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September 2022

Soc Sci Med. 1983 ; 17(17): 1229-48.

An Amerindian derivation for Latin American creole illnesses and their treatment.

Colson AB, de Armellada C.

We present an extended argument which we consider to be sufficient demonstration that a humoral tradition, notably a hot and cold classification, underlies medical etiologies and treatments used by certain groups of South American Indians, and that this is indigenous. We argue that several major, widespread categories of illness and treatments also have a mainly indigenous, Amerindian derivation: that they have not been derived, as often assumed, from unique importations from Spain or other Old World countries, so dating only from the Conquest and surviving in Latin American folk systems up to the present. Our ethnographic data derive from the Akawaio and northern Pemon (Arekuna, Taurepan and Kamarakoto), Carib-speaking Indians in the Guiana Highlands of the border areas of Venezuela, Brazil and Guyana. We stress the following points: The existence amongst these Amerindians, as amongst many Latin American creole and peasant groups, of certain specific and distinctive forms and interpretations of illness, their causations and cures. These include the binary oppositions of hot and cold and the notion of imbalance accompanying the concept of the mediate and harmonious state: sould loss through shock and fright: the capture of soul: whirlwind or cold air sickness: illness from contagious and powerful forces. Similarities between practitioners and remedies also exist. An interdependent relationship between indigenous concepts and language relating to the medical system Is demonstrated. Close associations between the medical system and the physical environment and the depiction of these in metaphors and symbols are detailed. Historical evidence in 17th century literature on Carib peoples is taken into account as well as evidence from remote, mostly unacculturated Amerindian societies of the recent past and of today. In the case of the Akawaio and Pemon, only the beginnings of syncretism in the medical system have been discovered. If our ethnographic data and the conclusions we draw are accepted, then question arises as to whether the hot/cold opposition and other medical concepts and practices relating to a humoral tradition in other Latin American groups, Amerindian and creole, are not wholley or in the main indigenous--as some scholars have already begun to suggest. If they are indigenous then they should be studied as such. We consider that there is a case for studying syncretism in medicine. We see this as a process whereby adoptions and adaptations are made selectively from incoming systems; where essential, indigenous elements may be reinforced and modified by the incoming, but where basic structures, objectives and characteristics of the indigenous remain identifiable and a continuity is achieved.


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