25 Jul, 2014 | INSKE GROENEN
Can its Origin be Found in Bolivia?
Bolivians are as diverse as the landscape they live in. While one Paceño is lively and energetic like the dense Amazon, his neighbour may well be a quiet lamb who prefers the widespread altiplano. Even people that have the same temperament can hold distinctively different views. Each person has their own personal identity, unique in its kind.
The nature of unique personal identities that make us who we are is quite mysterious. Are we born with our identity or does it take shape as we progress in life? Do we keep hold of our identity our whole life? What about during our possible afterlife? It is in Bolivia that I go searching for answers to these complex questions.
My first stop is Bolivia’s lowlands, home to the Quechuas, who form the largest indigenous group of Bolivia. Quechuas believe that it is the soul that defines a person’s identity. Every runa –human being– has body and spirit, with the latter consisting of the animu –breath– and soul.
According to the Quechua, the animu disappears when a person dies, but the identity that comes from the soul keeps on living. The soul departs 12 identities the body upon death, they believe, and remains on the earth for another eight days. During this period, the soul will do all those things the deceased did not manage to do; such as climbing Illimani. A good soul will go to God after the work is done, while a bad soul will turn into an animal or evil woman.
I then ascend to higher ground and reach Bolivia’s altiplano, where the Ay- mara –the second biggest indigenous group in the country– can be found. The Aymara hold the belief that each person is born with three souls that together form a person’s identity: animu, ajayu, and alma. Throughout a person’s life, these three souls alternate in their level of influence over an individual’s identity, leading the person to change and develop.
The influence of the animu, which gives you strength and spirit, is weak until adulthood. At times this can result in periods in which the animu is absent, causing a person to have little appetite, interest or energy. According to the Aymara, though, a temporary loss of animu can not lead to serious illness and the chance of it occurring once adulthood has been reached is slim.
Losing your ajayu, however, which re- presents reasoning and consciousness, is a lot more serious for your body and identity, the Aymara say. It can lead to severe cognitive illnesses and, in the worst-case, it can even lead to a person’s death. But the attachment of the ajayu to your body is firm, which means that losing your ajayu can only be caused by an evil spirit.
A yatiri can help you recover your ajayu, but there is not one universal way to call back that part of your identity. Each soul has to be lured differently, depending on its specific preferences.
If the soul is thought to enjoy wine, then wine will be used to get the soul back to its rightful owner.
Your spirit, alma, can never be lost du- ring your life. Only upon death will the alma depart your body and live on. During Todos Santos, which takes place on November first and second, almas return to earth and will take vengeance if they are not treated correctly. Therefore, it is crucial for Aymara to provide the deceased with food and clothes, showing their humbleness towards the dead and honoring the departed for who they were.
In the South West corner of Bolivia, known as the Chaco region, I find yet another ethnic group that claims to have answers to the questions surroun- ding identity. Making up just 2% of the population, the Guaraní are hugely outnumbered by the Aymara and Quechua.
According to the Guaraní, a human’s identity is formed by two souls: acyiguá and ayvucué. Acyiguá is an animal soul that can be anything from a fly to an elephant. Temperament and instinct are formed by this soul – but it’s not all good. In fact, mischievous behaviour is said to come from acyiguá. To control acyiguá the gods gave humans ayvucué, a special human soul, that also gave us reason and speech. It is this soul that will be judged for the individual’s actions once it returns to the gods. Acyiguá will remain on earth, a wanderer plaguing the living.
It is time to move away from reli- gious beliefs and look at identity from another angle; for the problem with religion is that there is no way of veri- fying it. A field that is dedicated to verifying how phenomena work is science. Many neuroscientists are focused on finding the location of identity in the brain. It’s a troubling subject, though, as scientists are experiencing serious difficulties with locating identity.
The problems start with defining iden- tity. There is a widely acknowledged definition for personal identity in the field of psychology and psychiatry, namely ‘the organized set of characteristics possessed by a person that uniquely influences his or her cognitions, motivations, and behaviours in various situations’. This definition, however, leaves a lot of room for subjective interpretation.
Secondly, it is very improbable that there is one focused location of identity in the brain. The brain is a complex network of neurons –brain cells– working together, making the research challenging. Scientists are now looking at broad areas in the brain that may hold our identity. However, the pro- blem with looking at broad segments of the brain is that these areas have many different functions.
It is thought that the right frontal hemisphere –our front right side of the brain– is responsible for our identity and sense of ‘I’. Evidence for this comes mainly from people whose identities have radically changed after suffering a severe brain injury. It is in this way that someone can lose their identity, possi- bly forever.
Surely, no Yatiri can repair a damaged brain, a scientist would say. However, the Yatiri may say in his defense that an accident of that nature can scare the soul away, which means that the soul can return to its origin. So who is right? Who has the answers to the questions on the origin of our identity? The Scientist, the Quechua, the Aymara, or the Guarani