcides d'Orbigny (1854), and General Couto de Magalhães (1876) for the Amazonian lowlands. Such descriptions were augmented, especially in the Amazon, by detailed and often highly informative accounts of "pagan" practices written by missionary ethnographers such as José Cardus (1886) in Bolivia and W. H. Brett (1852) in British Guiana (now Guyana).

This nineteenth-century literature tended to romanticize the Indians and their religions through exaggerated accounts of practices such as head-hunting, cannibalism, blood sacrifice, and ritual drinking. In these "descriptions" of religion emphasis is placed on the exotic, wild, and uncivilized aspects of the Indians' religious practicesand on the narrator's bravery and fortitude in searching them out. Such romanticizing and exoticizing, however, tended to occur unevenly. Thus whereas religions of the Amazon Basin were subject to the most exotic and picturesque stereotypes of what a tropical primitive should be, the less-remote Andean Indians were described primarily in terms of their degeneration from the glories of a lost Inca religion that was considered to be more enlightened or "pure."

Early- to Mid-Twentieth-Century Studies

The twentieth century ushered in new forms of scientific inquiry and scholarly ideals. Departing from the narrative, subjective styles of the chroniclers, travelers, and natural historians, modern writers sought to describe indigenous religion independently of any personal, cultural, or historical biases about it; subjectivity was to be subsumed to a new ideal of relativism and objectivity. These writers conform to two general yet interrelated disciplinary fields: (1) the anthropologists and historians of religion, who use a comparative and typological framework to examine the universal, phenomenological bases of religious belief, and (2) the area specialists, or Americanists, who are interested in defining the specificity and social cultural evolution of religions in the Americas.

The first group included such early scholars of lowland religions as Paul Ehrenreich (1905), Max Schmidt (1905), and Adolf E. Jensen (who later founded the Frankfurt ethnographic school, home to such important modern scholars of South American religions as Otto Zerries and Karin Hissink). Their comparativist theories proved an impetus for the later field studies of Martin Gusinde (19311937) in Tierra del Fuego, William Farabee (19151922), and Günter Tessmann (19281930) in the Northwest Amazon, Konrad T. Preuss (19201930) in both highland and lowland Colombia, and Theodor Koch-Grünberg (19001930) in the Orinoco and in Northwest Brazil. These field-workers wrote detailed general accounts of lowland or Amazonian religions and placed special emphasis on the analysis of iconography, mythology, and animism.

Studies of highland religion during this early-twentieth-century period tended to focus almost exclusively on antiquities. The most important of these studies are the linguistic treatises of E. W. Middendorf (18901892) and J. J. von Tschudi (1891) and the archaeological surveys of Max Uhle and Alfons Stubel (1892). Both Incaic and contemporary Andean materials, however, were included in the broad surveys done by the scholars Adolf Bastian (18781889) and Gustav Brühl (18571887), who were interested in comparing the religions and languages of North, South, and Central America to establish a theory of cultural unity.

The Americanists' interdisciplinary studies of indigenous religion drew on the early twentieth-century German studies and on at least three other sources as well. The first was the fieldwork during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s by European ethnologists such as Alfred Métraux, Paul Rivet, and Herbert Baldus as well as by American anthropologists from the Smithsonian Institution's Bureau of Ethnology. Beyond describing the general social organization, religion, ritual, and mythologies of the Indians, these men were interested in classifying the cultures and religions they found by tracing their interrelationships and linguistic affiliations. In their writings therefore a detailed account of religion is often subordinated to an overriding interest in linguistic data and material culture. For example, detailed studies of shamanism were produced by the Scandinavian ethnographers Rafael Karsten, Henri Wassen, and Erland Nordenskiöld as part of a broader comparative examination of the material culture of South America. Of these early ethnographers, the German anthropologist Curt Nimuendajú stands out both for the extent of his fieldwork among the Ge, Boróro, Apinagé, Tucano, and Tupi tribes and for the degree to which his interests in describing these groups focused on their religious and ritual life. Other important sources on religious practices during this period are provided in the accounts of missionaries and priests, such as Bernadino de Nino (1912) in Bolivia, Gaspar de Pinelli (1924) in Colombia, and Antonio Colbacchini and Cesar Albisetti (19071942) in Brazil.

