Some Amerindian Representations of the Passage to the Land of the Dead and their Eurasian Roots
No. 2 Forum for Anthropology and Culture
Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (Kunstkamera), Russian Academy of Sciences/European University at St Petersburg
"The New World was peopled at a late date. While there is an abundance of sites dating back to 10,000-11,500 (and even possibly 12,000) BP, reports of earlier finds have invariably turned out to be either manifestly inauthentic, or at the very least unreliable. 10,000-12,000 BP is the Terminal Pleistocene, when in the Far East people had begun manufacturing ceramics, while in the upper reaches of the Euphrates they were erecting stone stelae with images. Among peoples who took part in the initial colonization of the New World were groups that not only possessed different cultures, but also had a varied physical appearance. Craniological and ontological studies carried out in the past decade point to the fact that the first humans to have reached the New World were protomorphic groups resembling less the modern Amerindians, and more the Upper Paleolithic populations of Eastern Asia, and even the modern Melanesian and Australian aborigines. In the Holocene era these populations started to be displaced and supplanted by other, more pronouncedly Mongoloid groups. The racial type does not determine culture, but racial and cultural boundaries often coincide: these were distinct populations with few outside contacts. One can assume that already in the early stages of the peopling of the New World, complexes of folkloric motifs, which the settlers brought with them, also varied to a considerable degree.
"The folkloric traditions of the peoples of the New and the Old World have many mutual parallels. Some motifs common to both traditions could have emerged independently; others could have been brought over to the American continent across the Atlantic in the last five hundred years; many motifs were introduced from Siberia via Alaska at different stages in the colonization of the Americas. Separating these distinct groups of motifs is not simple, but if one uses a substantial amount of ethnographic material and processes this data by modern statistical methods, the task becomes achievable. Once these results are correlated with those reached by other disciplines, one should eventually be able to trace the pattern of colonization of the New World and determine in which parts of Eurasia this resettlement began.
"This article is devoted specifically to representations of the passage to the realm of the dead in the folklore of the peoples of America and Eurasia. Much in these representations is universal and is determined by the factual irreversibility of death and by the obvious differences between living and dead matter. This is what the idea of the dichotomy between our own world and the world (or worlds) of the dead is based upon - a dichotomy that entails representations of mirror-like reversals between the two, of a diametrical opposition between some of their key traits, of parallelisms in the way these worlds are sub-sectioned, and finally, the idea that one needs to go down a certain path in order to pass from one world to the other. Alongside this general idea of the world beyond the grave, there are local and regional idiosyncracies, which are precisely the ones that are the most interesting.
"The format of this paper does not allow detailed discussion of why a historic approach to the study of folklore and mythology is preferred. Le me simply state here that the common flaw of all universalist approaches (structuralist and psychological) is that they cannot explain the profound and systemic differences in the distribution of large sets of folklore motifs across the world. Commentators either ignore the very existence of such global patterns, or are not aware of them in the first place. The functional approach to myth has a sounder basis, but its concern is the interpretation of tales in a given culture, not their content as such.
"Among 1200 motifs whose area of distribution and linguistic links have been examined by me thus far, the majority are independent from economic activity, social organization, and environmental factors. Therefore it is not likely that they emerged recently. The emergence of some other motifs may very well have been favoured by environmental and economic conditions; I have attempted to record any such correlations that seem to be of importance.
"In 1991, Elizabeth Benson published an article in which she surveyed data concerning the role of the dog in representations of the other world among Amerindians. The article was clearly influenced by Roe - the principal proponent of structuralism among the US ethnographers studying the native people of South America. Benson strove to show the general association of the dog with the other world in the ethnography of Amerindians as it was realized in different, yet homologous, forms among different groups. Intentionally or not, Benson demonstrated an uneven regional distribution of such representations. For example, the dog did not appear as a guide to the other world throughout the American continent, but only in the area between Mexico and Peru, while in the east and far south of the South American continent this motif could not be found. This absence cannot be explained by the poverty of ethnographic material in these regions, because we do, in fact, possess detailed descriptions, reconstructed from testimonies of Amazonian shamans, of the realm of the dead and of the path that is meant to lead to it."