The Self and Environmental Perceptions of a Matsigenka Community in Manu National Park, Peru

Caissa Revilla-Minaya, Vanderbilt University

“My research takes place in the Matsigenka Native Community of Tayakome. The Matsigenka are indigenous Amazonian hunter-horticulturalists who live in the departments of Cusco and Madre de Dios, in the lowland tropical forests of Peru. I am interested in studying whether and how the idea of self in this community establishes a particular relationship with the plants and animals in the local environment. Previous ethnographic research among diverse Amerindian societies suggests that aspects of the self often mediate an individual’s relationship with his or her environment. Many of these groups ‘subjectify’ and attribute human-like characteristics to some animals and plants, sometimes referring to them as ‘persons’ and considering them an important part of the social world. In some instances, these animals and plants are viewed as having human souls, and consequently, as having a human perspective of the world. In Western urban populations, the idea of the self is also important in determining an individual’s conception of, and interaction with the environment. However, this view of the environment differs significantly from that of many indigenous groups because Western individuals tend to define themselves by objectifying everything else. Thus, they make a clear distinction between humans and other organisms, which are often thought of as objects or commodities. This view is exemplified by industrial poultry farming and taxidermy of trophy game by Euro-American hunters.Through my investigation in the Native Community of Tayakome, I will explore the role of cultural models in the way that individuals (1) conceptualize and understand their environment, (2) relate features of the environment to the human self and (3) behave with respect to the organisms they encounter in their environment.

The valuable support of the Lemelson Fellowship allowed me to conduct pilot research in Tayakome for four and a half months in 2011. During that time, I improved my communication skills in the Matsigenka language and conducted participant observation and preliminary interviews with community members. This pilot data will be essential for the design of culturally appropriate formal experimental methods that I will use in my subsequent dissertation research in this community.”