Out of place, out of time

THE SPEARS OF TWILIGHT: Life and Death in the Amazon Jungle by Philippe Descola, trs Janet Lloyd, HarperCollins pounds 20
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It is the autumn of 1976. A couple of young French anthropologists arrive in Puyo in Ecuador - one of those mongrel towns of missionaries, traders, small-time civil servants and soldiers that mark the border between "civilisation" and "savagery" all over the Third World. Their purpose is to find the Jivaro Achuar. The four Jivaro tribes, who live in the Amazonian rainforests between Ecuador and Peru, have long been the stuff of legend, famous for their practice of shrinking the heads of their vanquished enemies. More recently, many of them have been converted by missionaries; at its edges, their land is now under threat. But the Achuar, who live along the lower reaches of the Pastaza river, several hundred kilometres away from Puyo, are the remotest of the Jivaro tribes. Almost nothing is known about their language, beliefs or way of life; only a handful of Westerners have ever made contact with them; only Father Albo, an Italian Salesian priest, has lived among them.

As luck has it, it is not long before the young couple are offered a lift on an air-force plane to a military outpost close to the Achuar area; their guides bring them to the edge of an Achuar settlement and turn back, clearly nervous. Descola's book - written in the present tense - is about what the couple find there. Dense with characters and ideas, it is not an easy read, but it is an impressive achievement.

We tend to think of academics as absent-minded, unworldly figures, likely to light up a letter or post a pipe. But anthropology, as Descola discovered rather to his dismay, demands a resourcefulness and resilience more readily associated with the single-handed yachtsman: if you don't keep your wits about you, you die. The two years that Descola and his almost invisible companion, Anne Christine, spent with the Achuar made for a gruelling, dispiriting ordeal of hunger, sleeplessness and illness, relieved sometimes by friendship and laughter, as often by terror. Descola occasionally touches on this, off-handedly alluding to a diet that seems to consist mainly of boiled monkey, trumpet-bird and manioc beer, so that one can easily sympathise with his disenchantment towards the end. But the book is first and foremost a work of anthropology, in the tradition of Levi-Strauss's Tristes Tropiques - a first-person account of the individuals the two Europeans meet, and the things they witness, interwoven with more abstract reflection on Achuar patterns of kinship, gift-giving, myth, magic and the like.

The Achuar are a sociological scandal. Political theorists and anthropologists, from Montaigne to Margaret Mead, have tended to see "primitive" peoples from one of two camps - with Hobbes, as wild warriors, devoted to killing one another, or with Rousseau, as happy communists. But as Descola describes them, the Achuar defy this simple opposition: they "have established a form of political organisation that safe-guards each man's independence without bringing about a total dissolution of social links"; they are Hobbesian individualists, who yet get along just fine without any of the constraints of the Hobbesian state. Like Hobbes's men, the Achuar have a taste for vendetta and are forever killing one another, but these feuds don't so much represent a breakdown of order, as a means to maintain it - a bit like the penal system in ours. For the most part these Amazonians are social individualists, citizens without a state, true anarchists.

Achuar social life is centred on the household, an extended family of grandparents, brothers, sisters, their spouses and children, all living under a single roof (although characteristically the men often hunt apart, and wives cook separately). Perhaps six or seven such households, scattered a couple of kilometres apart along a single section of river, form what Descola calls a "neighbourhood". Neighbours tend to intermarry and regard other neighbourhoods - often divided from them by great expanses of forest and swamp - as potential enemies. But the households of a neighbourhood are too remote from each other, their lives too independent, to amount to a village. The Achuar, moreover, seem to feel no special affection for the land on which they live. They think of it as a space like any other in the forest, and move on happily enough as the resources they need are exhausted.

This indifference to place is matched by an indifference to time. The Achuar do not cultivate a collective memory, show no interest in their origins (they have scarcely any "genesis myths") and mark only one date in their calendars - that of the passing of the year. Indeed, they quite deliberately endeavour to forget their dead, in order to prevent themselves from being haunted by wakans, or spirits. This forgetfulness builds towards "a collective amnesia that, within a few decades, wipes out all earlier generations".

It is not that the Achuar lack imagination: they have a complex animistic cosmology and they accord an important role to sung prayers, charms, spells, dreams and drug-induced trances. But these Amazonians are intensely pragmatic: they make no effort to bestow on the world a coherence it manifestly lacks, display no interest in the past or distant future, and concentrate, instead, on mastering the concrete natural and supernatural techniques needed for everyday survival. Descola does his best to imagine what it is like to live without a notion of time building up behind one, but he finds it hard. Who can blame him?

Descola is good on the relations between the sexes (here, Anne Christine gives him the female side of the story), and delicately weighs up the unequal opportunities and duties of Achuar men and women. Women are mistresses of their own domestic sphere and, like women everywhere, have a certain purchase on their men - if a man behaves badly, they can humiliate him, for instance, in front of his guests; but wife-beating is so much a part of daily life that it is turned into a game by the children. Then again, this violence does not preclude an almost romantic sensibility of love. The Achuar are, in fact, rather prudish: they disapprove of ribaldry and look on their more licentious neighbours - the Shuar Jivaros - rather in the way the Victorians looked on the Italians.

One of the few facts known to Descola before his arrival in Amazonia was that the Achuar are polygamous. Wajari - head of the household in which the two anthropologists spent most of their time - had three wives; many have more. Descola never explains how the numbers even out, but I assume it is because the vendettas kill as many as one man in two - it is not unusual, in fact, for a killer to marry his victim's wives. Descola, who watched several related feuds develop, does a fine job of describing how the vendetta system works.

The feuds have their origins in specific grudges, usually conflicts over a woman between her blood-relatives and her relatives by marriage, backed up by mutual accusations of shamanistic aggression - the evil use of magic. All the households on one side of a quarrel are sometimes forced to retreat into a single house for up to two or three years at a time. The vendettas are sometimes forgotten, sometimes resolved by gifts, and as often by battle - Descola himself does not seem to have witnessed any killings, but describes the lengthy ceremonies, songs and dances performed before the men head out on a raid. I wish that he had more to say about the logic behind the system. He suggests, only half-frivolously, that it represents an antidote to the boredom of Achuar life, but there must be more to it than that.

The Spears of Twilight feels classical, almost Biblical, in its sweep and many of its themes: it is the story of a people. Yet, like all epics, it focuses on a relatively small cast of individuals, who, with their peculiarities of character - Wajari's feel for authority, his wife Senur's assertiveness, the crises of identity that result when Tukupi loses a competition in rhetoric - bring the thing to life. It is a tribute to Descola's sensitivity that this reads as a book written not only for us but for the Achuar themselves: one which, when their way of life is finally extinguished, will at least enable their descendants to know how their ancestors lived. With their anarchic, amnesiac existence, the people Descola evokes will certainly never leave behind a record of their own.