Excerpt: In Praise of the Ancestors

Susan Elizabeth Ramírez is the Neville G. Penrose Chair of History and Latin American Studies at Texas Christian University. She is the author of several books, including To Feed and Be Fed: The Cosmological Bases of Authority and Identity in the Andes and A History of Colonial Latin America from First Encounters to Independence. Her newest book, In Praise of the Ancestors (Nebraska, 2022) is excerpted below.

Chapter One

Alternative Ways of Remembering and Knowing

For millennia, the invention of writing has been heralded as a characteristic of civilization. Standard world-history texts name it—along with monumental architecture, occupational specialization, and central governance—as definitional. The new technology that associated symbols with sounds and numbers enabled specialists to record, communicate, and govern more efficiently. Ethnologists who have studied societies going through the process of adopting writing in modern times, such as the Cuna of the San Blas Islands, discuss how writing facilitated census-taking, tax collection, the codification of law, governmental elaboration and centralization, and communication over long distances. Literacy became the basis for the transmission of the past and the development of modern historical consciousness in general (Howe 1979).

Written records, then—such as those in cuneiform, inscribed on clay tablets; those left on a stone stele like Hammurabi’s Code; and the first to be written on papyrus or paper—became in time the bedrock sources for fixating memories and constructing histories. Without a written record of events, recollections might, it was assumed, be abandoned to oblivion (Burke 1989, 97). Time and dates became the convention that societies used to order actions, resulting in a linear sequence of events and the organizational principle for much of the historical accounts. This also meant that for most of the documented past, historians dealt with the stories of leaders, elites, and heroes, which only in the last few decades have been supplemented with attention to the experiences of common people and everyday life.

Memories and identity link dialectically. Recollections of the past, be they of individuals, families, lineages, ethnicities, or nationalities, learned or experienced, help fashion identities, and the construction of identities forces the sorting, sifting, and winnowing of reminiscences to fit the present context and needs. Apart from the collective memories of lived experiences, much of the modern world’s historical sense comes from written sources stored in the libraries and archives of the world. Selections from these sources are conveyed to various publics through such institutions as movies, documentaries, commemorative monuments, museums, parades, ceremonies, and schools.

Accepting this posture in the not too distant past, scholars described preliterate peoples as societies without history. Archaeologists’ use of the word “prehistory,” though now slowly disappearing from academic publications, defined people who left no written records and whose past they reconstructed from the mute material record. Eric Wolf’s famous book title, Europe and the Peoples without History (1982), referred to societies on the periphery of Europe, distant and at least partially isolated. Angel Rama’s (1984/1996) influential essay on the “lettered city” restricted the written record to urban centers, largely beyond the reach of the vast majority of the rural, largely unlettered populace.

In partial reaction to such pronouncements, recent scholarship has focused on alternative ways of recording and remembering the past. There are, in fact, many ways that preliterate societies accomplished this. Chapters in Elizabeth Hill Boone and Walter Mignolo’s edited work, Writing without Words: Alternative Literacies in Mesoamerica and the Andes (1994), draw attention to visual documents and the messages they convey. Following this lead, Joanne Rappaport and Thomas Cummins’s book (2012) includes analyses of drawings (on pottery, for example) and a discussion of paintings as alternative means of communication by peoples without a written language. An example of this emerging trend on the topic is Chilean anthropologist José Luis Martínez Cereceda’s (2009) insightful article on the scattered petroglyphs of northern Chile, which, after an exhaustive survey, he characterizes as a recognized system of early communication.

Oral tradition is another alternative way of communicating (Thompson 1978). Among the Greeks, the time-honored tradition of oral storytelling conveyed knowledge to both young and old at family and community gatherings. Some orally transmitted memories were of the Trojan War era. The Greek epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, both attributed to Homer, were orally conveyed (Edwards 2003) before appearing in written form in the eighth century BCE. As in the case of the Greeks, the Norse oral culture passed from generation to generation in long poetic sagas. One scholar described these as characteristically “complex narratives exhibiting sophisticated portraiture and realistically detailed events” (S. Mitchell 2003, 203). Topics were historical, legendary, and religious and revealed attitudes toward the past. Skalds, or Scandinavian bards, recited epic poems, recounting with details the deeds of heroic Viking kings and lords. Anonymous Icelandic family sagas (Íslendingasögur) retold the tales of real people who lived in Iceland from its settlement in the 980s until about 1030 (Byock 1984–85, 153). Like their Scandinavian counterparts, medieval Gaelic and British professional storytellers added music to the verses they composed. They were typically employed by a monarch or noble patron to commemorate one or more of the patron’s ancestors or the patron’s own deeds. Irish bards are one example of these. They formed a professional hereditary caste of highly trained and learned poets, familiar with the history and traditions of clan and country. As chroniclers in the court of kings or chieftains, they celebrated their employers and condemned those who opposed them until their gradual disappearance in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

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