Natural History

From Honey to Ashes

The late Claude Lévi-Strauss dispeled the notion of “us” and “them”.
By Bill Keegan and Betsy Carlson

The late Claude Lévi-Strauss dispeled the notion of “us” and “them”.

By Bill Keegan and Betsy Carlson

I have sought a human society reduced to its most basic expression.  Claude Levi-Strauss, Triste Tropiques, 1955

Keegan was a teaching assistant for “Introduction to Biological Anthropology” at Florida Atlantic University in 1980.  At the time the university was attempting to boost admissions by offering special tuition to the burgeoning retiree population around Boca Raton. The first day of class there were about 80 people in the room, all listening intently as the professor explained that we would be studying genetics, human evolution, and biological diversity in our species. Eventually, one of the older women in the class raised her hand and asked, “When are we going to study primitive behavior, bizarre marriage practices and mating rituals?” The professor gently explained that this was not our subject. “But I thought this was an anthropology class!” The next class had only about 20 students, and the blue hair adorned a decidedly younger audience.

The Taino frog goddess

The Taino frog goddess

The older crowd apparently didn’t get the memo. By this time, the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss had spent nearly 50 years attempting to dispel the notion of the “primitive mind,” and he did so by studying myths (The Savage Mind, 1962, University of Chicago Press).  We decided to write this essay because he was one of the most important figures in anthropology for the past century. He passed away on October 20, 2009 at the age of 100.

The majority of Lévi-Strauss’ work focused on the stories related to him by the native peoples of the Amazonian rainforest in Brazil. When he began his field research in the 1930s, the prevailing attitude was that the primitive mind was different from our own. These simple people faced a daily struggle for survival, and therefore lacked our appreciation of logic and formal thought. There were strong paternalistic and colonialist attitudes at work, especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These savages needed Western civilization to drag them into the modern era. Yet by looking just below the surface, we find that they are in every way as sophisticated intellectually, and the notion of Thomas Hobbes (The Leviathan, 1660) that their lives are “nasty, brutish and short” is just not correct. There is a richness in their arts that rivals our own.

Monsieur le professeur Lévi-Strauss pioneered a philosophical approach in anthropology known as “Structuralism” (Structural Anthropology, 1958, Penguin Press). Structuralism proposed that there are universal structures, pairs of opposites that underlie all human thought and are common to all human societies. In other words, there is no “us” vs. “them.” there is only “us.” Because of this, Lévi-Strauss rejected the notion that so-called “primitive” peoples were any less sophisticated than us, and that their belief systems (“myths”) are the product of rational thinking and subtle logic. This may not appear to be the same logic that we use, but that is because our interpretations often are based on superficial characteristics of which we have little direct knowledge.

The instances of universal structures seem to far outweigh the notion that all people think differently (especially “primitive” people). Is not the Taíno origin story in which the human hero (Deminán) stole yucca and fishes (human foods) from the supreme deity (Yaya) repeated in most mythologies? We are very fortunate that Christopher Columbus sent the Jeronomite friar Ramón Pané to study the religion of the Macorix peoples who lived on the north coast of Hispaniola. Pané’s account has been taken as representative of all Taíno beliefs. These myths have been interpreted using Structuralist principles (see Cave of the Jagua, Antonio Stevens-Arroyo, 2006, University of Scranton Press).

One aspect of Structuralism deals with “totemism,” in which human social groups identify themselves by certain animals (think sports teams). A favorite saying attributed to Lévi-Strauss with regard to animals is that “some animals are good to think, while others are good to eat.” Taíno beliefs are replete with imagery and stories that capture animals that “are good to think. Macocel, a lizard whose eyes did not blink, guarded the cave from which humans emerged in Taíno mythology. A supreme Taíno deity is Anacaona — the “frog-lady” — and the frog, which is a symbol of female fertility, is pervasive in Taíno decorative arts.

We recognize a three-part division of the Taíno world into sky, land and subterranean waters. Creatures and features that bridge these realms are given particular importance in the mythology. Thus, seabirds that pass from sky to land and water (e.g., pelicans), reptiles that pass from water to land (e.g., sea turtles), and caves that form a portal from the land to subterranean waters all figure prominently. According to the Taínos, the first humans emerged from caves, and often were returned there at death. The three realms of sky, land and water are united by an invisible “tree of life” that springs forth as the axis mundi in the center of the village.

Wooden seat shaped like sea turtle

Wooden seat shaped like sea turtle

Lévi-Strauss recognized that the way that a village was arranged could hold clues to human consciousness. The circular arrangement of Taíno villages can be likened to the ripples on a pond; the central plaza is a charged political space, the surrounding houses (caneye) are a closed domestic space, the adjacent fields (conuco) represent man’s control over nature, and the encompassing forest (abeybuco) is the non-cultural world of nature and at night the domain of the spirits (opía).

The archaeologists who excavated the Golden Rock site on St. Eustatius in the Lesser Antilles (circa AD 900) noted very distinctive stains in the ground that outlined the structure of the houses. They concluded that the houses were shaped to look like the carapace of a sea turtle, which fits with the symbolic identity of turtles with life.  Such interpretations may at times seem fanciful, but they add to the richness in interpretation proposed for past societies.

In later life Lévi-Strauss argued that music had largely replaced mythology in the modern world. Music tells the same stories and we enjoy hearing them over and over again. The story is reinforced by a repeating melody and harmonics, and everyone knows that it is time to get out of the water when Dvorak’s first symphony starts to play (the theme music from the movie “Jaws”). We see, read and hear the same themes (structures) repeated in cinema, books, and music, and often these are very basic human constructs:  good vs. evil, life vs. death, love vs. hate, nature vs. culture (this last dichotomy was described in Lévi-Straussian terminology as “raw” vs. “cooked”). The image can be as subtle as who is wearing the white hat, and the passages are often decidedly predictable — the action hero always gets beat to a pulp, and is on the verge of death, before overcoming their antagonist in the final scene.

Lévi-Strauss’ critics claimed that he did not pay enough attention to local history and experience. Their “poststructuralism” rejected the idea that universal laws were what shaped human consciousness. His reply would be that much of what we think is subconscious. But even his critics admit that there are underlying structures to all art. A notable recent example is The Da Vinci Code (Dan Brown, 2003, Doubleday). The key is finding the hidden messages, and having the skills to interpret them. What we hope is that there are sufficient similarities between us and them (structuralism), that we can detect the underlying meanings as they intended or subconsciously transmitted according to their particular representational system (poststructuralism).

So let us pause for the moment and mark the passing of one of the greatest intellectuals of the 20th century. A man who was equally comfortable in the ivory tower and in the Brazilian rainforest. In our Western religious traditions death marks a transition of “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Although Lévi-Strauss has passed to ashes, he left us the honey.

1 Claude Lévi-Strauss, From Honey to Ashes, Harper and Row, 1973.

Dr. Bill Keegan is Curator of Caribbean Archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida. Dr. Betsy Carlson is Senior Archaeologist with Southeastern Archaeological Research, Inc. (SEARCH) in Jonesville, Florida, and affiliate faculty at the Florida Museum of Natural History. They are the authors of Talking Taino, published by The University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, ISBN – 13: 978-0-8173-5508-1.

1 Comment

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May 3, 2010 8:20

great post as usual!

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