A second group that influenced early Americanist approaches to religion was composed of ethnohistorians and archaeologists. Often hailed as the first true Americanists to work in the Southern Hemisphere, the archaeologists left a distinctive imprint on South American studies by the nature of their specialty: the study of the pre-Spanish Andean past. Excavations, surveys, and analyses of previously unstudied sites in both coastal and highland Peru by Max Uhle and Adolph Bandelier were followed by the more detailed chronological studies of Alfred Kroeber, Junius Bird, Wendell Bennett, and John Rowe. Although the chronologies and site inventories constructed by these archaeologists did not focus on religion per se, the temple structures, burials, offerings, textiles, ceramics, and other ritual paraphernalia they unearthed provided new data on the importance of religion in pre-Columbian social organization and political evolution. Interpretation of this material was facilitated by the work of ethnohistorians such as Hermann Trimborn and Paul Kirchoff. Their historical investigations of both highland and lowland religions contributed inmeasurably to an overall working definition of South American religious systems and their relation to systems of social stratification, state rule, and ethnicity.

A third and final group that helped shape Americanist studies was composed of South American folklorists, indigenists, and anthropologists. In attempting to resurrect indigenous culture and religion, indigenista writers of the 1930s and 1940s differed from the foreign ethnologists of these formative Americanist years. Their work was motivated largely by an explicit desire to record South American lifeways and religions before such practicesand the people who practiced themdisappeared completely. The emphasis of the indigenista studies on the vitality of living religious systems also served as an important counter to the archaeologists' initial influence on Americanist thinking. The prodigious group of national writers influenced by indigenismo subsequently compiled a vast archive of oral traditions, "customs," and ritual practices. Notable among these folklorists and anthropologists are Antonio Paredes Candia and Enrique Oblitas Poblete of Bolivia, Roberto Lehmann-Nitsche of Argentina, Gregorio Hernández de Alba of Colombia, and Jose-María Arguedas, Jorge Lira, and Oscar Nuñez del Prado of Peru. Unique among them was the Peruvian archaeologist-anthropologist Julio C. Tello. One of the most creative archaeologists working in Peru, Tello was also the only one interested in exploring the relation of the religious data he unearthed to modern-day Quechua beliefs and practices. His ethnographic publications of the 1920s are landmarks in the study of Andean religion, and his archaeological investigations of the 1930s and 1940s extended knowledge of the Andean religious mind into a comparative framework interrelating highland and lowland cosmologies and religions.

The major work to appear out of the formative period of Americanist studies is the seven-volume Handbook of South American Indians edited by Julian H. Steward (19461959). Though somewhat outdated, the Handbook 's articles, which cover aspects of prehistory, material culture, social organization, and ecology, still provide what is perhaps the most useful and accessible comparative source for beginning study of South American religions. Its interest for a history of religious studies, however, also lies in what it reveals about the biases informing Americanists' treatment of religion. These are (1) a preoccupation with relative historical or evolutionary classifications and the description of religious systems in terms of their similarity to, or degeneration from, a pre-Columbian standard, (2) a lowland-highland dichotomy informed by this evolutionary mode and according to which tropical forest religions are judged to be less "complex" than the pre-Hispanic prototypes formulated for the Andes by archaeologists and ethnohistorians, and (3) the comparative framework used by scholars who were more interested in discovering the cultural affinities and evolutionary links that connected different religious practices than they were in describing and analyzing the function and meaning of religious practices on a local level. The shortcomings of this dispersed and comparative focus are intimated by many of the Handbook 's authors, who lament the inadequacy of their data on specific religious systems.

Functionalist and Functionalist-Influenced Studies

The next group of scholars to address religious issues set out specifically to remedy this situation by studying indigenous religion in its social context. The manner in which local religious systems were treated was, however, once again tempered by the theoretical orientations of their observers. Thus the first group of anthropologists to follow the Handbook 's lead during the 1950s and early 1960s was influenced by the functionalist school of British anthropology. According to this theory, society is an organic whole whose various parts may be analyzed or explained in terms of their integrative function in maintaining the stability or equilibrium of a local group. Religion was considered to be a more or less passive reflection of the organic unity of a total social system. Examples of this approach are the monographs of William W. Stein (1961) on the Peruvian Andes, Allan R. Holmberg (1950) on the Siriono of lowland Bolivia, and Irving Goldman (1963) on the Cubeo of Brazil. In several cases more detailed monographs were written that focused specifically on the role of religion in indigenous social organization; these include works by Robert Murphy on the Brazilian Mundurucú, Segundo Bernal on the Paez of Colombia, David Maybury-Lewis on the Akwe-Xavante, and Louis C. Faron on the Mapuche, or Araucanians, of coastal Chile.

