Living with the Ancestors: Kinship and Kingship in Ancient Maya Society

McAnany, Patricia Ann. 2014. Living with the Ancestors: Kinship and Kingship in Ancient Maya Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

 The Yanomami people of Brazil and Venezuela have been an integral part of anthropological debates, as well as wider conversations, for a long time. Their remote location on the Brazilian-Venezuelan border, as well as an undeserved reputation for being a “fierce people”, have made the Yanomami the object of fascination of anthropologists, journalists, environmental activists and many others. In consequence, the Yanomami case is an unusual one among the peoples of the South American Lowlands, in the sense that there is a considerable amount of publications about them, both in the academic and non-academic press. However, a Western fascination with the warfare practices of this people has left other aspects of their social life and culture absent, or almost absent, from the ethnographic record. For this reason, Jokic presents us with a book on Yanomami shamanic and health practices. In this book, Jokic offers a phenomenological ethnographic approach to the world of Yanomami shamanism (shaporimou). Through his approach, Jokic seeks to explain the dynamics of visionary experiences and how is it that the shaman’s body is a model of the totality of the Yanomami cosmos. Finally, Jokic’s discussion of Yanomami dwellings and shaman’s bodies demonstrates that the Yanomami cosmos is organized under a holographic principle.

 The book’s introduction includes a brief, but sufficient, literature review of the scholarship in shamanism, an explanation of Jokic’s phenomenological approach and a general introduction to the Yanomami peoples, their subgroups and their territory. The first chapter is devoted to a more comprehensive discussion of Yanomami history, in general, and the recent history of the Yanomami of Platanal and Sheroana-theri, the villages where Jokic conducted the most significant portion of his fieldwork, in particular. Chapters two and three offer an introduction to Yanomami cosmology, necessary to understand the principles and mechanics at the core of the Yanomami shamanic complex. Chapters four to six describe and explain different aspects of the Yanomami shamanic practice, including: the initiatory process, the visionary experience, and the mechanics of shamanic battles. The last two chapters deal with health issues the Yanomami have to struggle with as a result of contact with Venezuelan and Brazilian societies, as well as Yanomami ideas about Western medicine. Finally, a postscript offers a commentary on the changes Jokic witnessed during a visit he made to the Yanomami territory in 2007, seven years after he finished the fieldwork that gave origin to this book.

 Jokic’s ample knowledge of Yanomami cosmology becomes evident in the second chapter of the book. In this chapter the author introduces the notion of the Yanomami cosmology as a holographic one. Following Roy Wagner’s finding of Papua New Guinean holographically structured lifeworlds, Jokic states in a convincing way that the Yanomami’s lifeworlds follow a similar pattern.  In this sense, he explains that the five layers of the Yanomami cosmos are structured upon a fractal principle, this is a self-replicating order by means of which the part contains the whole. The holographic nature of the Yanomami’s cosmology becomes particularly evident in Jokic’s description of the initiatory ritual. The aspiring shaman must undergo a rigorous fasting period through which his body is dismantled and reassembled. Jokic describes, with abundant detail, an initiatory process that lasts eleven days. During these eleven days, the aspiring shaman inhales copious quantities of the epena snuff, a powerful psychedelic substance that contains DMT, and his body becomes the residence of numerous hekura spirits. Hekura are described by Jokic as “the intangible and immortal nuclei of all material components of the Yanomami cosmos, such as animals, plants, fire, atmospheric and celestial components” (Jokic 2015: 71). However, by housing numerous hekura the shaman becomes hekura himself. In consequence, the term refers to the shaman as well as the spirits that assist him in his practice. The accumulation of hekura becomes, after the initiation, a constant in a shaman’s life. The more hekura a shaman has, the more powerful the shaman is. Finally, Jokic contends that through this accumulation of hekura spirits the shaman becomes an embodiment of the totality of the cosmos.

 Yanomami shamanism, as with every other shamanic practice in the South American Lowlands, is constituted by a series of attack and defense techniques. Illness is typically the result of the attack of an enemy shaman, a spirit or the transgression of a taboo. It is a shaman’s job to identify the specific causes of his patients’ ailments and restore their health and return the source of the illness to its place of origin. Therefore, the position of the shaman is a morally ambivalent one. He is responsible for the wellbeing of his relatives as well as for the calamities that occur to their enemies. Jokic provides the reader with multiple ethnographic examples of the techniques Yanomami shamans use to treat their patients and battle against rival shamans, or refrain from doing it. These descriptions are rich in detail and are easy to read, making the traditionally obscure topic of shamanism accessible to the reader.

