Elusive Caimans and the Anthropologist as Devil

books and arts

Lucas Bessire. 2014. Behold the Black Caiman: A Chronicle of Ayoreo Life. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 296 pages.

behold the black caimanDust

In this poignant and insightful ethnography, Lucas Bessire invites the reader to enter a world of shame, violence and all-consuming dust. Haunting descriptions of the vast plains of the South American Gran Chaco reveal a world of “white light and scented smoke and talc-fine dust,” an intensity of “heat and beauty and brutality.” A tenacious dust saturates the lungs, suffocating the lone rider/reader along dirt roads extending miles into the distance. The land is raw, suffering, the landscape misplaced, its contents “laid somewhere they don’t belong,” its desolate settlements appearing like scars of “grit and dust” where hunger and heat preside. Radio conversations, crackling and disjointed, form a mirage over this devastated scene. Fragile lungs are ravaged by dust-borne fungi, invisible mortal contagions. Trucks and bulldozers drift and roll, rumbling monsters leaving behind heavy clouds of dust that never seem to settle. It is through this dusty opacity that Bessire explores the everyday lifeworlds, precarious lives and contested humanity of post-contact Ayoreo Indians in South America’s Gran Chaco. The book lays down the sedi- mented histories of colonialism and religious conversion, late liberal economic policies and rampant environmental destruction that shape Ayoreo moralities. But its sharpest arrows are aimed at anthropologists.


Bessire anchors his analysis of Ayoreo ontology and moral sensibilities in relation to global political and economic forces destroying the Chaco environment, the violence of internal colonialism and techniques of missionary control, and prevailing notions of what counts as “legitimate” or “authentic” indigenous life in the contemporary world. Calling into question widespread assumptions regarding tradition, indigeneity, authenticity, isolation and the meanings of contact and missionization, Bessire examines how the Ayoreo construct their humanity precisely through transformation and self-transformation, while at the same time structuring their “precarious lives around the daily logistics of eluding starvation, capture, and a death foretold.”

Indeed, descriptions of death, violence, suffering, rampant poverty, hunger and illness afflicting Ayoreo settlements pervade Bessire’s ethnographic descriptions and for many readers will prove the most trying aspect of his work. Yet that violence is central to understanding contemporary Ayoreo ontology and emic understandings of the landscape and of the past, of contact and of missionization. Insightful analyses of Ayoreo concepts of time show how the violence of history and histories of violence are embodied in fractured and contradictory Ayoreo stories, as much as in their silences. Places stained with past violence and suffering become dangerous and contagious as the past lingers threateningly over them. Thus the past reveals itself to be a highly contested terrain, but so too the future. To attempt to grasp or understand either is to confront a pervasive and tortuous politics of identity, contact and suffering. The violence done to Ayoreo defies history, as violence “refuses to sit still”; this helps Bessire challenge any singular interpre- tation that would lay the blame at the feet of one set of actors — say, Christian missionaries. Indeed, as it turns out, Ayoreo are the Christian missionaries.

In the Chaco, Bessire finds none of the traditional figures of anthropology: no shamans, chiefs, warriors or enemies. Instead, he finds diabolical spirit anthropologists, bulldozers, radios and feelings of shame. He encounters a people facing “epistemic crisis and emerging ways of being in the world” as they actively abandon all past practices in an effort to join a broader network of Ayoreo-speaking people who have already taken on a shared Christian morality. At the same time, Bessire demonstrates how perceptions of Ayoreo humanity result from changing visions of the Gran Chaco by non-Ayoreo actors: as a zone of barbarism, a Garden of Eden, a strategic geopolitical region, a natural resource-rich area, a pristine wilderness. Likewise, representations of Ayoreo-speaking people reflected these changing visions, their humanity alternately conceived as savage, then convert, then back again. Each shift, Bessire demonstrates, “required a new version of history to legitimize and sustain its meaningful projects.”

Yet at the same time, these transformations are also driven by the Ayoreo themselves, as exemplified in Bessire’s convincing account of the importance of radio communication. As he notes, the power of the radio as technology for its users lay in its ability to “objectify and domesticate rupture itself through the particular spiritual harmonics of electronic sound.” Two-way radio communication came to act as an important medium through which a “Christian Ayoreo mainstream based on the moral value of rupture could emerge.” This process, he notes, reinforced the Ayoreos’ capacity to objectify the terms of their self-transformation. The metaphysics of radio here come to act as a medium for the evocation and objectification of the broader Ayoreo project of self-transformation.