One variant of this functionalist approach brought out the role of religion as a means of achieving or maintaining balance between social and ecological systems. Prime examples of this approach are Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff's brilliant, Freudian-influenced treatments of mythology, shamanism, and cosmology among the Koghi Indians of Colombia's Sierra Nevada highlands and the Desána (Tucano) of the Northwest Amazon. Other studies of shamanism, cosmology, and hallucinogens have been carried out by the anthropologists Douglas Sharon in coastal Peru and Michael Harner in eastern Ecuador.

Structuralist Studies

During the 1960s and 1970s scholars began to question the passively reflective, or "superstructural," role to which much of functionalist anthropology had relegated religion as well as the simplistic and ultimately evolutionist dichotomies between the Andean and tropical forest cultures. The major theoretical impetus for this new approach came from structuralism, which proposed to analyze the affinities connecting mythologies and ritual practices and the societies in which they occurred by referring all to a pervasive symbolic or cognitive structure based on dual oppositions and on diverse forms of hierarchical organization. The pioneering works of this tradition were Claude Lévi-Strauss's studies of social organization and mythology in the Amazon basin and his four-volume Mythologiques (19641971), which presented a system for analyzing mythic narratives as isolated variants of an organizational logic whose standardized structure he invoked to explain the commonality of all North and South American modes of religious expression and social organization.

The structuralist approach has been particularly important for the study of religion. For the first time a mode of thinkingevidenced by religion and mythologywas not only taken as the principal index of cultural identity but was also seen to influence and even partly to determine the organization of other spheres of social and economic life. In its renewed focus on religion, structuralism inspired myriad studies of lowland ritual and mythology, including those by Jean-Paul Dumont, Michel Perrin, Terence Turner, Jacques Lizot, Anthony Seeger, Stephen Hugh-Jones, and Christine Hugh-Jones. These structuralist studies of mythology and social organization were completedand often precededby collections of mythologies and descriptions of cosmologies (or "worldviews") by ethnographers such as Johannes Wilbert, Marc de Civrieux, Darcy Ribiero, Roberto DaMatta, Egon Schaden, Neils Fock, and Gerald Weiss. Though departing from the structuralists' methodologies, these anthropologists shared with the structuralists an interest in studying religion as an expression of social organization, society-nature classifications, and broad cultural identities.

In the Andes, where mythologies and religion were judged to be less pristine and less divorced from the ravages of historical, social, and economic change, Lévi-Strauss's theories generated interest in the study of social continuity through examination of structural forms. These studies of underlying structural continuity were based on extensive fieldwork by ethnographers and ethnohistorians such as Billie Jean Isbell, Juan Ossio, Henrique Urbano, Gary Urton, John Earls, and Alejandro Ortíz Rescaniere. These scholars have argued for the existence of a constant and culturally specific religious (as well as mythological and astronomical) structure by means of which indigenous groups have retained their cultural identity over time. Their studies of postconquest religious continuity drew on ethnohistorical models of Andean social organization, in particular R. Tom Zuidema's complex structural model of Inca social relations and ritual geographies and María Rostworowski de Diez Canseco's studies of pre-Hispanic coastal societies. Both of these ethnohistorians have emphasized the role of mythology, ritual, and religious ideology in the shaping of Andean economic and political history.

Structuralist methodology also motivated a new type of comparative study focusing on the similarities linking Andean and Amazonian religions. For example, Zuidema's structural model for Inca socioreligious organization pointed out the important similarities between this elaborate highland state system and the equally complex modes of ritual and social organization found among the Ge and Boróro Indians of Brazil. D. W. Lathrap's archaeological model for the evolution of South American social organization used similar comparative techniques to establish a common heritage of lowland and highland cosmologies. By combining this comparative insight with the historical dynamics of archaeology and ethnohistory and by assigning to religion a determinative role in the evolution of social systems, such models not only questioned but in many ways actually reversed the prevailing stereotypic dichotomy between "primitive" Amazon and "civilized" Andes.

