Living apart : separation and sociality amongst the Ashéninka of Peruvian Amazonia
This thesis is an ethnographic study of the Ashéninka, an indigenous Amazonian group of eastern central Peru. While situating the Ashéninka ethnographically within Amazonian anthropology the project specifically seeks to understand the nature of Ashéninka society, notions of sociality and forms of self-identification. It also examines how these forms of thought and practice shape the Ashéninka’s continuing interactions with Peruvian national society. My research first seeks to understand the underlying mechanisms that help Ashéninka householders to maintain their independent lifestyles. In common with other Amazonian groups, the Ashéninka are most concerned with how to achieve a peaceful existence and ‘live well’. Unlike other groups, however, they believe that this is best achieved by living apart from each other, in autonomous households. Attempting to illustrate what this means in practical terms, my thesis notes the importance of social gatherings centred on the consumption of masato (manioc beer) in maintaining flexible links between disparate individuals and households. I argue that these gatherings, which are open to everyone (including strangers), provide the Ashéninka with a bounded and defined area in which general sociality can occur without infringing on individuals’ autonomy. Analysis, based on ethnographic descriptions from fieldwork, is related to wider theoretical debates centring on Amazonian notions of the person, society and relations of affinity and consanguinity. My thesis also seeks to understand how these ideas affect the way the Ashéninka interact with the rest of Peruvian national culture. It examines the Ashéninka’s reactions to the government’s promotion of formal education, land rights and officially recognised ‘Comunidades Nativas’ (‘Native Communities’). It also examines the reactions of Ashéninka to the timber industry and their contemporary and historical relationship with Christianity. Rather than examining the Ashéninka’s current situation in terms of ideas about ‘cultural change’ my thesis seeks to understand the intrinsic diversity and flexibility of Ashéninka sociality, and to apply this understanding to the manner in which members of this group are interacting with the non-Ashéninka world.