THE SPEARS OF TWILIGHT by Philippe Descola


Three Years Among the Jivaro Indians of South America
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 An uncommonly well written ethnology of a part of the world much imagined and little visited. Descola, working under the direction of the famed French anthropologist Claude LÇvi-Strauss, came to Amazonia in the mid-1970s to study the Jivaro, infamous in both popular and scientific literature for their practice of head-hunting--and, especially, head-shrinking--thus becoming ``archetypes of exotic peculiarity . . . conveniently identifiable by one particular unusual custom or physical characteristic.'' The Jivaro, he writes, are uncommonly fierce people given over not only to intense warfare with neighboring tribes but also to murderous battles with one another. Men think nothing of beating their wives and children, of killing each other as if for sport, of responding to imagined insult with instant violence (``You have pissed on me, big-mouthed little brother,'' one Jivaro remarks, ``and I am going to kill you and steal your wives''). Unsympathetic though they may seem, however, the Jivaro enjoy Descola's respect, even though he admits that ``the sight of a woman being beaten is one that severely tests the obligation of neutrality that an ethnologist imposes on himself.'' Descola has the keen eye of the best ethnographers, offering notes on the Jivaros' kinship systems, language, religion, and mythology, as well as a detailed account of their daily lives (governed, he suggests, by a mortal terror of the violence around them). Yet the Jivaro are far more than curious objects of study; Descola writes that they are more like us than we civilized moderns may care to admit, ``even if their present tribulations evoke nothing but indifference on the part of human beings too impatient to feel love for themselves in different guises.'' Descola's fine ethnographic writing, along with his critical remarks on the anthropological enterprise, make this book of a piece with LÇvi-Strauss's landmark Tristes Tropiques. (b&w photos, not seen)

Pub Date: Aug. 30th, 1996
ISBN: 1-56584-228-6
Page count: 400pp
Publisher: New Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1st, 1996