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Figuring the Body in Ancient Amazonia

Cristiana Barreto, Universidade de Sao Paulo, Summer Fellow 2013

My research explores the theme of body fabrication and representation among precolonial Amazonian cultures. My goal is to document the range of variability in the way bodies are conceived and represented in clay figurines, in order to better characterize the diverse cultural traditions that coexisted in the lower Amazon basin in the centuries before the European conquest. In comparing different models of bodies, I also aimed to gain new insights into the patterns of interaction and exchange among these societies, since figurines are closely related to the public display of their own identities. During the summer at Dumbarton Oaks, I focused on expanding the bibliographic references for this study, reading about the archaeology of figurines in other regions of South America, especially in the neighboring Pre-Columbian Andes and Caribbean. This research helped me to pursue the idea that many traditions of figurines in Formative South America share the intention of displaying the transformational nature of the body, often related to shamanistic practices. Many of these traditions also share an expanded notion of humanity, in which animals, plants, objects, and other supernatural beings can behave as humans in their own worlds.

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