Historical and Poststructuralist Views

In the final decades of the twentieth century anthropologists and other students of religion began increasingly to question the notions of unity, coherence, and continuity that had characterized much earlier work on indigenous religion. Structuralists had intepreted myth as the partial expression or transformation of mental structures that endured over time and ritual as the symbolic performance of the formal, structural principles that lent meaning to a particular culture's cosmology or worldview. Through such forms of analysis, structuralists emphasized the coherency and mobility of the structural principles expressed in the many different domains of social life. In so doing they also made important claims concerning the pervasive character of "religion" and the impossibility of drawing a definite boundary between religious and secular activities in indigenous societies.

Poststructuralist work has built on and expanded this methodological and theoretical claim that "religion" must be studied in many different and overlapping domains of social life. At the same time scholars working in the 1980s and 1990s used historical methodologies to question structuralism's claims regarding the coherency and stability of mental and symbolic structures. Because the study of indigenous societies often depended on the use of documentary sources written by Spaniards and other nonindigenous authors, history or ethnohistory has been a foundational methodology for many South Americanists. For example, Zuidema and other structualists built their models of pristine Inca and Andean religious systems through the creative, critical use of Spanish chronicles and archives. The new historical work on religion by Tristan Platt, Thomas A. Abercrombie, Joanne Rappaport, and others has drawn on ethnohistorical methods in their search for an indigenous "voice" in the colonial archive. Unlike the earlier structuralists, however, their goal was not to reconstruct the elements of a precontact society but to understand the complex role played by religion in the political worlds formed through the interaction of indigenous and European societies.

In part because of their heavy debt to structualist methodologies and perspectives, early historical anthropologies tended to approach religion as an inherently conservative domain of belief whose persistence in colonial times could be read as a form of resistance to colonial rule. Of particular importance in this respect were the studies of messianic movements as forms of religious conservatism coupled with situations of social resistance or even revolution. In the Andes such work was stimulated largely by ethnohistorical studies of colonial messianisms by the Peruvian anthropologists Juan Ossio, Franklin Pease, and Luis Millones. Other studies interpreted indigenous religious beliefs and practices as strategies for consolidating ethnic identities threatened by the encroachment of "modern" national societies. These include studies by Norman E. Whitten Jr. in Amazonian Ecuador, the mythology collections of Orlando Villas Boas and Claudio Villas Boas in the Brazilian Xingu River area, Miguel Chase-Sardi's studies of ethnicity and oral literatures in Paraguay, and William Crocker and Cezar L. Melatti in the Brazilian Amazon.

Through its emphasis on contingency, political complexity, and intrigue, subsequent work has tended to complicate the category of resistance itself, along with the dual-society models that were often implied by the concept of resistance. Stefano Varese's groundbreaking work on the Peruvian Campa or Ashaninka, based on fieldwork conducted during the late 1960s and early 1970s, provides an early example of a political anthropology of religion that emphasized the political economic contexts in which messianic movements and indigenous political resistance took shape. Other examples include the work of anthropologists Robin M. Wright and Jonathan Hill on northern Amazonian religious movements and political organization; Xavier Albó, Platt, Olivia Harris, Abercrombie, and Roger Rasnake on the colonial origins and rationality of the sacred landscapes, social practices, and authority structures through which Aymara religious practices engage issues of politics and power; and Jean Jackson and Alcida Ramos on ethnic relations and indigenous politics in the Colombian and Brazilian Amazon. Although the concept of a religious syncretism between colonial (usually Catholic) and indigenous belief systems has long been a central issue in anthropological treatments of religion, these new historical studies move well beyond the notion of syncretism to paint a more complex picture of how individuals, groups, and political movements strategically manipulate and conceptualize the semantic and epistemic divides that ideally differentiate "native" and "colonial," Indian and mestizo, resistance and accommodation.

