Phenomenological dimension: perceptual basis of environmental analogies

The analogical practices reported here appear to arise from the identification of diverse perceptual and behavioral features of emanator and receiver entities present in the environment that are later applied in specific use settings. This awareness of diverse environmental features, what Tim Ingold [102] refers to as “attention,” [102] encompasses the identification of specific characteristics of plants, animals and abiotic entities as well as a wide range of other practical and intellectual engagements with the environment. We refer to these perceptual characteristics as activating features (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3
figure3

Left: Umbigo da castanha (operculum of the Brazil nut; Bertholletia excelsa Humb. & Bompl.) cited in Table 1, No. 24 (photograph by the authors, Amanã). Right: Stem architecture of the cachorro pelado (pencil cactus; Euphorbia tirucalli) cited in No. 55 (photograph: José dos Santos Raimundo Reis, Amanã)

The emanator entity has a desired characteristic in relation to the receiver, for example: numerous treatments for dogs that involve administering parts or preparations of predatory animals to make them better hunters (Nos. 1, 6, 8, 11, 16 and 18); the administration of the reproductive organ of the coati as a sexual stimulant (No. 50); or the avoidance of eating watermelon due to its copious red juice by women during menstruation (No. 59).

In some cases, the emanator has some feature related to a third target entity. For example, bats and ants (emanators) that live in groups are administered to a dog (receiver) to improve its ability to corner herd animals (peccaries). In this case, the character of interest can be understood as a way of making the dog attentive to a specific kind of prey. A more direct example of this modality is the practice of blowing the smoke of burnt puma or jaguar fur on a dog to make it a good tracker of large felines (No. 15).

Attributes associated with animal behavior were the most commonly noted in our records. The slow movement of the tortoise and its ability to retract its head are examples of behavioral attributes that were referenced in certain practices (Nos. 25, 27 and 49). Ribeirinhos of the Amanã context also perform empirical experiments aimed at determining the suitability of a given specimen for use. For example, hunters in Amanã would butcher a prey animal and wait for insects to arrive to feed on it. The first individual to land on the carcass “has a good sense of smell” and is therefore captured for administration to dogs (analogy 2).

An animal’s activating attribute related is not restricted to its natural condition, but may also involve the situation in which it was killed or butchered for consumption. Two examples from Ribeira involved prohibitions about consuming animals captured using a certain kind of trap known as mundéu. In this trapping technique, small to medium-sized animals such as armadillo, agouti or paca are attracted to a fenced wooden structure, triggering the fall of a heavy tree trunk that crushes the animal. In the analogies reported, the injury the trap causes to the animal can appear in a person who eats its meat (No. 39) or in an infant whose mother has eaten its meat (No. 38).

Such behavioral activating features also include human behavior toward animals. Five analogies reported in Amanã involve the mistreatment of hunted animals, such that a newborn child suffers as the animal suffered, resembles the abused animal, or is born with the same physical disfigurement to which the animal was subjected (Nos. 28–32). In another case, physical effort exerted by the father causes a child to suffer during gestation (No. 33). This example is part of a widely held set of beliefs, practices and restrictions among Amazonian populations surrounding couvade, such that the diet and behavior of father and mother alike can influence the well-being of a gestating and recently born child [103].

The concept of “activators” that we develop here fits in with the broader effort within ethnobiology to understand the function as well as origin of use repertoires. In the field of ethnobotany in particular, the ecological apparency hypothesis [25] has been used to understand medicinal uses of plants [26]. As originally proposed by Feeny [25], plants that are more “apparent” in the environment (larger or more abundant) tend to experience high herbivory rates, thus evolving quantitative (e.g., tannins) or qualitative (e.g., alkaloids) chemical defenses [25]. In an adaptation of apparency theory to ethnobotany, the ecological apparency of plants in conjunction with their pharmacological and biochemical characteristics results in varying degrees of use of different botanical groups by humans [26, 104,105,106].

Shepard [2] proposes expanding this concept to include “sensory apparency,” namely, the interaction of ecological abundance and biochemical properties with culturally-mediated sensory evaluations of plants including color, texture, odor and taste. In this way, different societies’ theories about illness etiology and plant efficacy, elaborated through different sensory modes, can result in a culturally variable sensory bias, detectable in patterns of use of different plant groups [2, p. 262].

