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The Perverse Child: Desire in a Native Amazonian Subsistence Economy

Author(s): Peter Gow

Source: Man, New Series, Vol. 24, No. 4 (Dec., 1989), pp. 567-582
Published by: Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland
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Starting from the prominence of discussions of food and sex in the daily lives of Native Amazonian
peoples, the article analyses the place of sexual desire and the desire for food in the subsistence economy
of the native people of Bajo Urubamba river in Peru. It describes the production, circulation and
consumption offood and explores the links between this system and the construction of gender categories,

sexual identities and relations of marriage, affinity and kinship. Through an analysis of the use of food
items as joking metaphors of male and female genitals, it is argued that sexuality and food are made
analogous at the level of desire. Finally, the analysis of forbidden oral desire in children leads to the
conclusion that it is the construction of persons as subjects of particular oral and sexual desires which
structures Amazoman subsistence economies.

The present article is an analysis of the role of desire in a Native Amazonian subsistence

economy.1 With reference to the native communities of the Bajo Urubamba river in
western Amazonia, it explores the important place in the economy of particular

formulations of sexual desire and desire for food. It is argued that the codings of different
types of food on the one hand and of different gender and age categories on the other,
constitute the heart of the subsistence economy.

Concern with food and sex dominates the daily lives of Native Amazonian people.

The production, circulation and consumption of food is the central drama of village
life and sexual relationships are the primary topic of everyday conversation. This
concern with food and sex has been noted by many ethnographers ofNative Amazonian

cultures. An early example of this theme is found in Holmberg's study of the Siriono

of Bolivia (1950), which is a portrait of a people obsessed with food first, then with
sex, and apparently very little else. More recently, the same theme has been explored

in ethnographies ofthe northwest Amazon by Reichel-Dolmatoff (1971) and Christine

Hugh-Jones (1979), of the Mehinacu and Bororo of Central Brazil by Gregor (1985)
and Crocker (1986) respectively, and many others.

These more recent analyses have not followed Holmberg in taking this obsession
at its face value, but have instead stressed the symbolic qualities of this interest shown
in food and sex. Seeger et al. have argued that corporeality is a focal idiom in these
societies and that Native Amazonian discourses about corporeality constitute the only
non-ethnocentric mode of understanding their concrete socialpraxis (1979: 16). Simi-

larly, Christine Hugh-Jones has criticised many ethnographers of Amazonia for paying

little attention to the conceptual content of domestic life (1979: 279). It is largely the
Man (N.S.) 24, 567-82

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influence of Levi-Strauss's Mythologiques (1970; 1978), which begins with a series of

Amazonian myths about food and sex, that has directed serious attention to these
problems and has revealed how Native Amazonian cosmologies and discourses on
society are permeated by metaphors of bodily processes.

However, relatively little attention has been paid to the relation between this concern
with food and sex and the subsistence economies of Native Amazonian societies. An

exception to this tendency is Janet Siskind, in her analysis of the economy of the
Sharanahua people of the Purus river in eastern Peru. In an article entitled 'The hunting
economy of sex' (1973b) and in her longer monograph on the Sharanahua (1973a),
Siskind provides an interpretation of the relation between the sexual division of labour
in this society and gender relations. She argues that the Sharanahua economy is

structured around the exchange between men and women of forest game for sexual
favours. Game, the product of male hunting activity, is naturally scarce relative to the
female-produced garden foods, while women are culturally scarce relative to men

because the latter are allowed and expected to have more than one wife. This 'hunting
economy of sex', as Siskind terms it, receives cultural expression in the jokes of
Sharanahua women, when they greet the return of a luckless hunter with the comment

'There is no game. Let's eat penises!'. The same economy is also expressed in the ritual

of the collective hunt, when women send men who are their potential sexual partners,
but not actual husbands, to hunt for them. Siskind further mentions many cases of
similar rituals and jokes from other parts of Amazonia and suggests that the 'hunting
economy of sex' is general to the aboriginal cultures of the tropical forest region.2
Where I would take issue with Siskind is over her representation of the 'hunting
economy of sex' as an exchange of goods between proprietors. Siskind treats the flow
of game and sexual favours between Sharanahua men and women as an exchange
relationship between the owners of two different objects: men give game to women

in return for sex because men are the proprietors of game and wpmen are the proprietors
of their sexuality. As Strathern has pointed out, such unstated importation of a commodity-based property logic can seriously hamper the analysis of social systems where

such idioms are quite alien (1984). In the present case, the importation of this Western
logic of proprietorship into the context of Native Amazonian subsistence economies
obscures the original issue: people are not talking about the 'rates of exchange' between
different commodities such as game and sexual favours, nor about their respective
property rights over products or their own bodies. In Native Amazonian daily life
people are talking about hunger and sexual desire, and the satisfaction of these desires
by other people.

It is the nature of desire in these kinds of economies that the present article will
explore. I will try to show that the desires felt and expressed for certain kinds of foods
is systematically related to certain types of social relations. In particular, I will argue
that the desires for food expressed by people in these econonies are not abstracted
desires than can be satisfied in a variety of different ways, but rather that these desires

link people inevitably to certain other people. In these economies, relationships are
predicated on the satisfaction of particular desires experienced by the partners in the

relationship. I will explore these issues as part of an extended analysis of a Native

Amazonian subsistence economy which is similar to that of the Sharanahua discussed

by Siskind. I explore the total system of production, circulation and consumption of

food in this economy, in search of the codes which govern it. Central to the present

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article is the question of how this economy functions around the construction of
particular subjects of sexual desire and desire for food and how these constructions
necessitate the existence of other subjects which stand in different relations to these