Ethnographers have also begun to question the models of culture and meaning through which early anthropologists once defended the unity of indigenous cultural systems and the interpretation of ritual and myth. Rather than looking for the inner "meaning" hidden within religious words and practices, these ethnographies build on poststructuralist models of language and practice to explore how meaning accrues to words and practices as they unfold in time. Though focused on different areas of social production, these ethnographies hold in common the idea that "religion" is best studied across different domains of social practice rather than as a discrete symbolic system that functions to give "meaning" to other domains of indigenous experience. Thus ethnographers such as Catherine J. Allen in the Peruvian Andes have examined etiquette and sociality as lived domains in which religious belief takes hold not as an extant symbolic system but as the moral and ethical perspective that is played out through the many small routines and interactions of daily life.

Studies of Andean spatial practices and aesthetics by Urton, Nathan Wachtel, and Rappaport among others emphasized how "religious" meanings are woven into such collective material practices as wall construction and territorial boundary maintenance. Other anthropologists, such as Greg Urban and Jackson, have looked at the linguistic practices through which myths are recounted and interpreted in local social life. Finally, Michael T. Taussig's important work on the Colombian Putumayo and modern Venezuela has explored shamanism as a lens on the working of power, fear, and memory in the shaping of Colombian modernity. Taussig's work has been particularly important in that it takes the claims of indigenous religious belief and historical narrative seriously as a force in the shaping of modern Latin America. Taussig thus succeeds in questioning the spurious distinction between magical and rational thought and with it the categories of myth and history that permeated so much earlier work on South American religion.


Taken together historical and poststructuralist approaches have had the singular effect of undermining the integrity and coherency of the very categories "religion" and "indigenous" that animated so much earlier anthropology in the region. For a majority of the anthropologists and historians working in South America, it is no longer possible to speak of indigenous communities, practices, identities, or beliefs without situating them in broader regional and national histories. As the notion of indigenous religion becomes unhinged from its original location in the pristine, or supposedly pristine, life of the "Indian community," it has become possible for scholars to think critically and historically about the place of different Christian belief systems in South American indigenous life. Anthropologists have begun to study the Protestant evangelical and Catholic charismatic sects that have become so prominent in many indigenous communities of South America. Wachtel, Antoinette Fioravanti-Molinié, and others have analyzed the persistence of indigenous religious beliefs regarding threatening ñakaqs, or spirits who extract body fat, in contexts of uncertainty and change, including among urban indigenous groups. Similarly the category of "popular Catholicism" that was first introduced by Liberation theologists in the aftermth of Vactican II has become a stable of anthropological writing about indigenous religion, allowing for a similar extension of the category of indigenous religion to encompass a broader array of ritual practices and beliefs that are more consonant with the actual experiences of modern indigenous people living in nation states.

An important inspiration for studies focused on subaltern or indigenous groups is the new work by historians such as Sabine MacCormack on the philosophical and theological origins of South American notions of idolatry, redemption, and the miracle and Kenneth Mills on the complex political and religious forces behind the sixteenth-century campaigns against indigenous "idolatry." Through such works it becomes possible to appreciate the long route that has been traversed from early scholarly obsessions with locating a pure indigenous religion to the more historically grounded scholarship in which religious practices are at once seen as fully, even paradigmatically modern, without for that reason ceasing to be any less "indigenous."

See Also

Ge Mythology; Jensen, Adolf E.; Preuss, Konrad T.; Structuralism.


Allen, Catherine J. The Hold Life Has: Coca and Cultural Identity in an Andean Community. Washington, D.C., 1988. A sensitive ethnography of daily life in the Peruvian Andes, focused on the ritualized use of coca. It highlights the pervasive presence of the religious ideals and attachment to landscape that shape social interaction.

Duviols, Pierre. La lutte contre les religions autochtones dans le Pérou colonial: "L'extirpation de l'idolâtrie," entre 1532 et 1660. Lima, Peru, 1971. A historical study of the Catholic Church's campaign against Andean religions. It contains archival materials that describe religious practices of the time as well as an analysis of the Spaniards' motives for initiating the campaign.