While perceptual cues, especially visual (color, shape, form) are certainly important in the analogical theories described here, salient traits such as intelligence, ferocity, foraging habit and sociality that are identified and activated by quilombola and ribeirinho “sympathies” go beyond the merely sensorial to encompass more complex aspects of animal behavior and forest ecology. Coupled with analogical reasoning, this attention to habit and behavior, especially in the use of fauna-based remedies, describes a systematic theory of “ethological” apparency in these, and certainly other, ethnozoological repertoires. As is the case with the “Doctrine of Signatures” in ethnobotany [39], such rationalities of usage are typically dismissed as “metaphorical” or “magical” in studies of traditional medicinal uses of fauna [107,108,109,110]. In addition to better describing the uses reported in the ethnographic contexts presented here, we suggest that cultural variations on the concept of “apparency” could be applied more broadly to the study of ethnobiological and especially ethnozoological use repertoires.

Epistemic dimension: grouping entities in analogical chains

The analogical rationality reported here can be understood as an intellectual process that extends from the phenomenology of environmental perception, establishing and elaborating relationships between the entities. In this way, chains or series of otherwise unrelated entities become causally associated by means of the activating feature. In the cited uses, for example, a group of unrelated animals, the japiim (yellow-rumped cacique), various primate species and the tucuxi dolphin, are all considered to be “very intelligent” animals (Nos. 4, 5 and 8), justifying their use to improve the acuity of hunting dogs in Amanã.

Likewise, bats and army ants both demonstrate social behavior leading to their agglomeration in large groups for roosting and foraging, respectively. Treatments prepared from both types of animal are administered to hunting dogs in Amanã to improve the ability of dogs to track caititu (peccaries), which also live and forage in herds (Nos. 9 and 10). A third example, also from Amanã, involves animals recognized as good predators, such as calangos (lizards), vespas (wasps) and “hunter beetles” (Nos. 1, 6 and 11). These are likewise administered to dogs to improve their hunting abilities.

In the cases exemplified above, organisms as distinctive as birds and aquatic mammals, peccaries and bats, or lizards and wasps are grouped according to perceptually salient, though not taxonomically significant, shared behaviors. These latent, decidedly non-natural groupings appear to contradict prominent theories regarding the culturally universal features of folk biological classification systems [27,28,29, 32, 33], while reinforcing the critiques of some authors regarding the importance of utilitarian and other culturally variable categories [24, 30, 31, 111].

With regard to cognitive aspects of such classification processes [34], the degree of similarity between entities acts as the basis for an inferential logic behind grouping and classifying different entities into categories. In Western scientific taxonomy, as well as in many works on folk biological taxonomies, the degree of biological affinity between organisms is inferred from the combined criterion of similarity and typicality [33,34,35,36]. Yet in the practices reported here, as well as the tacit groupings they evoke, the process of identifying similarities and classifying entities proceeds through a different form of epistemology. Analogical rationality begins with the perception of new similarities between entities, over and above existing categories, that are constantly being produced in a world marked by an emergent “coming into being” of things and organisms that inhabit it. This is possible because, according to analogical reasoning, all characteristics are potentially transferable, thus able to modify the constitution of other entities. This fundamental epistemological feature applies to all of the analogies reported here (Table 1).

Mainstream Western approaches to scientific as well as folk biological taxonomy infer diachronic continuity from a given set of similarities deemed salient for classificatory purposes. This epistemic process, which emerges from a “naturalistic” ontology, is evident for example in concepts like genealogy and evolutionary history in the natural sciences, as well as for arguments about the importance of morphological similarities produced by evolution in studies of folk biology. By contrast, the analogical knowledge practices reported here work in somewhat the opposite fashion, such that similarities are inferred from salient, synchronic continuities (Table 3). This kind of epistemology is inherent in the analogistic ontological framework.