Bessire challenges the reader to accompany him in following the Black Caiman, a strange appearance and omen of violence that Bessire analyzes as a composite image of the various forms of violence, colonial and ethnographic, eternally haunting post-contact Ayoreo and their contested humanity. However, those readers intent on beholding, let alone seizing, the elusive Black Caiman will be disappointed. Instead, Bessire challenges the reader to share his profoundly disturbing experience of “becoming an observing par- ticipant in the routine failure of meaning,” in which the Black Caiman always slips away just as one thinks one can begin to grasp and make sense of it. The ambiguous presence of the Black Caiman pervades the book, but one is never sure if one is following or being followed.

Mirroring this elusiveness, Bessire’s refusal of closure and overarching explanatory theories is a key strength of his work, one that mirrors the porosity and ambiguity of the Ayoreo self-transforming moral project that he describes with moving detail and depth. Resisting closed and static categorization of the Ayoreo and their way of life, he seeks to “unsettle ideal forms and unmask the inversions they propagate, offering no answers but rather inviting the reader into the delirium of ethnographic experience as an aesthetic and interpretive guide.” Bessire chronicles the emergence of Ayoreo lifeworlds through processes by which Ayoreo themselves “self-objectify these objectifications to their own unexpected ends, both vital and deadly.”


On a theoretical level, Bessire’s analysis offers a detailed critique of the recent popularity of perspectivist social theory, which has posited an “Amerindian cosmology” fundamentally opposed to the tenets of modern, Western, European philosophy and its binary dichotomy of nature/culture. Originally developed by Eduardo Viveiros de Castro [1], based on ethnographic material from South America, perspectivism is part of a broader “ontological turn” in anthropology, which challenges the assumption that anthropologists study and interpret their informants’ representations of reality. This distinctive position argues that instead, anthropologists should seek to understand difference not as a difference in worldviews, but rather a difference in actual, lived and real worlds. Rather than different views of the world, there exist, out there, multiple worlds. As such, ontological anthropologists reject analyses that seek to explain difference by way of representation, symbolism or belief, instead arguing that difference is due to existence and participation in alternative realities.

But perspectivism, Bessire argues, fails to convey the reality of the Ayoreo, for whom the ruptures of contact do not reflect unavoidable cultural disintegration or radical ontological difference. Instead, rupture plays a key role in multiplying notions of difference itself in unsettling and ambiguous ways, as arenas of “contestation, inversion, mimesis” and self-driven transformations of the moral human person. For instance, drawing from myths, Bessire reveals that for the Ayoreo, humanity is not a given condition but rather the result of a series of self-driven transformations over time, marked and induced by contact and ruptures. Like myth, humanity is defined by constant flux rather than stability. Contact, Bessire’s informants suggested, also implied a deep transformation, but one they saw as vital to transcend savagery and reproduce moral humanity. Once it is recognized that self-transformation is the core capacity of being human, then it can be seen that contradiction and negation do not upset Amerindian cosmologies. Instead, they are constitutive of such lifeworlds and their differences.

The assumption of radical difference between indigenous societies and Western societies, Bessire argues, is both a dangerous and invalid one. He suggests that such theories constitute yet another form of colonization of the indigenous subject as “outside modern rationality.” The argument leads to a sobering realization: If there are no radical differences between indigenous and nonindigenous societies, and no cosmologies that are pre- or un-modern in relation to each other, then the search for fundamental difference is not a productive one. Instead, one should look to identify arenas of shared values and shared human capacities for self-transformation. And these shared ways of giving value to life should be seen as rich avenues to foster meaningful collaborations, communication and political engagement in times of environmental and social crisis.


Bessire incorporates the moral, epistemological and interpersonal complexities, questions, dilemmas and misunderstandings raised by his own experience of fieldwork into his analysis. At once and alternately “ally, agitator and foil,” he documents with raw honesty the tensions of field relations that “thin, thicken, dry out and renew again.” The fieldwork experience is one of lives shared and unshared, of relations strained and often conflictive. In part, he is showing how anthropologists contribute to the elaboration of categories and classifications that are then internalized by the subjects of their study and given meaning by those subjects within existing, but never static, cosmological and ontological frameworks. Anthropologists, among other actors such as spirit Indians and missionaries, came to be seen as omens of menace, tenuous humanity and ambiguity, “uninvited arrivals” who simultaneously act as the Ayoreo’s own “spectral doubles.”