The subsistence economy of the native communities of the Bajo Urubamba

The Bajo Urubamba is a major tributary of the Ucayali, which is in turn a major
tributary of the Amazon itself The area itselfis part oflowland Amazonia and is covered

in dense humid tropical rainforest. I'he Bajo Urubamba is a large river by Amazonian
standards and the primary orientation of the local population is to riverine life and
ecology. The native population of the area lives in communities ranging in size from
50 to 800 people. These communities tend to be focused on core kin clusters of

Piro-speakers, but with many affines and other co-resident associates of non-Piro

origin. The main languages of the area are Spanish, Piro and Campa-Ashaninka, in

that order. Most people in the area are fully bilingual, many trilingual. The major
exception is among young people under 25 years old, who tend to be monolingual
in Spanish. I use the term 'native people' here as a translation of their own term, los
nativos. I will use terms from the local dialect of Spanish, which has been heavily
influenced by Quechua, in preference to Piro or Campa terms.
The Bajo Urubamba area has been intensively integrated into the world commodity

system since the expansion of the rubber industry into the upper Ucayali region in

about 1880, and all native people are engaged in one way or another in commodity

production and exchange. During the period offieldwork, lumbering was the dominant
form of commodity production in the area, although there was a small cash crop sector.
The present article will not address the issues of wage labour nor of the circulation of

money in the local economy. With the exception of alcohol, virtually no food items
are purchased with money, nor can subsistence products easily be converted into cash.

Further, the entire logic of the local system of habilitacion, a system of boss/worker
relations based on extended indebtedness, is predicated on the insulation of the

subsistence sector from the commodity sector. The local bosses, patrones, depend on
being able to find their labourers when production is possible (i.e. when credit is
available to them), but make no attempt to prevent them achieving subsistence security.
The first question for the present analysis must be: what constitutes food for the

native people of the Bajo Urubamba? All varieties of food available to native people
are organised around a central combination of two types of good. This is la comida,
the meal, and refers to a combination of a type of game (forest animal meat or fish)
and boiled or roasted plantains. When people say 'Ya he comido', 'I have already eaten',

they invariably mean that they have eaten a meal of this type. While plantains can be
replaced by manioc and each type of game by every other, there is no other possible

combination. Even beans and rice, a popular Amazonian meal, does not rate as comida
legitima, a real meal. While many other items are eaten; such as fruit, peanuts, maize,
fungi and a variety of insect larvae, these never enter the meal except as adjuncts.

Normally they are eaten as snacks.

People on the Bajo Urubamba consider drinking plain water (agua cruda, 'raw water')
to be dangerous. Before being drunk water must be transformed. One transformation
is to mix it with boiled and mashed ripe plantains to create chapo. Far more popular

however is masato, fermented manioc beer. This beer is made by boiling and pounding

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up manioc and mixing it with masticated red sweet potato. The resulting mass is left
to ferment for two or three days. To be drunk, water is poured on the mass, mixed
in and then extracted through a sieve. This produces a slightly pinkish liquid that varies
from the initial sweet stages to the very strong and bitter last stages. Native people

prefer this strong form. When available, manioc beer ends every meal.

This culinary system is locked into a circuit of production, circulation and consumption. I will show how the meal is locked into this circuit, beginning with

production. Vegetable crops are grown in gardens cleared in the forest. The initial
clearing of the garden is collective in the form of the minga or work-party. The man
to whom the garden will belong invites all the other men of the community to help.
On one level, this labour is paid for with food and especially manioc beer provided
by the host, but it will also be reciprocated as labour since the host will attend the

mingas of all his guests. Further, native people say that they have some right to the
crops grown in the gardens which they have helped to make: at least, they cannot be
lightly denied if they should ask for part of the crop. The work of planting, weeding
and harvesting the garden is done by the married couple who own the garden, with

help from their children and close kin if they need it. The work of harvesting plantains
and manioc for cooking is primarily women's work and must be done every two to
three days. Harvesting manioc for manioc beer is also women's work and is more

arduous given that more is harvested at any 9ne time than is the case for cooking.
While men may help in the harvesting and transport of plantains and manioc, they
will not cook either and most certainly will not make manioc beer.
The production of game is primarily men's work. It is an almost daily affair and
seldom involves an absence from the community of more than a few hours. The major
problem both in hunting and in fishing is finding the prey rather than killing it. The
easiest prey to find are fish trapped in pools in the forest by the falling water level,
which are killed by poisoning the pool with a variety of vegetable piscicides, while
the most difficult are very large catfish feeding in the deep river pools, taken with

harpoons. Hunting forest animals follows a similar progression: the easiest prey to
locate are those small birds, rodents and monkeys which feed in and around old gardens,
while the hardest to hunt are tapir and spider monkey which are extremely wary of

people and live far from inhabited areas. Central to hunting and fishing as forms of
production, and to native people's models of these activities, is skill in locating the

prey.3 The ease with which game can be located determines the extent to which
women and children participate in production. Fish-poisoning expeditions are open

to all, as is hook-and-line capture-of smaller fish. Women do not participate in other

forms of fishing except to steer the canoe while a man fishes with a cast-net. Women
will accompany hunting men to carry and reload the guns and will occasionally hunt
themselves, but this is only when there are no able men about.

The sexual division of labour in production is most intense in such strongly gender-identified tasks as manioc beer production and the clearing of forest for gardens,

but it is present in varying degrees throughout food production. However, when the
circulation of food products is analysed, the gender-identification of foods begins a

subtle change. While native people consider that anything that a person produces

belongs to him- or herself, this is not separable from the proper destination of that
product as it is circulated. This destination is determined by the nature of the product
and by the status of the producer in relation to others, which I will now discuss.

