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  • Huaorani Transformations in Twenty-First-Century Ecuador: Treks into the Future of Time by Laura Rival
  • Frank Hutchins
Laura Rival
Huaorani Transformations in Twenty-First-Century Ecuador: Treks into the Future of Time
Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2016, 352 pp. $65.00, cloth. ISBN 978–0–8165–0119–9.

Stories anthropologists have told about people known as “hunters and gatherers” often suggest a relative absence of politics, simplicity in social life, and a subsistence economy marginal to “real” markets. In her detailed examination of the Huaorani of Ecuador, Laura Rival effectively disabuses the reader of any such notions. Theirs is a land drilled and crosshatched by oil companies; trodden by ecotourists; dotted with development projects; and frequented by politicians, missionaries, and anthropologists. But, according to Rival, the Huaorani endure. Some continue to do so with two feet firmly in the forest, maintaining traditions of hunting monkeys and peccaries, tending manioc and peach palm gardens, and sustaining the social life of the longhouse. Increasingly, however, younger generations of Huaorani interact with oil companies as laborers or activists, hone negotiating skills in dealing with development and environmental organizations, and patrol the boundaries of identity politics.

In over two decades of work in Huaorani territories, Rival has developed a substantial research record, much of which is revisited in Huaorani Transformations. The opening chapters are particularly interesting reflections on “trekking” and landscape transformation. Moving quickly beyond the “counterfeit paradise” argument of Meggers (1971), and the Amazonian perspectivism of Viveiros de Castro (1998) and his students, Rival analyzes Huaorani landscape transformations as cultural archives. Acknowledging contributions by Sauer (1925) and various works by William Balée, she ultimately departs from the latter on the question of whether the Huaorani represent a case of “agricultural regression.” Rival sees trekking through the forest, whether as hunters or gatherers, as a form of social reproduction through place-making. Semi-cultivated peach palm groves are “gifts from deceased relatives” (p. 54), and remind visitors of ancestral connections. Manioc gardens, not as central to Huaorani identity and sustenance as they are for the Quichua and other nearby groups, provide the base for feasting and the maintenance of alliances. In ethnographic engagements with these spaces, Rival comes to understand semi-cultivated areas not as remnants of past agricultural life, but as evidence of collective choices that make both alimentary and cultural contributions.

Rival’s discussion of birth and social life in the longhouse is equally fascinating. During gestation and into childhood, an infant (the result of a “clotting” of male semen and female blood) is in a continuous state of “becoming.” Through sharing material and emotional substance, mothers and fathers nurture children into personhood. Dietary and occupational restrictions during pregnancy—from an emic perspective—are undertaken to assure proper growth of both body and character. Couvade “gifts” from father to child may be reciprocated should the man be mortally wounded in battle. In such a circumstance, according to Rival’s informants, [End Page 286] the youngest child is placed into the grave with the dying father, with both expiring from suffocation. The experience of parenthood, according to Rival, is formative for Huaorani identity. This is a departure from Amazonian research that sees identity as fundamentally connected to processes of predation and warfare.

Following her discussion of social reproduction and longhouse life, Rival turns to sex and happiness, introducing the idea of “diffuse sensuality” (p. 149). Within the domesticity of the longhouse, individual personalities are respected—even celebrated—but full humanity emerges only through intimate relationships with others. This includes not only a couple who have sex and raise children, but also others who regularly caress, groom and share hammocks with family members or acquaintances. Rival describes the general rules for physical relations, then turns to mythology to explore the world of sexual taboos. Stories of human attractions to, and relations with, various animals spell out the consequences of losing control over physical desires, as antisocial behaviors threaten both individual and group.

A third section of Huaorani Transformations focuses on more contemporary issues, most generally seen as potential threats to the traditional forest lifestyle. Chief among these is the exploration for, and production of, oil. Before discussing impacts...


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pp. 286-288
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