Frequently referred to as “Devil” (Abujádie), anthropologists were an object of suspicion, and their obsession with discovering “tradition” became a source of anger. Rethinking the fetish of “tradition,” Bessire wants to consider how indigenous cosmologies become subjects of competing claims and projects of becoming through plural fields of force and constellations of actors, including the Ayoreo themselves.

Suggesting that, for better or for worse, anthropologists do far more than “take what they need and leave no trace of their passage,” he offers a provocative call to anthropological reflection by asking: “Are we [an- thropologists] similarly engaged in a labour of allowing the relationships between people to take on the phantom characteristics of an object or thing? What is at stake for Ayoreo and anthropology if this object or thing is traditional culture? And doesn’t this Ayoreo critique then require us to accept that it is now necessary to account ethnographically for the palpable social presence of anthropological knowledge and the unequal forces that it conjures and exerts against human life?”

Bessire’s critique of anthropological representations of the “primitive” as radically opposed to Western culture, destined to disintegrate in the face of capitalist modernity, firmly resists seeing the indigenous world as a “zone of mourning.” Instead, attention is drawn to the ability of indigenous cosmologies to resist staying “put in slots they are assigned within the telos of modern order and its inside/outside limits,” including in academic literature. Ayoreo moral humanity emerges as the result of a human capacity to define and control the terms of its own transformation.

An example of this is the decision of the Totobiegosode to abandon “traditional” past practices, such as shamanic rituals, curing techniques, magical songs, myth narratives and ceremonial aesthetics. Bessire describes his difficulty in finding informants who would talk about these past practices. The only man willing to do so, 90-year-old Simijáné, was one of the few still seeing value in shamanic healing; everyone else branded esoretic curing chants, ujñarone, as satanic. Encountering modernity, Bessire was told, required a process called chinoningase, a radical and self-driven metamorphosis of “human form and content,” targeting a form of soul matter called ayipie, which encompasses elements of human morality such as willpower, memory, rationality and social sentiments.

Seen from the perspective of transitional ontology, the outright rejection of past tradition by the Ayoreo is thus best understood not as death or loss, but as a reaffirmation of Ayoreo capacities to transform themselves, a form of becoming rather than being, “one that reclaims a kind of radical agency for ontological self-determination in the face of dispossession and subjection.” Even seemingly out-of-control futures, such as those envisioned in apocalyptic beliefs among the Ayoreo, can be seen not as unavoidable realities to come, but rather as arenas of capacity and potential to exercise their own self-transformations when faced with deeply perturbed post-contact worlds.

Particularly poignant — and discomfiting — is Bessire’s account of the “little birds,” or cuajajo, teenage Ayoreo girls working as prostitutes in the towns. The little birds, routinely subjected to violence, rape and murder, are alluring to their clients for their supposed savagery. Like the rest of their communities, they are taught shame by contact and missionization. And yet these girls, “so small and brave and electric” with their “flamboyant fashion, unique slang, and brazen humor,” describe the commodification of their bodies as exactly the opposite, producing a “radical and unsettling kind of agency.” They self-brand themselves as “mother of whores,” charge “Strangers” (non-Ayoreo) men less than Ayoreo and long to find a non-Ayoreo husband to have a baby of their own, “a pale one, more beautiful than a brown one.” Outrightly rejecting indigeneity and Ayoreo-ness, the little birds do not consider their profession “work” but rather “just playing.” They refuse to be ashamed and instead pride themselves on being able to fuel the desire of strangers, “drink [their] bodies.” This, Bessire suggests, exemplifies the possibility of ontological self- determination despite, or perhaps made possible in, a world of “bruises and semen and blood,” of “desire and disgust and despair.”

The example of the little birds is in many ways controversial and would have benefited from a discussion of a vast body of feminist literature that Bessire does not acknowledge or address. In some ways, his treatment of agency in the case of the little birds begs the question of the extent to which certain forms of human experience can be considered as agency in contexts of extreme violence and exploitation. What are the risks of confusing presumed self-determination and control over such violence with a more urgent need to survive this violence in a day-to-day reality? How far can the self-determination theory take analysts in accepting certain forms of extreme violence as constitutive of humanity?

