March 26, 2009

Faculty member’s book explores Amazonian myths

by Andrea Hahn

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Jonathan D. Hill started out as a music major and wound up in anthropology -- a happy circumstance that led to his recently published book, “Made-from-Bone.”

Hill is a professor of anthropology at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. “Made-from-Bone: Trickster Myths, Music and History from the Amazon,” covers, among other things, shamanism, catfish trumpets, creation stories, and of course Made-from-Bone himself. The book is part of the “Interpretations of Culture in the New Millennium” series produced by the University of Illinois Press. It is the first English translation of stories and myths from the indigenous Wakuénai people living along the Amazon River in southern Venezuela.

“Made-from-Bone” is the anglicized name for the Trickster figure in Amazonian myth cycles. Trickster is the name given by folklorists and ethnographers to a character appearing in various guises and forms in myth cycles, particularly in Native American (both hemispheres) stories. He (or she) is often personified as a smaller, weaker creature, but one endowed with extreme intelligence, cleverness, and a sort of clairvoyance enabling him to turn a disadvantageous situation into one increasing his power and mastery. Trickster figures often contribute to creating the world and to sharing creation with human beings.

For example, in the story of “The Origin of Peach-Palm Fruits,” Made-from-Bone uses a combination of force, persuasion and clairvoyance to obtain some of the fruits, seeds and the secrets of cultivation from Grandfather Anaconda. During this adventure, a seed erupts into a tree that scrapes his back, which, according to the story, is why “people today have a groove in the center of their backs.”

Other stories in the book explain the origin of ceremonial and cultural practices, including “The Origin of Cooking with Hot Peppers” and “The Origin of Bocachico-Fish Dances.” Other origin stories are darker, such as “The Origin of Death,” and “The Origin of Malaria.”

The research has been a decades-long labor of love. The narrative of Hill’s research adventures makes his book, though scholarly, also thoroughly readable and entertaining. He worked with a storyteller, Horacio, and later Horacio’s son and others, to collect three myth cycles, all of them featuring Made-from-Bone as a central figure.

Hill’s book includes what he calls an “ethnomusical interlude” -- an explanation of Wakuénai music and how it relates to the story cycles and to the culture of the people. While in Venezuela, Hill put his background in music to good use and learned to play the máwi flute, an important part of ceremonial dance. His interest contributed to a revival of the traditional “catfish trumpets,” delicate instruments woven of plant material, protected with resin and decorated with painted designs and feathers. The trumpet, Hill said, is so named because “it sounds like a river filled with fish that are migrating upriver to spawn.”

He described a ceremony using both catfish trumpets and flutes during which people from neighboring villages leave the immediate area, still playing.

“The sound as the music fades from the ‘center of the world’ is something you have to hear,” Hill said. “The music and the instruments they use are part of how the Wakuénai interact with their environment.”

Hill’s research preserves the unique artistry of both the storyteller’s art and the beauty of the ceremonial music. He made recordings while he was with the Wakuénai people, and left his tape recorder when he was not. His recordings are part of The Archive of the Indigenous Languages of Latin America, an ambitious digital archive of recordings and texts maintained by the University of Texas at Austin.

For more information about or to order the book “Made-from-Bone,” see For more information on The Archive of the Indigenous Language of Latin America and to hear some of Hill’s recordings, visit