[Amazonian worldviews] have a strong “constructional” dimension. Amerindian constructivism is particularly salient in mythical accounts narrating the creation of the world and the different life forms that populate it. It conceives of all living beings as composite entities, made up of the bodies and parts of bodies of a diversity of life forms, among which artifacts occupy a prominent place. According to these cosmologies, at the beginning there were only people and their artifacts — and sometimes, only artifacts. These artifacts are conceived of as the primordial building blocks out of which the bodies of people, and even gods, were first created. In this Amerindian view, artifacts fall on the side of the “natural” or the given — they were the first divine creations — whereas humans, animals, and plants fall on the side of the “cultural” or the constructed.
Thus anthropologist Fernando Santos-Granero, introducing a volume of essays on the role played by made things — variously, masks and flutes, baby slings, headdresses and other bodily ornaments, identity cards, bibles, and airplanes — in the cultural life of the societies of the Amazon basin. Santos-Granero and his colleagues are responding not just to the intrinsic interest of the topic but to a broadly cited view, associated in particular with the work of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro and Philippe Descola, that the distinguishing feature of the Amazonian worldview is its “perspectival” quality. Here perspectival refers to a tendency, widespread in the hunting societies of the Americas and the boreal taiga and tundra of North America and Eurasia, to view certain animals — generally those significant to the hunt — as possessed of a quality of sociality comparable to our own. These animals have a perspective, they look out on the world, as we do — and see us, variously, as predators, prey, and junior partners in an ongoing effort of worldbuilding. This is so, Santos-Granero says — the worldview of the peoples of the Amazon is perspectival — but that is not the whole story.
In fact we can go further. Not only do material artifacts play a distinguished role in the theory of personhood common to the peoples of the Amazon: we observe something similar practically anywhere we look. Consider, by way of maximal contrast, the words of legal scholar Margaret Radin, from 1982.
Most people possess certain objects they feel are almost part of themselves. These objects are closely bound up with personhood because they are part of the way we constitute ourselves as continuing personal entities in the world. They may be as different as people are different, but some common examples might be a wedding ring, a portrait, an heirloom, or a house.
One may gauge the strength or significance of someone’s relationship with an object by the kind of pain that would be occasioned by its loss.