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[ontolog-forum] Constraints on foods, ontology by song

To: ontolog-forum@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
From: John Bottoms <john@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
Date: Sat, 25 Aug 2012 05:04:37 -0400
Message-id: <50389525.4040804@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
This concerns 1) a constraint for foods based on use and 2) a methodology for taxonomies and ontologies kept in song.

I stumbled upon a paper (Joel Sherzer, University of Texas at Austin, 2000) on the Kuna natives of Panama. This is an excerpt. It is a rather lengthy quote but it appears to be an important relating of how ontologies can be maintained orally.

It also shows an alternate approach to universals such as that in "Fire, Women...". In this example, classes of foods are maintained by a constraint that defines who, outside of the family, can received the food.

It also give a description for the native's ontology of a food group that is captured in song.

The reference appears below the quote.

Howe and I found Kuna crops and wild forest products classified according to the kinds of access people other than their owners may have to them. Thus, corn is never given to anyone, coconuts are given to family members, rice is offered to others by owners, small quantities of bananas, avocados and yams are given when asked for in advance, pineapples or sugarcane can be eaten on the spot, limes and peppers can be taken home in a small quantity if asked for (either before or after taking), mameys and mangos can be taken home if they have fallen to the ground, and various kinds of wild nuts are considered to not have any owners at all.

In addition to its mental or cognitive organization, this classification is relevant to everyday life, in particular to such critical problems in Kuna social and economic organization as theft, generosity, and a conflict between cash crops and the subsistence economy. In addition, Kuna individuals vary in their  application of some of these semantic/cognitive access rules. I suspect that today we would find much more variation than we did when we carried out this study, especially if we included Kuna living in Panama City.

There is no doubt that Kuna vocabulary offers complex organizations and classification of elements of ecology. One I have looked into is that of kapur, the small hot peppers used in curing rituals. Investigating the hot peppers mentioned in a performance of kapur ikar “The Way of the Hot Pepper,” a chant used to cure high fever, which I recorded, I found 53 types of hot pepper, organized in classes (Sherzer 1974). These classes are organized by such features as color (white, blue-green, and multicolored pepper). There are naturally occurring forms, such as sankwa-type pepper, as well as forms that have been transformed, such as toasted and ground pepper. And there are forms that, while not necessarily existing in nature, are part of the pepper spirit/metaphorical world, such as misty pepper and transformed like the sea pepper. The types of hot pepper are not named randomly, but rather in systematic fashion, from both a semantic point of view and within the chant itself. The naming of the hot peppers takes place within a long portion of the chant in which a particular pattern, with some slight variation, is repeated 53 times. In each repetition a different type of pepper is named. The resulting discourse structure makes explicit the semantic taxonomy of hot pepper used by the performer of the chant. The chant (and the taxonomy on which it is based, or which it makes manifest) lists each type of pepper followed by its subtypes. This semantic taxonomy is plugged into a parallelistic pattern of the chant structure in a systematic way, namely by beginning at the top of a node in the taxonomy, moving down for each type and subtype until it is completed, and then moving on. The verse pattern is
as follows:

“The Way of the Hot Pepper”
In the north
Name of pepper
Name of type of pepper
Name of subtype of pepper
Is named
The flowers are perceived
The leaves are perceived
The stems are perceived
The seeds are perceived

Knowledge of and especially utterance of long and complex lexical
taxonomies such as this one are important aspects of magical
power and control. Kuna ritual specialists must be botanical taxonomists.
And in chants such as “The Way of the Hot Pepper,” knowledge
of Kuna ecology is archived. Information stored in such oral archives
is extremely valuable to botanists interested in medical, culinary, and
other properties of plants.


-John Bottoms
 FirstStar Systems
 Concord, MA

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