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Panel 11: Giving up naturalism or towards a social complexity shared with animals

Coordinator(s)

Florence Brunois-Pasina, Anne Di Piazza

Session presentation

The objective of this session is to focus on animals in Oceania, developing the idea that human-animal associations are inscribed within shared interspecific communities. Participants are invited to look beyond the naturalism within which anthropology and ethno-science have treated animals, and engage on the statutes of both humans and animals as actors and actants, as well as on the relations that are the outcomes of a shared intellectual curiosity. A curiosity born of a long history « written » by humans and inspired by co-habitation, affects, communication? And how can these relations be observed linguistically, materially, archaeologically? What kinds of emotional ties mark these multi-specific relationships and what are their effects on local ontologies? While in recent years, ethnologists, ethologists and archaeologists have begun to address these themes in Europe and the Americas, their relative absence in Oceania raises questions. This session invites participants to initiate an anthropology of nature in Oceania. This is especially important now that natural ecosystems are in decline worldwide.


Paper submissions are closed



Accepted papers


Introduction to the session



Anne Di Piazza (Aix-Marseille University, CNRS, EHESS)

Florence Brunois-Pasina (LAS/College-de-france)



Thinking (with) Western Highlands pigs – differently



Almut Schneider (Goethe University Frankfurt)


Pigs in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea are notorious. Since anthropologists work in the region, they have to take pigs into account when dealing with ceremonial exchange, gender issues, money or big men who control the movement of the animals. This paper focuses on a different angle: What happens to ethnographic description when we think pigs as actors and actants (or ‘companions’, persons, relatives?) and if we pay more attention to the diverse modes of relationships people and pigs engage in? Examples from other regions show that close attention to interspecies relationships yield fresh insights into social issues and types of interaction that might otherwise escape our attention. With its rather ethnographic focus, this paper tackles the question if and how Highland pigs can contribute to issues of ‘social nature’ and local ontologies in Oceania.

Yolngu totemics: heterogeneity and relatedness in a land full of totems



Jessica De Largy Healy (Musée du quai Branly)


In this paper, I introduce the concept of “totemics” to think through the complex ways in which Yolngu groups from north-east Arnhem Land identify with and relate to various beings of their environment. Initially conceived as a tongue-in-cheek way to approach the incredibly daunting body of anthropological literature on Australian Aboriginal totemism, this notion takes up William Stanner’s suggestion to “deal with totems rather than with Totemism” (Religion, totemism and symbolism, 1965: 158). My presentation will focus on the analysis of two quotations recorded some thirty years apart of two ceremonial leaders, a father and a son, of the Gupapuyngu clan. Both quotes unfold as poetic self-portraits that anchor the deep identity of the speakers in constellations of places and species. I consider how these men perceive themselves as persons in relation to other beings and things, which include, in these particular cases: animals, plants, ancestral beings, ritual objects and designs, songs, sacred names and ghost spirits. In other words, I attend to some ways in which this social complexity can be discursively constructed, by senior men, but also by women, in north-east Arnhem Land.

Totem and virus



Arnaud Morvan (Collège de France)


Ma présentation porte sur les représentations des maladies dans le totémisme australien à travers le cas d’un virus (Hendra HeV) transmis aux hommes par les chauves-souris de type roussettes (pteropus) dans la péninsule du Cape York. Mes recherches effectuées dans en 2015 et 2016 dans le cadre d’un programme post-doctoral mettent en évidence le caractère labile des barrières entre espèces dans une relation de type totémique et examine ses conséquences sur la circulation des pathogènes et les mesures de biosécurité.
Malgré leur réputation d’espèces nuisibles porteuses de maladies, les chauves-souris sont utilisées par les Aborigènes comme viande de brousse et occupent une place importance dans les pratiques médicinales locales. Mon enquête en cours révèle l’existence de totems chauves-souris mais aussi de totems de maladies associés à des sites aborigènes spécifiques, dessinant les contours d’une conception autochtone des maladies virales qui envisagent les virus non pas comme des entités indépendantes mais plutôt comme un réseau de lieux-totem connecté à des espèces animales. Le totémisme montre une forme de réversibilité ontologique entre humains et animaux, et faciliterait aussi le passage de substances (pathogènes ou curatives) entre espèces comme le montrent les pratiques médicinales liées aux chauves-souris.

