Caboclos are spiritual entities present in afro-brazilian religions based on the concept of miscegenation and hybridism. Nkisi can be translated as “spirit”, being also figurines of sacred substances from the natural world that activate supernatural forces. The union of caboclos and nkisis and their relations between the two sides of this continuous migratory flow is the base os this performance that revisits crystallized concepts such as “creolization” and “hybridism”, in a perspective that escapes the atavism that segments societies “pure”, on the one hand, and “miscegenated societies ”, on the other hand, perpetuating the discourse of unique origins.
From the quilombolas, the inhabitants of the quilombos, I listened (especially from the local hunters) that the hunt (deers, tatus, monkeys, among other large animals) were becoming rare because the forest was not taken care of. Older women said that the rivers and springs were drying out because the population was using tap water and as no one was using these water sources, their loneliness meant their slow “death”.
This can be understood knowing that animals and forests have their own spirits. It does not mean that they are the inhabiting place of certain spirits but that they, themselves, possess their own spirit and, consequently, their own agency, even if distinct from that of humans. In Mbanza Congo I found similar narratives: many accounts mention that the Kulumbimbi (the old cathedral of Sao Salvador built by the Portuguese in 1492) lost its force and became a ruin since it ceased to be surrounded by thick forest (mainly during the long civil war between 1976 and 2002). This means that the spirits of the trees were the ones that gave strength to the maintenance of the religiosity, as Philippe Descola (1994) extensively describes regarding the Achua, who “socialize” their nature expanding the social human relations to the forest living beings.
Yala Nkuwu, the local sacred tree, presents a particularly interesting history of agency: after one of its trunks being cut it began to pour a thick and red sap inundating the old street built by the Portuguese in the sixteen century. Oral histories affirm that a Portuguese doctor, dr. Barracas, was called to stop the pouring because any cutting object can touch the tree without being asked permission and rituals being performed. In 2007 the flight between Luanda and Mbanza Congo met with a serious accident causing the death of the municipal administrator, Antônio Paciência, and the Superior of the Catholic Mission, the Italian George Azulano. Months earlier the above mentioned municipal administrator had ordered the deworming of the tree without consulting the so-called traditional authorities (interlocutors between the humans and the forest) and calling the mentioned Catholic priest for the blessing of the event. The local community has no doubt that the cuts in the trunk of the tree performed during this process are related with the tragic death of the two men.
These are two example among many other accounts that have building up my ethnographic field notes, highlighting the agency of non-human living beings, although in distinct modes.
Departing of the hypothesis that all living beings, and not only humans, engage with the world and other selves we will have what Kohn (2016) calls the “ecology of selves”, in other words, a niche where the ecological relations are not products of mechanic interactions of cause-effect between beings treated as objects but as results of interactions of “phenomenal” worlds (Von Uexkul, 1993) – ontologies linked to the perception and corporality, to intentions and exchanges between different kinds of beings. And the music, how it flows and provoque the trances in/by the spirits?
By observing, thus, the relationships between diverse beings under this perspective, we will not have a clear distinction between a world void of intrinsic meanings, on one side, and humans as the only beings capable of culture on the other side, occupying a hierarchically superior position and being the only beings capable of giving meaning to the world (Sahlins, 1976:12).
What some authors have been pointing out, even if though distinct modes (Deacon: 2003; Haraway: 2003, Latour: 2004) is the fact that “intentionality” (and, thus, representations) are not privileges of human beings and that the biological world is constituted by the ways that innumerable beings – human and non-human – perceive and represent their environments.
This implies a radical changing of perspective, because “meaningfulness” will not be exclusive of humans and an anthropology that takes this into account will not be the anthropology as we know it today, becoming a discipline that articulates several distinctive human attributes, as language, culture, society and history, and uses them as tools to understand the variety of living beings.
Assuming this position allows us to observe the diverse ways humans are, in fact, connected to wider living worlds and to critically think how this assumption transforms what means to be “human”. As Kohn (2003:6) mentions, “This is not an appeal to a sociobiological reductionism, on the contrary, is a claim to expand the scope of ethnography. An ethnographic focus not only in humans or animals, but in how the interactions between humans and animals explode that closed self-referenciated circuit”
This approach is not exactly new (to rethink concepts/categories apparently opposed and to rethink binaries as nature and culture and, specifically, about the universe of non-human beings) but has been widened in the recent years. Mainly after the second half of the last century, this field of research was developed in anthropology following the dominant paradigms of Western science, being by assuming nature and non-human beings as a field of human knowledge – a direct inheritance of a structuralist Levi-Straussian anthropology (1975, 1989) , being through a relational field, in which the affects of these relations are highlighted in the social, material and ritual/religious spheres of diverse human groups and societies as, for example, in the classic ethnographies of Malinowski, (1935) or Evans-Pritchard, (1940).
“In these analysis the nature is the fundamental link to the human existence and knowledge, being described and analysed as a stable and univocal universe but with differentiated and less sophisticated forms of agency than those of humans. Nature, therefore, is conceived as a stable reality shared by the human diversity” (Scaramuzzi, 2019).
These movements, which have been rethinking the boundaries between the concepts of nature and culture, take us, inevitably, to a (re)elaboration of approaches that allow questioning the presumptions of non-agency, stability and homogeneity.
Authors as Descola (1986, 1996), Viveiros de Castro, Kohn (2013), among others, whose ethnographies of American indigenous populations (especially from Amazonia) have been fundamental for their own theoretical reflections, have as philosophical premises that plants and animals embody attributes that the dominant discourses of modern Western science take as exclusive of the human species. In fact, in these societies, the relationships between human and non-human happen in symmetric ways as the ones between individual and “human collectives of these societies” (Scaramuzzi, 2019). Therefore, the research of these relationships his sustained by the assumption of humanity as a condition and the non-humans beings, as the humans, occupy a position of subjects which, following the perspectivist theory of Viveiros de Castro, means that all non-humans beings see themselves as humans. Other authors as Ingold (2000, 2007, 2011) or Latour (1994, 2004) will problematize the relation among the domains of “nature and culture”, widening the scope of the discussions to dichotomies as “body and mind” or “organism and environment”, reflecting with and towards and anthropology “beyond the human” and creating concepts as weaves, lines, fluxes, even moving towards more complex discussions regarding the concept of “life” and a radical dissolution of what a Western science advocates as “living” versus “non-living”.
Anthropology, then, becomes an important analytical tool for debates regarding environmental and health (both in body and spirit) politics, for example, going beyond ethnographies of “distant” and minority populations, which clearly indicates that ontological questions also reefer to modern and industrialized societies and, thus, the assumed epistemological separations are an illusion.
In this way, thinking on the concept of life itself in a non anthropocentric mode (Danowski & Viveiros de Castro, 2014), the possibilities of dealing with environmental crisis in a macro scale seems to have more possibilities.
In this situation, an “anthropology beyond the human” (Kohn, 2013) or a “multispecies ethnography” (Kirksey e Helmreich, 2010) has gained space in the theoretical context as fields of study to be developed from the relationship with other areas of knowledge as biology, ecology, philosophy, but in the spiritaul issues too.