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Plantains and manioc are almost never given away in raw form. Someone who

needs these staples may request them of a co-resident and will be told to harvest the
standing crop in the garden. The presumption is that such requests will seldom be
necessary since the structure of labour-sharing in garden production means that all
married people in the community have gardens. Cooked plantains and manioc are
only ever given away as part of meals, eaten in the donor's house. Manioc beer is given

away, but only when it is served to guests in the house or during festivals. The fermented
mass is never given to anyone. Manioc beer is the first thing offered to visitors and if

a woman has none she will apologise, for it is a serious insult not to offer beer if it is

available. Manioc beer is essential to all parties,fiestas, whether given by an individual

or by the community. The fiesta is judged by the quantity of beer provided and any
hint that the hosts are holding back any for their own consumption is a common cause

of complaint. At most fiestas meals are also provided, but only once.
Partly because the supply of game fluctuates so greatly, it is a source of intense
interest to native people. The only time when native people are casual about game is

when it is abundant: in one case, when huge quantities of fish were being caught by
a man cast-netting the migrating shoals of bottom-feeders which ascend the river each
dry season, his mother shouted across the village in a high whooping voice
Quick, sister-in-law, come runmng with your basket. Such quantities of fish like you never saw!

This is in stark contrast to the rainy season when the fish are spread out in the vastness

of the flooded river and forest; then men hide their small catches in their nets and tell
inquirers 'There are no fish, just nothing'. Such careful concealment of game is not

simply a sign of meanness, since the game is often give to those from whom it has
been so assiduously hidden. It is an attempt to control who receives game, for game

will be given to whoever actually sees it. A good catch, sufficient to feed everyone, is

openly and dramatically carried through the village.

Presents of game should be given to anyone who is hungry, i.e. everyone. The
most important convention is that the game a man produces should be given to his

wife. If the catch is easily divisible, as with a quantity of small fish, he may give some
to his close female kin on the way back to his house, but she will receive the bulk of
the catch. The woman will clean the game and send presents of varying sizes to women

she names. Such presents are often carried by children and may be directly reciprocated
by the receiver. The presents flow in the names of women, even when carried by a
child or by the man who produced it: the name used is usually a kin term and the
game is presented with statements like 'Your aunt sent you this fish'. Men do not send
game to each other, for the assumption is that all men can obtain game every day and
a man's failure to produce game is a reflection of his laziness or lack of skill. Men will
often eat the meals served by their wives without enquiring who caught the game.

This has the curious but highly significant result that while women do not actually
produce much game many meals eaten by a married couple originate in the circulation
of game among women rather than the direct production of game by the man.
The cycles of productive labour in food production have their end-point in the
consumption of meals composed of game and plantains and of manioc beer. This

productive labour is gender-identified, in strong or weak forms. But at the level of

circulation the gender-identity of a product is transformed. The relations in which
these transformations occur and in which food items circulate cannot be understood

simply in gender terms, but require an analysis of marriage and kinship.

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Relations of demand and respect

The nature of marriage in the native communities of the Bajo Urubamba is inseparable

from the nature of food production. The house in which the couple lives and the
garden on which they depend for vegetable staples are made only in the context of
marriage: they are things a man must make for his wife. There is no other relationship

in which either house-building or garden-making takes place. Unmarried men do not

build houses or clear gardens for themselves. One old man put it as follows:
When a man wants a wife, he builds a house and clears a garden to show that he is hardworking.

Admittedly, this is not strictly true, for most newly married men do neither for several

years. Further, this prescription obscures a crucial aspect of the marital relationship.
An unmarried man could only build a house or clear a garden alone: without a wife
to make manioc beer, he could not hold a collective work party and thus no-one
would help him. No other woman would make beer for him. Similarly, while young
unmarried women may help their mothers in cooking, garden work or in manioc beer
preparation, they never own houses or gardens themselves for they have no husbands
to make these for them.

Only married people control the crucial resources which make production possible
and they do so through marriage itself But, equally, all adults should be married. There
is no place in production for unmarried adults. Unmarried adults are under no obligation
to do much work in the houses of their parents or other kin and often do very little,
but they are expected and constantly urged to marry. This is a fact of crucial importance
in understanding the economy of food production in these communities. The unmarned adult does not produce, or produces very little and sporadically, because he or

she has no-one for whom to produce. The unmarried are fed because they are kin to
others who are producing, but these providers cannot demand any return, for demand
is prohibited in relations between adult kin. The unmarried consume because they
have kin, but do not produce because they have- no spouses. The food they eat is
produced because their kin are married and thus working for each other. Unlike kin,
spouses can and do make demands on each other.
There is a fundamental split in the social universe around this relationship of demand.

This is indicated in the term respetar (Piro: gishinika), 'to respect'. Relationships of
respect are characterised by prohibition on all joking about the one respected and by
an absence of explicit demand. The most that is permitted is a polite request, often in
the high-pitched register denoting respect. The most intensely respectful relationship
is that between a woman and her son-in-law, which is characterised by a complete
prohibition on all but essential conversation, which is carried on in an extremely high
and soft tone. Other relations of respect, of decreasing degrees of intensity, are those
between a man and his son-in-law, a woman and her parents-in-law, between parents

and adult children, between siblings, between parents' siblings and siblings' children,
and to a lesser degree still between more distant kin such as cousins or grandparents
and grandchildren. The relationship between spouses is not characterised by respect:

spouses joke about each other and demand things from each other openly.

