Claude Lévi-Strauss: first encounter with the Indians

This dean of the Académie Française, where he was elected in 1973, and great ethnologist celebrated his 100th birthday on the 28th November of 2008. In a world that he never really cared for much...

"He came up to his 100th birthday, deploring the fact that he has had to live for so long,” this is how the distinguished French anthropologist, Françoise Héritier, speaks of his mentor and former professor, Claude Lévi-Strauss. He has, nevertheless, tons of admirers, and sparked off vocations in many readers. This is due to the fact that, even though his work formed one of the bases of ethnology, one does not have to be an expert to read it. Any teenager could read Tristes Tropiques, his bestseller that has recently been reprinted for the prestigious collection, La Pléïade.

An adventure novel? No. A travel log? Not really. Claude Lévi-Strauss hated his voyages and the explorers, as he explains in the first sentence of Tristes Tropique, written in 1954. His book expressed his thoughts on the meaning of his travels and on the job of an ethnologist. The author summarizes his theories on kinship, myths, and even on the relationship between nature and culture. Nevertheless, Tristes Tropiques has touched generations of readers, of all ages and all backgrounds… probably because Lévi-Strauss describes with contained emotion “the most important experience” of his life: discovering Brazil and meeting the Indians that populated it: the Caduveo, the Bororo, the Nambikwara and the Tupi-Kawahib.

This encounter dates back to winter 1935. Lévi-Strauss was, at that time, serving as a young visiting professor of sociology at the University of Sao Paulo. When the holidays came round, instead of returning to France like all the other French teachers, he decided to stay in Brazil to explore the inner country. His idea was to see the Indians that were impossible to meet around Sao Paulo. This trip to the south-east of Brazil would be the first survey to be carried out of Indians in the state of Mato-Grosso, meaning “thick jungle” in Portuguese. A second, longer trip would follow in 1938. What does he remember of this trip?

"At the time, he was quite disappointed,” explains Vincent Debaene, one of the four publishers of his work for La Pléïade. Why was this? Simply because, despite the time that he spent with the Indians, he felt that he was disturbing them, as he outlines in Tristes Tropiques : "you have to (…) concentrate on going unnoticed all the while being present; seeing everything, remembering everything, noting everything down, showing humiliating indiscretion, begging for information from a snotty child (…)." The notes, drawings and objects that he brought back from the two expeditions made up a large part of his work over numerous years. However, he really began to exploit them in the USA, where he took refuge during the Second World War. There he had another decisive encounter with linguist Roman Jakobson who would inspire him for the rest of his life.

Claude Lévi-Strauss transposed the “tricks” that Jakobson used in linguistics to his own domain of research, anthropology. "For me, it was a flash of inspiration”, he later said. By doing so, he founded a new method of understanding cultures that revolutionized anthropology. How was this new method original? It emphasized the differences between groups of humans to better understand their resemblances. Particularly similarities in the way these groups were structured.

For example: the Bororo and the Caduveo. The circular village of the Bororo is divided into two halves, housing two clans, in the north the Ceras and in the South the Tagares. The two clans are cleverly interconnected to each other: the Cera boy must obligatorily marry a Tugare girl and vice-versa; when a Cera dies, a tugare must organize the ceremony and inversely. Everything therefore seems to work in pairs in a peaceful manner. This is the opposite of what can be seen with the Caduveo, a warrior tribe that is strictly governed according to three castes: the nobles, the warriors and the slaves. However, in studying the Bororos in more detail, the ethnologist discovered that they also behaved in accordance with castes. He actually noticed groups with different levels of “wealth”, demonstrated by bows, arrows and other objects particular to each group. He began to understand that each clan in reality belonged to three groups – superior, average and inferior – and that the marriages had to be carried out according to this hierarchy, as with the Caduveo.

Using the same approach, Lévi-Strauss, began to look into kinship, but also tool-making, objects, food, songs, dances, and rituals; in general, anything that symbolized the culture of a people. He came to the conclusion that there was a large range of possible costumes that each society could trace its roots back to. This portrayal shattered the widely believed opinion stating that societies evolved in a linear manner from a “primitive” to an “evolved” society. Moreover, he became an advocate of these so-called primitive societies, regarding the future of our humanity in a cynical manner. This opinion has not changed: “I think about the present and the world in which I am ending my existence. It is not a world that I am fond of,” he admitted in 2005. He must not have liked his return trip to Brazil in 1939 either; which made him write this famous sentence some years later: “Voyages, what you show us, first and foremost, is our filth thrown in the face of humanity.” The Tropics seemed as sad to him as ever…

KEY POINTS

  • French anthropologist, born in Brussels on 28th November 1908.
  • He carried out various fieldwork investigations, especially in Brazil.
  • He set the foundations for a new interpretation of cultures, emphasizing the differences between human groups in order to better understand their similarities.
  • The most important part of his work is centred on two areas between which he tried to make a connection: kinship and myth.
  • He retraced his intellectual path in Tristes Tropiques (1955), a bestseller accessible to all.

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Claude Lévi-Strauss: first encounter with the Indians

Claude Lévi-Strauss: first encounter with the Indians

This dean of the Académie Française, where he was elected in 1973, and great ethnologist celebrated his 100th birthday on the 28th November of 2008. In a world that he never really cared for much...

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