The International Conference Comparative Arawakan Histories. Rethinking Language Family and Culture Area in Amazonia took place during 24-26 May 2000 at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama City, Panama. Organized together with colleague Jonathan D. Hill, the conference was sponsored by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. Fifteen specialists on Arawak-speaking peoples -twelve ethnologists, two archeologists and one linguist- attended the conference. The main focus of the conference was on post-contact interethnic processes of change that have generated contemporary patterns of linguistic, cultural, and political relations in the four most important clusters of Arawak-speaking peoples extant today: Eastern Peru and Bolivia, Northwest Amazonia, Guayanas, and Upper Xingu. The conference also sought to improve the comparative method in anthropology by encouraging participants to search for new ways of theorizing “language family” and “culture area”.
Papers were circulated among participants two months in advance together with a list of pairings of papers that the organizers considered addressed similar issues. Authors of paired papers were asked to write comments on each other’s papers before the conference. During the first two days participants presented brief summaries of their papers, followed by comments by the paired author, and questions by participants. In the morning of the second day, before finishing the presentation of papers, we had a short plenary session to discuss emerging themes for panel discussions. One of the most important and contentious issues that arose from the discussion was whether there was something that could be considered to be uniquely Arawakan and that would justify furthering Arawakan comparative studies. After all papers were presented and discussed we had a second plenary session in which the organizers presented for consideration the three topics that they considered had incited greatest discussion and required more attention. These were warfare, hierarchy and ritual power.
Each of these topics was the subject of panel discussions during the morning of the third day. Given the different disciplinary backgrounds, theoretical frameworks, areas of specialization, and academic interests of participants, panel debates were rich and lively. The presentation of panel summaries was followed by plenary sessions in which the issues arising from panel debates were discussed in more detail. During the discussion it became increasingly clear that participants were reaching consensus on some general issues, while at the same time pointing out contentious issues that required further research. At the end of this discussion the organizers presented a final statement containing the agreements reached, as well as identifying future lines of inquiry.
The statement’s main conclusion is that in spite of the marked variability in cultural profile and social structure found among present-day Arawakan groups, there is something –whether we call it ethos, substratum, mentalité, schema- that seems to be characteristically Arawakan. There are five dimensions that can be said to give form to this sense of Arawakanness and that provide the grounds for future comparative research. These dimensions include 1) continuous, flowing diasporic movements into diverse ecological settings; 2) open, inclusive sociolinguistic organization linked to transformational notions of the world; 3) suppression of internecine warfare; 4) regional organization in relation to ritual centers; and 5) hierarchy based on notions of descent and access to specialized knowledge.
The results of the conference more than fulfilled the expectations of both organizers and participants, who suggested we should organize a second, more focused, Arawakan conference. The results of the conference have been published by the University of Illinois Press (October 2002).