The place of sexuality

The relationship between respect and demand is found in the field of food production,

but is most strongly marked in the area of sexuality. People whom one respects are

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people with whom sexual relations are prohibited. Since most joking is of a sexual
nature, joking about a respected person is also prohibited. Relations of demand between

adults are inevitably sexual relations. The relations between spouses are constituted by

the reciprocal satisfaction of two types of demands. On the one hand there are demands
for sexual satisfaction and on the other demands for food. Men demand of their wives

that they harvest plantains and manioc, that they cook, that they make manioc beer
and that they satisfy their sexual desire. Women demand of men that they clear gardens,
hunt and fish and satisfy their sexual desire. Failure on the part of one partner to satisfy

the demands of the other leads to retaliation. Men who do not hunt or fish for some

days are frequently faced with a wife who refuses to cook. She will eat with her kin
and provide nothing for him. Similarly, a man will not hunt or fish for a wife who is
negligent in cooking. Serious negligence leads to abandonment, which is tantamount
to divorce in this society. So common is abandonment/divorce in this area that the

local Doninican missionaries refuse to celebrate marriages on the grounds that native

people have insufficient respect for this sacrament. Admittedly, they are seldom asked
to do so.

The character of the relations between demand and sexuality on one hand and
respect on the other is seen more clearly in the case of siblings-in-law. Conventionally,

these relations are characterised by extreme lack of respect, since siblings-in-law are

expected to joke about each other at all times. This joking, among men especially,
takes the form of the attribution of homosexuality to the other. One day, as I was
sitting talking to a man and his sister's husband, he leant forward and said in a serious
voice, pointing at his brother-in-law:
I am a big man, a chief, for I have two wives. I have one over there in my house and I have this one

Siblings-in-law of the opposite sex are expected to engage in simnilar bantering: one
woman paid a visit to her sick brother-in-law and whiled away the time debating the

effects of his serious illness on his sexual potency, saying 'De repente ya se ha podrido tu
pico', 'Perhaps your penis has rotted'.
The relation of opposition between sexuality and respect functions to divide the
world into one of a range of potential sexual partners who can be spouses and a set of
people forbidden as spouses. But this sexual prohibition establishes another relationship
which refers directly to food. The Piro term kshinikanu, which can be translated into
Spanish as respetuoso, 'respectful', also carries the meanings 'one who loves, thinks
about, remembers another'. It is in relations of respect that food, especially game,

circulates. The production of game and its initial movement from the producer to his

spouse occurs in a relationship of demand. But beyond this, it is circulated in the

relations of caring which exist between those who respect each other. The expression
'he/she loves me a lot, and always remembers me and manages to give me something'

is frequently heard of game distribution. Thus there is a close connexion between two
modes of circulating food products and two modes of relationship: sexuality and
circulation through demand on one hand and respect and circulation through caring/memory on the other.
The circulation through memory and respect is established because incest is pro-

hibited, but, equally, the circulation through demand and sexuality is established
through heterosexuality. This is an extremely important point, although one often
ignored in anthropology (cf. Rubin 1975). It is a point one cannot ignore on the Bajo

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Urubanmba because if people are silent about incest, which is almost never discussed,

they have a great deal to say about homosexuality. As I noted above, homo-erotic
joking is the order of the day between brothers-in-law. But it is homo-eroticism of

an interesting kind, for what people find funny is not the idea of choosing a partner
of the same sex but the choice of organ. The receptive male homosexual, the maricon,

is treated with ridicule because 'le han hecho como mujer', 'they have screwed him like
a woman'. That this is not simply misogyny is attested by the ridicule which attaches

to the penetrating lesbian, the tacachera (from tachachear, 'to pound plantains in an
upright mortar'). Both are ridiculed for their false relations to their genitals: one treats
the anus as a male vagina, while the other pretends to have a penis. Their respective

partners are not ridiculed at all, for they preserve a true relationship to their genitals.
The connexion between sexuality and food production and circulation can clearly

be seen in these cases of gender identity associated with sexual deviation. The maricon
may be a sexual partner to a man, but he can never be a wife, nor can the tacachera be
a husband. In local popular belief, all are forced either to conform to the sexual and
productive stereotypes or to leave the subsistence economy. Maricones leave for the

towns and cities of Amazonia, where they become prostitutes and homosexual cooks
and waiters, while the only active tacachera I knew was unique in running a successful

shop in her community and in actually buying game for money from her neighbours.

Oral and sexual desire

Having shown that there are systematic connexions between sexual desire and the
construction of the person as a producer in the subsistence economy of this society, it
is now possible to link this system to the other side of the obsession of these people
with food and sex. This is the field of oral desire. By oral desire I mean the desire for

particular foods, not simply as satisfiers of hunger but as sources of pleasure. Through

an analysis of the connexions between sexual and oral desire, particularly in the
metaphoric relations between food items and sexual substances, I will show how this
relationship lies at the core of the subsistence economy.

In terms of oral desire, plantains are not highly marked; people may have preferences
for one variety over another, but seldom remark on the variety being served in a meal.
In the absence of game, plantains may be eaten alone, but only to enganiar al estomago,

'to trick the stomach' (satisfy immediate hunger pangs). But if plantains are not highly
marked as a source of oral pleasure, they are essential in two ways. First, game cannot
be eaten in their absence since this would cause sickness. Secondly, as I noted above,
they are what people really eat; one man expressed his consternation at the well-being
of the mission schoolteachers, who eat neither manioc nor plantains.
Game, by contrast, does satisfy hunger. Indeed, it is with reference to game that

people generally mention hunger. Times when game is scarce, such as the height of
the rainy season, are referred to as cuando casi murrimos de hambre, 'when we almost died
of hunger'. This is a characteristic but significant exaggeration, for death by starvation
is unknown to local people. What such statements refer to is a world lacking in oral

pleasure, as day follows day eating only plantains and beans. The hunger for game is
a hunger for oral pleasure and every meal is accompanied by comments on the relative
merits of the food being eaten. These include the species of game, from the extremely
desirable such as spider monkey and macaw to the slightly nauseating such as anteater

and alligator. Each individual caught is further evaluated in terms of age, smell, colour

