Various eating patterns may signify a certain cultural attitude to food as a representation of the nation’s world image. Depending on the cultural standards, nations may develop certain food taboos that reflect their perception of social arrangement. Food taboos can be formed for many reasons, such as religion, culture, and health or wellbeing. In case with the culture of the Sanumá people, food taboos appear to be a crucial factor in categorizing the age of people and defining eating behavior appropriate to each age category.
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The peculiarity of Sanumá culture is that the way Sanumá people divide their life cycle into segments radically contradicts the demographic method used by most Western nations. The four main age sets in the Sanumá culture are the “children” (up to 15 years), the “young” (up to 31 years), “grandparents” (up to 45 years), and the “elderly” (older than 45 years) (Ramos 159–160).
The Sanumá derive their age classification from the system of food taboos the tribe uses in its daily lives (Ramos 159). Food taboos are directly connected to the fertility cycle of life, and thus each fertility age features certain types of meat that are prohibited from eating.
In Sanumá age sets, the peak of food taboos falls on the people in prepuberty and postpuberty age categories, as well as on parents having a first child, while the elderly and the children enjoy the most freedom in their eating patterns (Ramos 160). The reason for such strict food limitations for the most fertile ages is that Sanumá sees a connection between animals and people through their spirits (Ramos 169).
Eating a forbidden kind of meat would mean attaching oneself to the evil spirit, which may take revenge in form of physical sickness or disease (Ramos 161). Before children reach puberty, their health and wellbeing is defined by their parents’ eating behavior, and therefore the parents of a first newborn are especially limited by food taboos (Ramos 217).
In order to comprehend the complexity of the Sanumá age classification, it is significant to view this classification as a result of cultural and religious conceptions shared by the Sanumá people. Ramos invents an ingenious way for graphic representation of Sanumá life cycle not as a straight line but as a circle emphasizing the interrelation between rather spiritual than corporeal essence of human beings with the rest of the world (Ramos 160, 162).
The Sanumá religion views people themselves as responsible for their wellbeing and attributes death to human agency (Ramos 160). Breaking food taboos results in physical and moral suffering, which serves as punishment for the irresponsible behavior threatening the wellbeing of their society.
The different eating behavior appropriate for various age groups reflects the corresponding roles played by separate age groups in the Sanumá culture. Thus, for example, the scarcity of food taboos for the elderly serves as a reward for their lifelong obedience and compliance with the tribe expectations. This prescriptive role of fixed food taboos exhibits the Sanumá culture as not acquired by age but rather learned, shared, and patterned.
In viewing food taboos as significant regulators of social relations, the Sanumá food limitations may be compared with such Christian practice as fasting. Similar to the Sanumá, the Christian traditions demonstrate indulgence for the youngest and the oldest age groups and allow less strict fasting.
However, in Christian practice, fasting is conducted not for fear of misbalancing the spiritual connections of the universe, but rather as a penance for inherent human sins. The Sanumá culture envisages food taboos as an external expression of the world image where everything is interrelated. Eating behavior at certain age defines the Sanumá people wellbeing and harmony with the rest of the world and is, therefore, their link to the universe.
Ramos, Alcida Rita. Sanumá Memories: Yanomami Ethnography in Times of Crisis. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1995. Print.