History in anthropology has been largely ignored by many ethnographers prior to indigenous contact with the colonial powers. This has occurred because of the difficulty of proving whether stories told in these societies are historical facts or myths told by generations of people. It has simply been easier to consider indigenous people’s current situations as longstanding and unchanging while disregarding the stories told as simply myths meant to teach lessons.
In his 1996 essay, “Images of Nature and Society in Amazonian Ethnology”, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro points out that the historical study of many of the people of Amazonia is quickly growing. Since there is very little to no recorded history of the indigenous peoples of Amazonia prior to the arrival of the Europeans, there has been significant growth in the study of oral traditions and histories told by the people themselves. No longer are these tales dismissed as myths, but the relations between these stories and the histories of the peoples of the Amazon is being analysed to come up with a broader sense of history in this area of the world.
In 2002, Steven Rubenstein wrote “Alejandro Tsakimp: a Shuar healer in the margins of history” which was the account of his time with the Shuar and of his experiences with a man named Alejandro. He wrote that in meeting Alejandro, he was forced to reevaluate what he already knew about the Shuar and how he understood others and himself. He discovered that there was no possibility for an unbiased meeting between Euro-Americans and indigenous peoples anymore due to hundreds of years of interaction and how each side understands the other, their history, and also themselves.
Rubenstein also pointed out that more often than not, myths are viewed as expressions of culture and not related to history. He states that it is actually more important to examine what the story of events means to the people and what uses the story can have in everyday life instead of searching for proof that the events actually occurred. He found, with Alejandro’s story, that one story may have more than one use: it may answer a direct question, make a moral point, or describe a historical point, for example.
Rubenstein goes on to discuss what exactly “history” can mean when he discusses M. W. Stirling’s writings on the Jivaros. Stirling states that the Jivaros “first appear in history” in the middle of the 15th century during the Incan conquest of Quito. Rubenstein examines “history” in the sense that a society can “appear” in it at a certain time, but not before. Obviously, he states, it doesn’t mean the same thing as “time” because that would meant that the Jivaros did not exist at all before this occurrence, and if it was meant as recorded history or a history book then the date of appearance would be when the account was published. It seems to Rubenstein that “history” is a place where one might be seen and where one’s appearance is an event, such as a war.
Aside from not knowing whether a story is a true account of a society’s history, there are other problems with myths. The stories themselves are frozen in time and told in ways that give no sign of when they may have actually occurred. They also deny a history or a future of a people, and give no account of how things came to be in a society or why they may or may not stay the same. Myths also suggest certain behaviours for a society; if one does not act in accordance to these expectations, then they no longer fit within that society.
While myths provide a sense of meaning and moral order to a society, they also trap the people in to a cookie cutter shape of what they are expected to be. Rubenstein also discusses the dangers of essentialism or the definition of a group by a small set of permanent characteristics that also ignores the circumstances under which these identities came to be. Denying the history of a culture is likely to lead to the essentialization of that society.
In his 2001 essay, “An Amazonian Myth and its History,” Peter Gow addresses myth and historical change in Amazonia. He begins his essay by introducing two prominent anthropologists in Amazonian studies. Bronislaw Malinowski developed new methods for gathering information through hands-on fieldwork and analysing data in order to understand the daily life of Amazonian peoples.
Claude Lvi-Strauss brought the significance of historical studies in Amazonian anthropology to light with his studies of indigenous mythology. While other anthropologists argue that Lvi-Strauss ignored history in his writings, Gow fiercely defends him and says that the problem is with the Marxist approaches to anthropology. He argues that these capitalist approaches only include post-European contact years and deny the history of the Amazonian peoples prior to this.