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and especially its fatness. Further, each person has his or her own particular preferences
for game species and often personal prohibitions on eating certain animals. The desire
expressed for game is intense, as it is for particular species. People not infrequently

make statements of the order 'I would give my life to eat collared peccary', or 'To
my mother, eating capybara is like a festival, for then she is happy'.
The link between sexual and oral desire can first be explored by noting that both

plantains and game are metaphoric of the male genitals. The term mitayo means game,
but it is also a metaphor for the penis. This is part of a sustained series of metaphors

which link game production to male sexuality. For example, animals are said to 'want'
the hunter, just as women are attracted to him, and so make themselves available to

be killed. Indeed, all the forms of hunting magic, such as herbal baths and tree frog
poison, are said to be equally as effective in attracting women as in attracting game.

This is seen as a liability of these forms of magic, for they attract all women. Proper
love magic, pushanga, attracts only the desired partner herself (or himself, for love magic
is also used by women).

Platano, 'plantain', is also a metaphor for the penis, which is easily enough understood.
But the only food metaphor used for the vagina is huayo, 'fruit'. Why should both

forms of real food be metaphoric of the penis, while a food which is peripheral to the
culinary system is metaphoric of the vagina? I think the reason is that these metaphors
are not structured simply by direct reference to the objects themselves, whether foods

or genital organs, but at the level of desire. The use of foods as metaphors for the
genitals occurs only injoking, for native people have standard, non-euphemistic, names

for the genitalia. The use of the food metaphors injoking, I would agree, continuously
draws attention to the metaphoric relationship between oral and sexual desire, rather
than that between food items and genitals as objects.

The scarcity and desirability of game for all people is analogous to the scarcity and
desirability of women for men. For men on the Bajo Urubamba, as for the Sharanahua

men described by Siskind, women are scarce. This is less a demographic fact than a
statement about a certain economy of sexuality. Women are scarce not because there
are fewer of them than of men, nor because men are polygynous, but because they
control who their sexual partners are. The scarce women are young women, those
from around puberty to their early twenties. Such women are the focus of the intense

sexual interest of all men who are not their kin. They can afford to pick and choose
whom they will sleep with and it is they, not young men, who are most critical of
their sexual partners. They can afford this selectivity because they know that their kin
will defend them from any unwelcome advance. By contrast, young men receive no
support from their kin in trying to secure sexual partners and must rely on their own

resources. Indeed, a major motivation for young men's entry into wage labour in
lumbering is their need to generate cash to supply their lovers with store-bought
presents. But where young men do receive support, and young girls do not, is in the

issue of marriage. The parents of a young woman ally themselves with one of her

lovers and oblige them to marry and work for each other. While I never heard of a
young girl being forced to marry a man who was not also her lover, there were many
cases in which the girl refused to get married at all. The difference lies not in the sexual
relationship of the man and woman, but in their productive relationships. As a lover,
a woman receives presents from the man in return for sexual access she herselfinitiated.

As a wife, a woman must work for her husband and satisfy his desire for food.4

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It is at this level that the analogies between genitalia and food are operative. Women
never suffer from a dearth of male sexuality, but they can make fine discriminations
between the respective values of different men. Thus, for women, male genitalia are

simultaneously super-abundant, like plantains, and also open to infinite variety in

desirability, like game. For men, women are scarce, like the fruits which appear
seasonally and are frequently stolen by other people. Further, such metaphors are jokes:
they elicit laughter when they are used. Siskind argues that it is because game and
women circulate against each other in these economies that such metaphoric equations
are possible. In contrast, I would argue that no such exchange takes place. These
metaphoric equations are humorous reflections on the nature of desire, not economic
balance sheets.

Manioc beer

This point will become clearer if we consider the other major term in the culinary
system, manioc beer. Technically, the process of making manioc beer transforms

low-value food (both manioc and sweet potato) into something which is highly valued.
People on the Bajo Urubamba have a strong desire for manioc beer: a mild state of
drunkenness is considered good in itself But this drunkenness is only good if shared

with others, in drinking parties or during collective work parties. It makes people both

more lively and more willing to work. But there are contradictions between drinking
manioc beer and other areas of life. The consumption of manioc beer precludes game

production: men will neither hunt nor fish when they are drunk. Conversely, if men
are seriously intent on hunting, they will sneak out of the village to avoid invitations

to drink manioc beer. Male consumption of manioc beer is a source of serious marital
tension. Husbands and wives often drink manioc beer separately and frequently the

wife wil not see her husband for days. Because men do not hunt or fish while they
are drunk their wives and children go hungry. Women frequently say of their husbands
'That one is just a drunk. He goes off looking for manioc beer instead of looking for

food for us'. There is a surprising contradiction here, for the thing which takes men
away from their wives is a female product. But it is a female product which circulates
among men in the names of men: men invite other men to drink their wives' beer.

There is a crucial point here. The circulation of manioc beer, a female product, sets

up two forms of sociality. One is the collective work party for garden-clearing and
house-building, and the other is the drinking party. Both are essential for marriage:

the first in the set of exchanges which constitute marriage and the second in bringing
together young men and women as lovers. Yet the circulation of manioc beer is in

contradiction with the circulation of game. The gifts of game that a man gives to his

wife are central to the relationship between them, just as the gifts of male-produced
game between women are central to the relations of respect and caring which sustain

kin ties. Given its importance within these relationships, does manioc beer operate as

a metaphor, like game, plantains and fruit?

