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Perspectivism, Mortuary Symbolism, and Human-Shark Relationships on the Maritime Peninsula

  • Matthew W. Betts (a1), Susan E. Blair (a2) and David W. Black (a3)

Abstract

Shark teeth are commonly found in mortuary and ritual contexts throughout the Northeast. On the Maritime Peninsula, shark teeth have been identified in mortuary assemblages spanning the Late Archaic through to the Late Woodland periods (ca. 5000 B.P. to 950 B.P.). Beyond the Maritime Peninsula, shark teeth have been recovered from Woodland period contexts ranging from Chesapeake Bay to the Ohio River. Amerindian perspectivism, or cosmológical deixis, provides a framework for understanding the relationship between humans and animals in hunter-gatherer societies. To explore this relationship, we examine engagements between sharks and humans over a period of 5,000 years, within a socioeconomic perspective. We postulate that shark teeth in mortuary contexts were complex, entangled objects that were both mnemonics and instruments. All at the same time, shark teeth were (1) an emblem of a real creature with spectacular predatory abilities, (2) an icon of transformational and spiritual power, (3) a symbol of a society’s maritime way of life, and (4) a tool–a conduit through which a person could gain access to supernatural abilities. When shark teeth were exchanged, all of these properties may have been transferred, suggesting that reinforcing relationships between societies conducting the exchange was as important as gaining access to the supernatural powers of the teeth.

Resumen

Les dents de requin sont couramment trouvées dans des contextes funéraires et rituels partout dans la région du Nord-est. Sur la péninsule maritime, les dents de requin ont été identifiées parmi des assemblages funéraires datant de l’Archaïque récent au Sylvicole tardif (ca. 4500 BP á 950 BP). Ailleurs que sur la péninsule maritime, les dents de requins ont été récupérées sur des sites du Sylvicole á partir de la baie de Chesapeake jusqu’á la riviére Ohio. Le perspectivisme amérindien ou, la deixis cosmologique, fournit un cadre d’analyse pour la compréhension de la relation entre les humains et les animaux dans les sociétés chasseurs-cueilleurs. Nous avons á cet effet emprunté une perspective socio-économique pour examiner les modalités d’interaction entre les requins et les humains sur une période de 3000 ans. Nous postulons que les dents de requin trouvées en contexte funéraire sont des objets complexes et enchevêtrés qui constituent á la fois des mnémoniques et des instruments, qui revêtent plusieurs sens et qui servent á plusieurs fins : (1) embléme d’un animal réel, d’un prédateur hors du commun doté d’habiletés spectaculaires ; (2) icône du pouvoir spirituel et du pouvoir transformationnel ; (3) symbole d’une société adaptée á un mode de vie maritime ; et, (4) outil redoutable – un canal á travers lequel une personne peut accéder aux habiletés surnaturelles. Il semble que toutes ces propriétés auraient été transférées á chaque instance de troc ou d’échange de dents de requin. Ceci suggére qu’il était tout aussi important de renforcer les liens économiques entre les sociétés que d’accéder aux pouvoirs surnaturels des dents.

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