Krickeberg, Walter, et al. Pre-Columbian American Religions. Translated by Stanley Davis. London, 1968. Contains survey articles by Hermann Trimborn and Otto Zerries. Informative for its breadth of material, it has a sample of the types of analyses used by historians of religion in the German tradition.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Mythologiques. 4 vols. Paris, 19641971. Translated into English by John Weightman and Doreen Weightman as Introduction to a Science of Mythology. 3 vols. New York, 1969. A collection and analysis of myths from the Western Hemisphere by the originator of structuralist method in anthropology. It is best read along with Lévi-Strauss's earlier works, Tristes Tropiques (New York, 1974) and Structural Anthropology, 2 vols. (New York, 1963).

MacCormack, Sabine. Religion in the Andes: Vision and Imagination in Early Colonial Peru. Princeton, N.J., 1991.

Métraux, Alfred. Religions et magies indiennes d'Amérique du Sud: Édition posthume établie par Simone Dreyfus. Paris, 1967. Métraux was one of the founding figures of Americanist studies. This collection of his articles covers nearly all the areas in which he did fieldwork, including Peru (Quechua), Bolivia (Uro-Chipaya and Aymara), the Argentinian Chaco (Guaraní), Chile (Mapuche), and Brazil (Tupi).

Mills, Kenneth. Idolatry and Its Enemies: Colonial Andean Religion and Extirpation, 16401750. Princeton, N.J., 1997.

Nimuendajú, Curt. The Eastern Timbira. Translated and edited by Robert H. Lowie. Berkeley, Calif., 1946. One of several detailed descriptive monographs of lowland social organization and religion produced by Nimuendajú, a German field-worker who lived most of his life among the indigenous peoples of south-central Brazil and who adopted an indigenous surname.

Reichel-Dolmatoff, Gerardo. Amazonian Cosmos: The Sexual and Religious Symbolism of the Tukano Indians. Chicago, 1971. A Freudian and ecological analysis of the lowland cosmology (Tucano or Desána of the Vaupés River, Colombia) by one of Colombia's leading anthropologists. His other books, Los Kogi: Una tribu de la Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia, 2 vols. (Bogotá, Colombia, 19501951), and The Shaman and the Jaguar: A Study of Narcotic Drugs among the Indians of Columbia (Philadelphia, 1975) are also considered classics in South American religious studies.

Steward, Julian H., ed. The Handbook of South American Indians. 7 vols. Washington, D.C., 19461959. A compilation of articles by archaeologists, historians, and anthropologists that provides the best overall introduction to the variety of religious forms in South America as well as to the theoretical approaches that had, up until the time of the Handbook 's publication, informed their study. Its seven volumes are divided by geographic area, with two volumes devoted to comparative studies.

Sullivan, Lawrence E. Icanchu's Drum: An Orientation to Meaning in South American Religions. New York, 1988. A wide-reaching survey of the religions of South America from the perspective of a historical of religions. It contains an unprecedentedly thorough bibliography.

Taussig, Michael T. Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing. Chicago, 1986. An exploration of shamanism and religious healing in the Colombian Putumayo region in the context of regional histories and experiences of violence. Offers compelling evidence of the power and presence of indigenous religious beliefs and images in the Colombian national imagination.

Tello, Julio C., with Prospero Miranda. "Wallallo: Ceremonias gentílicas realizadas en la región cisandina del Perú central." Inca 1, no. 2 (1923): 475549. Written by the father of Peruvian archaeology and published in the anthropological journal he edited, this article gives detailed descriptions of indigenous ritual practices in the central highlands of Peru, comparing them with the pre-Columbian religion.

Wilbert, Johannes, and Karin Simoneau, eds. Folk Literature of South American Indians. 7 vols. Los Angeles, 1970. A continuing series containing compilations of myths from the Boróro, Warao, Selk'nam, Yámana, Ge, Mataco, and Toba Indians. It contains materials from the classic, early ethnographies of these groups as well as from more recent anthropological studies. It is annotated by Wilbert, who has also published extensively on the mythologies and cosmologies of indigenous groups in the Orinoco.

Wright, Robin M. Cosmos, Self, and History in Baniwa Religion: For Those Unborn. Austin, Tex., 1998. An excellent example of new historical work on indigenous religion, including discussions of shamanism and its relation to mythic and historic consciousness and the Baniwas' conversion to Protestantism.

Deborah A. Poole (1987 and 2005)

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South American Indian Religions: History of Study

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South American Indian Religions: History of Study