Masato, 'manioc beer', is not, to my knowledge, used as a metaphor of any sexual

or corporeal substance.5 However, the actual process of making manioc beer, and
various ritual usages, suggests that this substance is a sustained analogy to the process
of the conception and birth of a child. The pounding of the large mass of white boiled
manioc and the constant addition of chewed red sweet potato as it is spat into the mass

is similar to native people's accounts of copulation, in which white semen and red

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blood mix to form the foetus. The pounding of the mass in an aluminium pot causes

the pot to swell out and is said to make the pot 'pregnant' (barrigona). The fermenting

mass is stored in a painted ceramic pot which is explicitly likened to a female body.
Further, the last dregs of manioc beer, thin and strong smelling, are likened to ishpa,
'urine', but especially the amniotic fluid released at birth.

When the last dregs of manioc beer have been drunk, the remaining mass of fibres
is thrown away to be eaten by domestic animals. When a child is born, it is of course
kept. However, the analogy between manioc beer and child is maintained in the rituals

of birth: immediately after the child is born, the father of the child is expected to tomar
la ishpa, 'drink the amniotic fluid'. He actually consumes aguardiente, cane alcohol,
which is treated by native people as a highly refined version of manioc beer.6

The analogy goes deeper still, for just as manioc beer disrupts the flows of game

from husband to wife, a newborn child disrupts the marital relations of its parents.
This disruption takes the form of the couvade prohibitions, which have been much

discussed for Amazonian societies.7 In the case of the Bajo Urubamba, a crucial point
about these prohibitions is that they prohibit most of the physical behaviour which
refers to marriage. Thus a man cannot hunt, fish or clear gardens, while the woman
cannot cook, wash clothes or make manioc beer. Nor can either partner engage in

sexual intercourse, with each other or anyone else. Performing these prohibited actions
causes the activity to rebound on the child. The object of the action (the animal killed,
the tree felled, the clothes washed) will communicate its essence to the child. Thus

jaguars cause the child to cry constantly through the night, for jaguars have powerful
nocturnal vision. The clothes cause the child to writhe in pain, just as they are wrung
in washing. Sexual intercourse causes coughing, as the man's semen lodges in the

child's throat. Food eaten turns the child into that food, while sexual activity turns
sexual fluids into the child's food.

Around the birth of a child, food and sex cease to be metaphorically related and
transform one into the other in the body of the child. Gender-identified food products

threaten to transform the child into a game species or a forest plant, while sexual

intercourse threatens to lodge semen in the child's throat. Childbirth thus effects a
transformation in the relations between sexual and oral desire, notable also in the

father's drinking of the 'amniotic fluid'. This is because the production of children in
this society is about the transformation of flows from one sphere into another. It is as
the parents of children that a newly married couple become full adult producers, with
their own house and garden. Equally, it is through these children that the demand
relations between members of one generation become relations of respect across
generations: the demand relations between spouses and the joking relations between
siblings-in-law are transformed into uniform relations of respect and caring between
ascendent and descendent kin.

It is this which establishes the analogy of the child and manioc beer. Both are the

summation of all the flows in their respective domains of sexuality and food production,
but both crucially affect the relations within those domains. Without manioc beer,

there would be no parties where young men and women meet, get drunk and initiate

the sexual relations which lead to marriage. Equally, without manioc beer, there would
be no work parties and hence no houses or gardens, no plantains to make a meal and

no house to eat in. But the cycle of conviviality and work surrounding manioc beer
leads to the temporary cessation of game production, which is central to marriage and

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the relations between spouses. Similarly, without children there would be no young
men or women, no kin or affines, nobody to get married and to produce. But the
production of children temporarily stops the satisfaction of oral and sexual desire.
Manioc beer and children are thus both crucial to the subsistence economy by effecting
the transformations between flows. The analogy between manioc beer and children

is not established at the level of joking, but at the level of production and of ritual

Hhat children do in the subsistence economy

Unlike manioc beer, children are not objects of desire, they are subjects of desire.
Where then do they stand in this subsistence economy of desires? Sub-adolescent
children are not gender-identified producers. Their parents seldom address them except
to demand that they do something. The tasks they are assigned are invariably simply
an adjunct to adult activity: steering the canoe while a man fishes, fetching water for

cooking, washing dishes, peeling plantains, and especially the endless task of looking
after younger siblings. The labour of these children does not circulate in their names
for they are treated as extensions of their parents in terms of production. Further, they
depend entirely on their parents for food: even older boys, who are encouraged to
hunt and fish, depend on their parents for plantains.

Not only are children not gender-identified producers, they are not sexual subjects.
It is only when the child enters adolescence that the parents cease to order him or her

around and stop joking at the child's expense. Simnilarly, the derogatory nicknames
which parents or other kin give children in infancy are dropped when they reach
adolescence, only to be replaced later with nicknames given by siblings-in-law. This

is because adolescents have begun to acquire 'blood', identified here with sexual odour,
and they must cease to sleep with their parents or siblings and should sleep alone. This
is the prelude to active sexuality, the search for women by young men and the reception

of lovers by young women. Pre-adolescent children, lacking sexuality, sleep with their
parents, are laughed at and ordered around. This reveals that the reciprocal nature of
relations of demand, of joking or of respect is exclusive to relations between adults,

while relations between adults and children are asymmetrical.

Lacking as they are in sexual desire, it is the oral desire of young children that is of

most concern to their parents. Both men and women find the sound of their children
crying from hunger extremely disturbing. Men would often say that they had gone
fishing even when they held out little prospect of success because 'it hurts me to hear
my children crying from hunger'. Children cannot control their hunger pangs and can

only be satisfied with food. But there is another form of oral desire shown by children,
which does not hurt their parents so much as infuriate them.

