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Title: Carving wood and creating shamans : an ethnographic account of visual capacity among the Kuna of Panamá
Authors: Fortis, Paolo
Supervisors: Gow, Peter
Overing, Joanna
Keywords: Kuna indigenous people
Visual art
Amerindian cosmology
Issue Date: 25-Jun-2008
Abstract: This thesis is an ethnographic account of the carving of wooden ritual statues and of the shamanic figure of the seer among the Kuna of the San Blas archipelago of Panamá. Through a study of the production of wooden ritual statues and of the birth and initiation of seers, I show that the distinction between the visible and the invisible, and between designs and images, is a crucial aspect of Kuna ways of thinking and experiencing their world. On one hand, the Kuna theory of design shows the importance of the development of social skills in the creation of person and sociality. On the other hand, the Kuna concept of image points to the relation between human and ancestral beings and to the transformative capacities of both. Through the constant interplay of the two categories, people interact with cosmic forces and create social life. The ethnography explores three aspects of the problem. First, the relationship between the islands inhabited by Kuna people and the mainland forest is described, focusing on the distance and separation of the two domains. The forest is perceived as a space populated by ancestral animal and tree entities, as well as demons and souls of the dead. Second, the carving of the ritual statues and the skill of Kuna carvers are described in relation to human and supernatural fertility. The birth of seers, different from that of other babies, provides evidence of the importance of natal design as the potential skills of each person. Third, relationships between human and supernatural beings are described considering Kuna myth and ritual action, in comparison with other indigenous American societies. This thesis concludes that it is through carving wooden statues and developing the capacity to see, Kuna people seek security in social life and protection from a predatory cosmos.
Type: Thesis
Publisher: University of St Andrews
Appears in Collections:Social Anthropology Theses
Centre for Amerindian, Latin American and Caribbean Studies (CAS) Theses

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