 In chapter eight, Jokic offers us an explanation of the ways in which Yanomami shamanism and biomedicine are similar and different. He starts his comparison by stating that they exist without any significant degree of syncretism, which seems unusual as shamanism in the South American Lowlands tends to be a highly eclectic practice. Consequently, Jose Antonio Kelly’s description of “a new type of hekura associated with criollos[1] and called napërami, who speak Spanish and use napë[2] objects such as mirrors and glass” (Jokic 2015: 204) that Jokic references seems to contradict his initial claim. This is particularly significant, as this type of hekura is summoned to aid shamans in the treatment of one of the most common illnesses among the Yanomami, intestinal infections.

 The author explains that Yanomami shamanism and biomedicine are similar in that both shamans and doctors access their patients’ interiority. Nonetheless, they differ on the ontological level of this access, as well as the techniques they use. While doctors only have access to the physical bodies of their patients, shamans can transform into their hekura and have access to the vitalities that animate the different organs of the human body and identify if a vital essence has been harmed, has gone missing or is contaminated. Likewise, through this same process the shaman is able to identify the source of the damage, whether it is a human or non-human agent. In consequence, shamans and doctors are similar in that they examine their patients in order to identify what is wrong within them, establish a cause to their ailment and prescribe a cure. Additionally, they are similar in that the outcome of their treatments always encompass a certain degree of unpredictability. Finally, when addressing the treatment regimens prescribed by Western doctors, Jokic explains that a main difficulty is that the Yanomami drop their prescriptions as soon as they feel an improvement in their health. This is particularly problematic in antibiotic regimens, as it causes more resistant bacteria that in turn needs to be treated with more powerful antibiotics.

 In his discussion of the issue of contact with the encompassing society, Jokic introduces the topic of shawara epidemics. These are epidemics caused by the smoke that emanates from the burning of certain magical substances and the fumes of the objects that white people leave behind them. Jokic describes shawara as a “lethal pathogenic smoke”, this pathogenic smoke was not previously unknown to the Yanomami but the power of the shawara brought by white people into their territory was previously unseen. It is in connection to his discussion of shawara that Jokic introduces the figure of perhaps the most famous Yanomami person, Davi Kopenawa, a Brazilian Yanomami shaman and political leader. Kopenawa, a well-traveled man, links the pollution that emanates from the machines, factories and vehicles of white people to shawara. Having recognized the danger that this industrial shawara represents, Kopenawa has been actively calling Yanomami shamans to stop fighting amongst each other and unite in order to prevent the imminent world catastrophe to be brought upon the earth as consequence of the white men’s greed and disregard for the forest. By discussing this idea, Jokic introduces what seems to be at least two new themes in the practice of Yanomami shamanism: the need to stop intra-tribal warfare in order to unite against a common threat, planetary destruction, and the incorporation of a strong moral component into the practice of shamanism.

 The main problem this book has is perhaps a certain tendency to present the Yanomami as “pristine” forest people, almost unspoiled by the monstrous civilization of the West. Yanomami shamanism is described as unaffected by the practices of foreigners, but “in danger of vanishing due to an encroaching danger of cosmic proportions” (Jokic 2015: 3). For those familiar with the history of anthropology, this sounds remarkably similar to the North American myth of “the vanishing Indian”. Nonetheless, Jokic’s account of Yanomami shamanism is a highly accomplished one that comes as a timely companion to the English translation of Bruce Albert and Davi Kopenawa’s The Falling Sky (2013).

 The merits of Jokic’s ethnography largely exceed its shortcomings. It is very well written and reads fluidly. Jokic frequently narrates his own experiences of the Yanomami shamanic world, as well as the thoughts he was having as he was witnessing the events he describes in the book or while listening to the testimonies he references. This contributes to the reader’s experience as it makes it easier to understand the motivations and concerns that the author had for producing this ethnography, as well as the conditions upon which it was produced. Likewise, the fact that the author is presented as a participant of several of the ethnographic vignettes makes it easier for the reader to imagine how it might feel to be in a Yanomami shapono (collective house), witnessing the dance of a shaman and his hekura.

References Cited

Jokic, Zeljko
2015 The Living Ancestors: Shamanism, Cosmos and Cultural Change among the Yanomami of the Upper Orinoco. New York: Berghahn Books

Kopenawa, Davi and Bruce Albert
2013 The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman. Nicholas Elliott and Alison Dundy, trans. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Wagner, Roy
1991 ‘The Fractal Person’. In Maurice Godelier and Marilyn Strathern (eds), Big Men and Great Men: Personification of Power in Melanesia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 159-173


[1] Criollo is the term used throughout Latin America to refer to the descendants of the Spanish and their culture. In the Venezuelan state of Amazonas, the word criollo is used to refer to any non-indigenous person.

[2] Non-Yanomami.

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