When I first heard people on the Bajo Urubamba say that children eat earth, I was
not greatly surprised. It seemed to me entirely possible that they did so in order to

alleviate the symptoms of their parasitic infestations or to gain certain minerals deficient

in their diets. One day, as I talked to the old man whose house I lived in, the subject

cropped up and I mentioned that I had dim memories of eating earth myself, by way
of youthful interest in taste and texture. He looked at me in horror and slowly stated
'For all that I am now an old man, never once in my life have I eaten earth'. Somewhat

startled, and now more wary in my questioning, I began to investigate earth-eating

more carefully. Children who eat earth are called viciosos, literally 'vicious ones', but

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perhaps better translated as 'perverts'. When I suggested to people that possibly the
children did this because of intestinal worms, they looked incredulous and suggested

I had the causal link the wrong way around. The discovery that a child is perverse
causes immense fear and alarm. One woman forced dog excrement into her son's

mouth in an exasperated effort to cure him of this habit. More orthodox is a drink of
the plant pirosanango, which causes violent and prolonged vomiting. Perversion of this

kind is alarming because the earth collects in the child's stomach, leading to a general
swelling of the body and then to death. From an adult perspective, it is a form of
suicide. One woman shouted loudly at a boy believed to eat earth 'Why do you do
this? Do you want to die? Do you want to go to the cemetery and cry on your own
all night long?'

Why children on the Bajo Urubamba should eat earth, and indeed whether or not
they actually do, is hard to say. It possibly represents a sort of bizarre initiative on the

part of the, child. Children are at a serious disadvantage in this subsistence economy.

Unlike adults, they are not independent producers and so depend on their parents for
the satisfaction of their oral desire. But because they cannot demand anything from
their parents, they can only cry when they are hungry. Given these circumstances, it

does not seem totally improbable that children will seek to satisfy intense hunger by
their own labour and eat the only substance close-to-hand in any quantity: earth.

However that might be from the child's perspective, this is not how parents see it.
From an adult perspective, the child's hunger for real food is legitimate. The satisfaction
of this hunger evokes love in the child and thereby generates the respect which is
kinship. This real food is produced in relations of demand between adult men and
women related as sexual partners. Given to the child, it makes the child's body strong
and full of blood. It is this blood which will eventually allow the child to have sexual
relationships, work hard and create more kinspeople. Of viciosos, it is said no tienen
sangre, 'they have no blood'. Blood, as the emblem of kin ties and as the source of

physical strength and sexual prowess, defines the body of the healthy, actively productive adult. In its lonely consumption of a non-food, the perverse child destroys that
within itself which has the potential to turn it into a healthy adult with relationships
with others. Thus from an adult perspective, the eating of earth is a sort of attack by
the child on the future of the subsistence economy. Earth is produced by labour which
is not gender-identified, in a relationship which is not one of demand and is consumed

directly by the producers. Earth, the supreme antithesis of real food, is produced and

consumed in a perverse caricature of the subsistence economy.

On the Bajo Urubamba, it is children who make the whole subsistence economy
function, but only because they are the passive recipients of the products of adult
labour and are not sexually active. What seemed to me an innocuous activity on the
part of certain children, the eating of earth, is experienced by adults as a threat to the
entire subsistence economy. Perverse children, in the eyes of adults, are moving outside

the subsistence economy which gives life to people, and by destroying themselves
threaten to destroy that economy as well. For this, and out of parental love, their

parents force them to vormit out the earth inside them. The subsistence economy of
the native people of the Bajo Urubamba works because only certain forms of sexual
and oral desire are legitimate, and the desire to eat earth is not one of them.

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In summary, in this article I have argued that in the subsistence economy of the native

people of the Bajo Urubamba a certain limited number and classes of foods are linked
to a certain system of social relations. I have not argued that the system of foods reflects

the system of social relations, nor that the processes ofproducing these foods determines
the system of social relations. Instead, I have argued that each particular person is
attributed with a particular gender identity, both as a producer of specific foods and

as a sexual subject, and is provided with the route by which to satisfy both sexual and
oral desires through relations with other people. Relations of marriage between men

and women, based on mutual demand for food and sexual gratification, are the central
productive relations, but they are both created from and create in turn relations of

caring between kin. In this subsistence economy, people are made dependent on each
other because they cannot possess, as individuals, the totality of productive, sexual and

consumptive positions. Adults are sexual subjects, but children are not; men produce
some foods, women produce other foods; sexual desires can be satisfied by some people,
but not by others; the satisfaction of oral desires can be demanded from spouses, but
only awaited from kin. Sex and food are thus linked together in a dense network of
relations of mutual desire, and thus constitute a fertile field for both serious and
humorous metaphoric expansion.

The concern of Native Amazonian peoples with food and sex can thus be seen as

part of a larger system in which corporeal processes are part of general social concern.
As I noted in the introduction, such a proposition has received attention from many
ethnographers of Native Amazonian societies. However, such analyses leave opaque

why corporeal idioms should be so important to Native Amazonian societies, rather

than any other idioms. I would argue, from the data presented here, t1hat the power
of corporeal idioms in such societies derives from the importance of the sexual,
productive and consuming body and its pleasures in the structuring of the subsistence

This point can be related to Collier and Rosaldo's analyses of'brideservice societies'

(1981), a category which includes Native Amazonian societies, and to the discussion
of this work by Strathern (1985). As Strathern points out, in such societies 'items do
not come to stand for labour and do not come to stand for persons' (1985: 197). I

would suggest, at least for Native Amazonian societies, that the body and its desires
lies at the heart of the economy, serving as a point of attachment for social concerns.