Table 3 Contrasting epistemologies: naturalism versus analogism

Ontological dimension: a permeable world of interchangeable qualities

The data presented here reveal evidence of an analogistic reasoning process driving ethnobiological use patterns related to subsistence practices and daily life among quilombola and ribeirinho communities in Brazil (Fig. 2). Analogism acts as a far-reaching epistemic model, or modus operandi, in both ethnographic contexts. This form of rationality is the product of an ontological frame in which certain qualities of one entity can be transmitted to another entity, establishing a sympathetic mode of causality such that similarity in quality produces similarity in effect. The condition of transmissibility implies an ongoing flow of properties between different things and beings, including people, animals, plants, meteorological phenomena and material objects. This form of rationality highlights a conception of the world as a place full of permeable beings and things, a world in which the virtues or essences of different entities are interchangeable. It is this conception of reality that Descola [7] categorizes as analogism, in contrast to naturalism, animism and totemism.

In our analysis of the analogical reasoning implied in these ethnobiological practices, we have focused on their potential for identifying and producing similarity between otherwise dissimilar entities. This process depends on a form of causality in which a given entity is susceptible to changing its nature when in contact with the qualities of another entity. We believe that this particular causal aspect is what best defines the ontological difference between these practices and Western naturalistic thought, rather than the varying roles of exteriority vs. interiority as hypothesized by Descola.

In a conception of reality that allows qualities to flow between different entities, their flow can be controlled by administering or avoiding a given entity with some desirable or undesirable quality. In this sense, the analogy is first identified or projected, and then the effect of contact between the entities is produced by facilitating or preventing the transfer of a quality from one entity to another. In a world (or cultural reality) where distance does not prevent transmission [50], the uses, practices and prohibitions described here represent a logical consequence of living, thinking and acting in that world.

Toward a historical understanding of analogism in Brazilian ethnobiological repertories

We were particularly struck by the tremendous similarities in the analogical rationality at work in these geographically distant, ecologically distinctive and demographically unrelated populations, including certain nearly identical use patterns, for example, the administration of wasp preparations to hunting dogs. It is of course possible that certain general concepts or specific ethnobiological practices were absorbed through syncretism with indigenous populations that occupied these regions prior to colonization. However, the geographical distance would preclude a common origin of any specific cultural knowledge. Moreover, and in contrast to the ribeirinho and quilombola cases presented here, indigenous Amazonian use rationales that follow an apparently analogical or homeopathic pattern of “like treats like” reveal a decidedly animistic logic of sympathetic transmission mediated by spiritual “owners” or “masters” [2, 4].

It is also possible that similar concepts and practices might emerge independently, despite the ecological and geographical distance. However, we suggest that the observed similarities in these ethnobiological repertoires reflects the pervasive historical presence of colonial Portuguese cultural influences in the genesis of these otherwise distinctive social formations. Analogical or “sympathetic” reasoning, which originated in ancient Greece, was dominant throughout Europe until at least the eighteenth century, and was especially prevalent on the Iberian Peninsula, where Greek influences were expressed doubly through European as well as Arabic sources, notably in the context of religious and medical practices [7, 33, 50, 112, 113].

The widely documented classification of “hot” vs. “cold” foods, illnesses and remedies in Brazilian folklore, as well as the concept of reima in the Brazilian Amazon, is clearly a reflection of Hippocratic-Galenic humoral theory [113,114,115,116,117] as transmitted through Portuguese colonial influences [3, 103, 113, 118, 119]. These theories were brought to South America during the sixteenth century through Iberian colonization of the New World, and dominated popular medicine in Brazil until the early twentieth century [113]. While humoral theory is widespread in traditional and indigenous medical systems of Meso-America and the Andes [7, 114, 115], “hot–cold” illness concepts are notably absent in the traditional medical systems of some Amazonian indigenous peoples [2], probably reflecting varying degrees of contact and syncretism with Iberian colonial influences.

If we assume that analogism among quilombolas in southeast Brazil and ribeirinhos in Amazonia is primarily a legacy of Portuguese colonization, we would expect to find an “analogical” signature in the ethnobiological repertoires of rural populations throughout Brazil. A cursory review of ethnobiological studies among rural Brazilian communities, especially zootherapeutic practices, indeed reveal a suggestive prevalence of analogical uses [108,109,110, 120]. This suggests avenues for future comparative research within Brazil and more widely throughout the Iberian sphere. More generally, the inclusion of explicitly comparative, historical methods might contribute to ethnobiology’s growing interface with historical approaches in ethnobiology [121, 122].

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