The fractal yam: botanical imagery and human agency in the Trobriands

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    Abstract

    Anthropologists have long appreciated that animals are 'good to think'. In this essay I ponder whether plants might be good to think too, and particularly whether there is any sense in asking if plants (along with animals) might also be 'good to act'. The botanical metaphor of 'base', 'body', and 'tip' animates the origin structures of many if not most societies of the Austronesian world. Less attention has been directed at indigenous elaborations in other socio-cultural domains of the region. Based on recent fieldwork, I outline such ramifications in Trobriand culture, drawing upon the notions of fractal recursion and self-similarity from chaos theory wherein emergent 'tips' yield 'fruit' which become the condition or 'base' for further production and transformation. Accordingly, the base-body-tip-fruit metaphor serves as a cultural template or scenario for social action, shedding new interpretative light on many topics of long-standing anthropological interest (e.g. yam propagation, display, and exchange, kula, mortuary celebration, age categories, fame) as well as more recent theoretical interests.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)679-700
    JournalJournal of the Royal Anthropological Institute
    Volume15
    Issue number4
    DOIs
    Publication statusPublished - 2009

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