These economies do not operate around the formulation of particular subjects as

proprietors of particular goods and by extension the exchanges founded upon such

proprietorship, nor around the gift exchange idioms of 'bridewealth societies', but
rather they function through the relations established between people by means of
their different bodies and corporeal desires. The idiom is not proprietorial since people
are not seen as subjects who possess their bodies or labour power. The idioms are
rather those of corporeal identity and integrity and how these are produced or destroyed

through social relations. Concern with the body in shamanic curing and sorcery, in
what is eaten and what is not, in the endless series of prohibitions of sexual and other
activities, in the imagery of kinship and affinity and in the ritual construction ofidentity,

so frequently discussed in the ethnographic literature, can thus be seen as intimately

linked to the particular economies of Native Amazonian peoples.
Living in a Native Amazonian community and hearing the endless talk of food and

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sex, it is easy to imagine that one is listening to expressions of simple biological need.
But this is a distinctively Western formulation where bodily function lies outside
Society in the realm of Nature and Necessity. In Native Amazonian cultures the body
and its desires are of immediate social significance and the satisfaction of corporeal
desire is simultaneously the creation ofsocial relations. Where Westem people benignly
view a child's eating of earth as a naive exploration of the pleasures and pitfalls of an
unfamiliar world, the native people of the Bajo Urubamba see something much more

sinister. In their eyes, the perverse child's horrifying project is to build a world in
which its desires matter only to itself.


The present article is based on fieldwork on the Bajo Urubamba river in Peru between 1980 and
1982. This research was funded by the Social Science Research Council of Great Britain and by the

Central Research Fund of the University of London. Additional information was collected dunrng brief
return visits to the Bajo Urubamba in 1984 and 1987. 1 should like to thankJoanna Overing, Peter Gose,

Maria Phylactou, Cecilia McCallum, Andrew Jones and Chnrstina Toren for their help and comments on
earlier versions.

The present article uses the terrn 'subsistence economy' with the meaning that it has recendy come
to acquire in the literature on the Canadian and Alaskan Arctic and Subarctic. As Fienup-Riordhan has
pointed out in her study of the Nelson Island Eskimo of Alaska (1984), the subsistence economy is not

about the satisfaction of 'basic human needs' but about the creation of culturally specific social relations
through the production, circulation and consumption of culturaly specific items from the environment.

The present article focuses on only one part of the subsistence economy, the circulation of labour and
goods between people, and largely ignores the wider context of circulations between land and people.

2 A rather simlilar argument is put forward by Kaj Arhem in his study of the Makuna of the Northwest
Amazon (1981). Arhem argues that the metaphoric relation set up between food and sex encodes the
relationship between the Makuna and their ecosystem. He argues that protein in the form of game

animals is the critical limiting factor in their ecosystem, just as women are the critical limiting factor in
their social reproduction (1981: 196-206).

3 It is significant that the game animals are located in terms of what is known about their feeding and
sexual behaviour. Good hunters and fishermen know when and where a particular species is likely to be

feeding and also, in some cases, how to attract the game by imitating their vocalisations. People explicitly
state that these calls are sexually attractive to the particular game species.

4 This point supports Collier and Rosaldo's claim (1981) that marriage in bnrde-service societies offers
little advantage to women, but a great deal to men, but I feel that they have failed to distinguish between
early mamrages, which are a transition to adulthood, and fully adult status. Unless they are very old and
expecting to die soon, widowed or abandoned women on the Urubamba do everything possible to find
a new husband and are far less crintical of the available stock than their adolescent counterparts. This has a

great deal to do with providing for their children, which I discuss in a later section of this article.

5Manoc beer is occasionally jokingly caUed leche de la madre, 'mother's milk', but the reverse metaphor is never used. The only standard metaphoric use of 'manioc beer' occurs in shamanism: the commonest euphemism used by shamans for the curing hallucinogens is mi maatito, 'my little manioc beer'.

6 Similarly, during the traditional Piro girl's initiation ceremony, as the people drink the strongly
fermented dregs of the beer, the girl is changed out of her initiation skirt into a adult woman's skirt.
Skirts are called mkalnamchi, 'mouth clothing', and are metaphoric of women's genitals. As the skirt is
changed, the guests sing:
Konchoga, konchoga numeta
Manioc beer of the dregs makes me drunk.

7 Cf Riviere 1974; Butt Colson 1974; Menget 1979.

8 There are adult viciosos. Signiificantly, they tend to be older men who have lost their wives or young

newly married women whose husbands are absent in lumbenrng: both have lost their sexual and productive Partner and are fully dependent on kin. Such perverse adults do not, I was told, eat earth, but rather

cigarette ash, matches, aspinrn and camphor, which are goods which circulate in the economy of money.

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L'enfant pervers: le desir dans une economie de subsistance Amazonienne


Partant de l'importance des discussions sur la nourriture et le sexe dans la vie quotidienne des populations
Amazoniennes Indigenes, l'article analyse la place du desir sexuel et le desir de nourriture dans l'economie
de subsistance de la population indigene de la riviere Bago Urubamba au Perou. II decrit la production,
la circulation, la consommation de la nourriture et explore le lien entre ce systeme et la construction des
categories sexuelles, les identites sexuelles et les relations de mariage, d'affinite et de parente. A travers
une analyse de l'utilisation d'articles de nourriture comme metaphores de plaisanterie des organes genitaux

males et femelles, il est argumente que la sexualite et la nourriture sont rendus analogues au niveau du
desir. En dernier lieu, l'analyse de ce desir oral qui est interdit chez les enfants, mene a la conclusion,
que c'est la construction de personnes comme sujets de desirs particuliers oraux et sexuels qui structure
les economies de subsistance Amazoniennes.

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