While Bessire’s critique of the fetish of “tradition” in anthropology is neither recent nor unprecedented, the new kind of political anthropology he calls for is significant in focusing attention on the “fractured and dispossessed subjectivities of the ex-primitive.” This new political anthropology would consider the forms of humanity that may take shape in post-contact societies and the processes of becoming that flourish between “the human and nonhuman, life and death.” It would strive to critically demount the ways anthropology has objectified indigeneity. It would embrace, rather than discard, the meaning-generating effects of the negation of tradition and the past by indigenous peoples themselves. Above all, such an approach would begin with a sustained reflection upon those “murky zones where indigenous projects of becoming and anthropological projects of knowledge come together, fall apart and, perhaps, meet up again.”


Behold the Black Caiman offers three compelling arguments of relevance within and beyond the anthropological discipline. First, Bessire asserts that the category of native culture is nothing less than a political technology. In other words, it is a category that operates and is instrumentalized within a broader political economy in which indigeneity and its differences come to be restricted, governed and objectified under late liberal governance frameworks. Second, Bessire argues that a focus on indigenous processes of transformation and becoming, rather than on notions of static and unchanging being, serve better in understanding the unfolding of indigenous peoples’ lifeworlds. More important, this focus on the processual nature of human existence does justice to indigenous peoples’ own abilities to transform their life-worlds in self-determined and meaningful ways. Finally, Bessire calls for “a new humanistic politics of indigenous ethnography.” By this he means a practice of ethnographic description that critically reflects on anthropological ways of knowing and acknowledges their fluid and “unruly” natures. This practice would also approach theory and method in anthropology as a moving target, one that transforms over time, producing rich, but also contested, consequences in the world. Bessire’s compelling argument for a reflexive practice that recognizes the temporality of anthropological knowledge itself is beautifully demonstrated in his own examination of the ambiguous role of anthropologists in Ayoreo lifeworlds.

Bessire’s approach to understanding the Ayoreo may leave some asking how nonhuman species and their moral transformations fit within changing Ayoreo lifeworlds. For if, as he argues, it is precisely through “the capacity to continually manage, contest, and redefine human-animal distinctions that moral humanity itself is constituted,” then the position of the animal — as much as the human — within transforming nature-culture borderlands and ecological concerns also deserves further attention. In addition, Bessire’s critique could be fruitfully complemented with insights derived from analyses by the Ayoreo themselves, or what anthropologist Roy Wagner has termed “reverse anthropology” [2]. Finally, one might argue that Bessire’s critique of perspectivism and the ontological turn may be plausible only if premised on a restrictive assumption of humanity’s stability within these theories. While humanity may indeed be considered a shared ontological premise, this does not necessarily preclude internal variation as constitutive of humanity itself. The ontological argument that difference results from the existence of alternative realities, rather than representations of reality, does not preclude internal variation within those alternative realities and, consequently, the possibility of both the retention and alteration of a wide range of practices. A comparative reading of Pedersen’s ethnography of the Darhad people in post-socialist Mongolia supports this interpretation [3]. Pedersen shows how shamanism itself constitutes an “ontology of transition” in which selves and bodies transform in the face of spirits, the market and democracy. Shamanism is characterized by uncertainty and ambiguity, which reproduce, rather than reduce, the Darhad sense of cosmological collapse following the fall of socialism. However, in contrast to the Ayoreos’ rejection of traditional practices, shamans need not be fully eliminated as figures once their continued metamorphosis is acknowledged as organic to their ontology. Ontological views, therefore, can be dynamic assemblages of affects, “self-scaling practices, discourses and materialities” that are continually recalibrated and readjusted as potential states of “perpetual metamorphosis.”


Sophie Chao http://orcid.org/0000-0002-5434-9283


1. Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, “Cosmological Deixis and Amerindian Perspectivism,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 4 (1998): 469–488.

2. Roy Wagner, The Invention of Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 31–34.

3. Morten Axel Pedersen. Not Quite Shamans: Spirit Worlds and Political Lives in Northern Mongolia (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011).

Sophie Chao is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Macquarie University, Sydney. She received a Master of Arts in Tibetan and Chinese Studies and a Master of Science in Social Anthropology from the University of Oxford. Sophie has previously worked as an education consultant at UNESCO in Paris and as Project Officer for the human rights organization Forest Peoples Programme in Indonesia. She is co-editor of Conflict or Consent? The Palm Oil Sector at a Crossroads (2013); Human Rights and Agribusiness: Plural Legal Approaches to Conflict Resolution, Institutional Strengthening and Legal Reform (2012); and Diverse Paths to Justice: Legal Pluralism and the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Southeast Asia (2011).

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