When animals socialized humans. About bonito cult in eastern Solomon Islands.



Sandra Revolon (Aix-Marseille University, CNRS, EHESS)


In eastern Solomons, within the Owa conceptions, light interferences, especially irisation, are tangible manifestations of phenomena that can mana-ize or that are in a state of mana-ity. Still today in this society, in order to be able to use the powerful mana of invisible beings, young men must go through an initiation during which they are visibly marked on the chest with a trace left by being anointed with iridophorous bonito cells. Among living beings, only the bonito, the nautilus, and coral spontaneously and visibly produce phenomena of light interference (iridescences and luminescence) both while alive—on their surfaces—and on their flesh, pearly interior, or lime when dead. This particularity places them in a liminal as both living and dead, which undoubtedly helps explain the central place given to them in the ontologies of the eastern Solomon Islands.
In that frame, this paper will expose fresh ethnographic elements to try to go deeper in the comprehension of owa conceptual mechanisms associated with the role given to these non human beings - bonito, nautilus and coral- in socialization of human beings.

From encounters within interspecific communities to business. The variegated relations of Kanak people with animals and their shared worlds (Arama, New Caledonia)



Denis Monnerie (Université de Strasbourg)


The kanak people of Arama (New Caledonia) come close to the anthropological view of shared interspecific communities in the privileged relations of the Teâ Yhuen phwâmeevu ("clan") with their totem ( jâlû): sea and land reptiles (bwêêlâ). The paper will describe the foundation myth of this phwâmeevu, which centrally involves a reptile, personal experiences of encounters with reptiles as well as a reptilian landscape form. However, not all totems are animals and not all animals are totems.
Animals are considered and given meaning by Arama people primarily in their behaviour, in the space-time and refinements of their environment and in their relations to food. Through ethnographic examples, the paper will show how these (and other) factors delineate multiple and complex links of interdependance. In these animals interact with humans and other non humans. These interactions fall within variegated shared worlds involving different modes of sociality, speech use and exchange. In them humans relate to animals according to values prevailing in each shared world whose scope differ : from business oriented to sociocosmic.

Humans and animals on display : A comparative study of the relationship between human and animal characters in wallisian and nisvai oral narratives



Jocelyn Aznar (EHESS - Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales)

Alice Fromonteil (Aix-Marseille University)


Animal representations within narrative activities in Oceania reveal the acknowledgement of an interspecific relationship. Based on a comparative study of two oral corpora of narratives collected during fieldwork studies in ‘Uvea (Wallis, Polynesia) and the Nisvai community (Malekula, Vanuatu), the presentation focuses on the human-animal relationship. The orators, staging animals as actors and actants in their narratives, carefully distinguish them from the human characters. However, the narrative elaborations also question the distinction between these characters : animals talk, sing, and are part of kinship relationships, while humans are turning into animals.
In comparing several Wallisian and Nisvai narratives, the paper highlights a mix of proximity and distance portraying the expression of human-animal relationships. After having identified the roles given to the characters, our analysis shows how and by which narrative devices ontological categories of these characters are negotiated. We show how human-animal literary representations lead to a reflection about local categories and their interpretations.

Tōu‘u inoa 'o Fai, te inoa ‘o te hoa ‘o Matu‘u (My name is Stingray and my friend is called Pacific reef heron) Humans, animals and plants as actors and actants in Marquesan Mythology



Michael J. Koch (Taku‘ua Service)


Apart from the work of Karl von den Steinen (1855 - 1929) and Henri Lavondés (1926-1998) in the sixties of last century, a work strongly influenced by structuralism of these days, very little had been done in examining the existing material of Marquesan mythology, collected mainly in the 19th and 20th century, under the aspects of an indigenous ontology.
In a (still) colonial society like French Polynesia, where western concepts of knowledge dominate, indigenous ontologies, expressed in a myriad of myths, are mostly shelved as a kind of an unreal past, difficult to understand, reduced to fairy tales and of no real potential value for the contemporary society or even it's future.
In the paper I will discuss some examples of interaction and transformation of human, animals and plants in mythology, sometimes even expressed in material objects to show that naturalism as the concept of separating nature from culture did not exist in the pre-contact Marquesan society and we might have to revise traditionalised aspects of Marquesan society, especially all what concerns the so called supernatural.