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5308 - Questions of existence between words and materials: Matses children of Peruvian Amazonia

This paper, concerned with Matses children of Peruvian Amazonia, explores how verbal and material exchanges in the rainforest allow for different ways of being and interacting with others. The paper suggests how materials and words are intertwined with people’s understandings and inquiries on the meaning of being. Matses children gain prestige and power in the peer group through verbal confrontations and the ability to attack others with words, whereby language is used as a powerful tool that wields tangible effects onto others. Emerging forms of social inequality, however, are resulting in a minority of children learning Spanish and non-Matses ways of communicating, in addition to owning precious manufactured goods such as clothes or toys. This allows them to develop alternative strategies to succeed as children, which stand in contrast with accepted ways of affirming power relations through verbal conflict. Language, I argue, cannot be understood in its own terms, but only as embedded in mutual exchanges between people, dwelling environments, material surroundings and understandings of the world. The embracing of “ostensibly modern” communication and material practices, such as speaking Spanish and owning manufactured goods, is thus contributing to changing ways of knowing the world and interacting with others. My aim is to overcome a shared view of Amerindian cosmological understandings as detached from people’s everyday engagement with the world. I propose that language, materials and ontological queries are intertwined within the flow of life and events, and cannot be understood separately from each other. This will lead me to define ‘ontology’ in a way that is ethnographically grounded and attentive to people’s (often implicit) questioning on their existence. Such questioning is nevertheless entangled within the course of life, whereby the meaning of being is not fixed but ongoing and changing in time together with language and the material world.          

Keywords: Matses children, language, materials, fluid understandings

Author: morelli, camilla (University of Manchester, United Kingdom/Ver Königr)

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