Category Archives: Anthropology

Toby Houlton: Shrunken heads

For the first WP meeting of 2013, Toby Houlton, an Old Chigwellian studying for a doctorate at the University of Dundee, told us about shrunken heads – tsantsa: who produced them, how and why. We learnt about the tribes in Peru and Ecuador where these customs arose, and the religious beliefs behind the custom. Most cultures preserve their own dead and try and erase the memory of their enemies; these SAAWK tribes did the opposite, as they believed that new members of a tribe could only be born if their dead were completely forgotten. Thus they erased all memory of their own ancestors, but preserved the heads of their enemies. They also believed that the enemy’s spirit could come out of his mouth to haunt them, hence the stitching up of this orifice. Toby explained how the heads were shrunk – basically by taking off the skin and chemically hardening it – and made to look stupid by pushing back the nostrils and pulling out the lips. We passed round a pig’s head which Toby, to prove that he understood the method, had shrunk himself.

He then told us about how colonialism had distorted the system: because Europeans were keen to possess tsantsa, the tribes actually went out hunting enemies just to fuel this export market. Europeans also made versions themselves, sometimes to sell as ‘the real thing’. It’s now been banned, so the practice has stopped.

A brilliantly delivered and fascinating account of something everyone has heard about but knows little of.

Picture of shrunken headPicture of shrunken heads worn by tribesmen

Sue Cunningham: Heart of Brazil

Sue and her husband Patrick are photographers who do lots of work for the Indigenous People’s Cultural Support Trust, which seeks to raise awareness of issues affecting tropical forests and their indigenous  inhabitants. Sue is also a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and her photographs have been exhibited at the Brazilian Embassy in London and in lots of other places; she’s also travelled to the Amazon with Sting and Anita Roddick.

Sue and Patrick are also both lovely and engaging people, and excellent communicators of their knowledge of and insights into the lives and traditions of indigenous peoples in Brazil. In particular they spoke about their ‘Heart of Brazil Expedition’ project, which involved travelling the 2,500 kilometres of the Xingu river in a small boat, visiting 48 tribal villages, and recording how the Indians are being affected by climate change and the conversion of rain forest to cattle pasture and agricultural land. They clearly showed us see the impact these changes are having on their traditional way of life and cultures.

Human identity: what are people like in the afterlife? – 2

Ms Rex gave an adapted version of this talk to the IIIrd & IVth-form WP about what the great traditions, from Homer and the Old Testament, through Plato and into Christianity and Dante, have said about what of our selves survives after death. An episode of the Simpsons (“Heaven and Hell”) reinforced the ideas she was discussing.

Human identity – what are people like in the afterlife – 1?

Ms Rex gave a full and fascinating talk to the Rem-UV and VIth-form branches of the WP about what the great traditions, from Homer and the Old Testament, through Plato and into Christianity and Dante, have said about what of our selves survives after death. She went on to discuss the contemporary theological debate between those who argue that the Old Testament presents a completely psychosomatic view of the soul-body (i.e. that the two are really one entity), and those who say that the soul and the body are separate. We went into the Hebrew of the Book of Job to assess these views.

The Meaning of Ruins

Professor Andreas Schönle, from Queen Mary and Westfield College, spoke to the two older branches of the WP about what ruins are, and how their interpretation can teach us about how we view the world. A challenging and high-level presentation.

The students discussed what we mean by ruins, suggesting “the London Wall” (preserved near the Museum of London) and various castles. It was generally agreed that ruins were structures which were falling down or a state of decay. More interestingly we then talked about whether ruins had to be “old” and Prof. Schönle showed us various “modern” examples of ruins from Chicago (an old theatre – now used as a car park, and the old railway station) and London (Bankside and Battersea Power stations and the successful adaption of one of these to become Tate Modern). This opened up a discussion about how we use ruins, as visiting them just to look at them (and, latterly, paying money for doing this) has only relatively recently become popular – from the grand tour onwards.

We then moved on to the Coliseum in Rome and its changes of use over time, and to a “modern” building in East Germany built on the site of an old castle – there was huge debate in Germany about whether to knock down and conserve the castle/rebuild the castle or whether to keep the “modern” building; it was finally decided to rebuild the old castle, but this decision has taken years and it has been discussed at length.

In the final part of the talk Professor Schönle introduced the idea of people’s different views of, and interpretations of, ruins.

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