WILLIAM BALÉE is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Tulane University. His main lines of research are historical ecology and ethnobotany, with a focus on South America. Among his numerous publications are: "Resource Management in Amazonia" (coeditor with D.A. Posey, 1989); "Nomenclatural patterns in Ka'apor ethnobotany" (Journal of Ethnobiology, 1989); "Similarity and variation in plant names in five Tupi-Guarani languages (eastern Amazonia)" (coauthor with Denny Moore, Bulletin of the Florida Museum of Natural History and Biological Sciences, 1991); "Footprints of the Forest" (1994).
The Sirionó people of the Llanos de Mojos, Bolivia, speak a Tupi-Guarani language that is more closely related to some Tupi-Guarani languages spoken elsewhere in Bolivia and Paraguay than to those of Eastern Amazonia. Earlier observers mischaracterized the traditional technology of the Sirionó as "hunting-and-gathering" and as one of the most rudimentary in the ethnographically known world. On a continuum of intensity of land and biotic resource use and management, though, Sirionó traditional technology may be most parsimoniously termed trekking. Most Sirionó maintained some domesticated plants and short-term swiddens despite contact and colonialism. These plants included maize, annatto, tobacco, and calabash; the Sirionó names for these are of Tupi-Guarani origin. They also exploited forest trees that elsewhere in lowland South America tend to colonize and dominate on ancient human (agricultural) settlement sites. The forested landscape of the terra firme in the Sirionó habitat may be the result of land accumulation and management by prehistoric moundbuilders unrelated to the Sirionó of today, culturally or linguistically. Yet the names of these forest trees in the Sirionó vocabulary, in a statistically significant proportion, seem to be cognate with terms for the same species in numerous other Tupi-Guarani languages, including several of those of eastern Amazonia, by using a comparative method. This presentation explores that method and the findings obtained from fieldwork with the Sirionó to construct hypotheses about prehistoric land management, the emergence of trekking as a technology, the persistence of ecologically variable species in the Llanos de Mojos as well as in Amazonia as a whole, and the influence of these factors on Sirionó plant vocabulary through time. These factors may also contribute to understanding more and less robust aspects of the ethnobiological lexicon that can help to pinpoint the most threatened domains of native knowledge about local landscapes and biotas in a highly dynamic and endangered environment.
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