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Human Ecology

, Volume 36, Issue 2, pp 149–159 | Cite as

Stradivarius in the Jungle: Traditional Knowledge and the Use of “Black Beeswax” Among the Yuquí of the Bolivian Amazon

  • Allyn MacLean Stearman
  • Eugenio Stierlin
  • Michael E. Sigman
  • David W. Roubik
  • Derek Dorrien
Article

Abstract

Native Amazonians traditionally use two methods to feather, or fletch, arrows—they either tie feathers to the shaft or use an adhesive. This paper discusses the latter method, analyzing the use of “black beeswax” arrow cement, derived from an insect product, the wax–resin cerumen of native stingless bees (Meliponini). Such mixtures of beeswax and plant resins, prepared by cooking, have a long history of human use in the Old World: in encaustic painting, beaumontage for furniture repair, sealing waxes, and varnishes for fine musical instruments. This study explores the special properties of meliponine cerumen, containing a resin compound, geopropolis, which makes an excellent arrow cement. Like their Old World counterparts, native Amazonians discovered that cooking a mixture of cerumen and plant resins from bee nests produces an adhesive that dries to a hard finish. We compare both raw and cooked samples of cerumen with infra-red spectroscopy. The wax–resin compound yields adhesive material that is tough, flexible, and has many qualities of both sealing wax and varnish. The Yuquí of the Bolivian Amazon provided the cerumen samples for this analysis, and we describe their methods of preparing and applying arrow cement. We also discuss how social change and globalization negatively affect Yuquí traditional knowledge, which survives, in this case, largely because there is a modest market for bows and arrows in the tourist trade.

Keywords

Cultural uses of beeswax Black beeswax Arrow cement Yuquí Indians Indigenous Amazonians 

Notes

Acknowledgments

An abbreviated version of this paper was presented at the 5th Annual Meetings of the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America (SALSA), Santa Fe, New Mexico, January 12–14, 2007. The authors would like to express their appreciation to Andrés Campiglia, Stuart Fullerton, P. E. Kolattukudy, John Walker, and Elayne Zorn for their helpful insights, suggestions, and editorial comments during the development of this paper. We are also grateful to the anonymous reviewers of Human Ecology not only for their careful reading of the manuscript which improved the clarity of the argument, but also for assisting in locating additional useful sources on the topic of “black beeswax.” The authors take final responsibility for any errors of omission or interpretation.

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • Allyn MacLean Stearman
    • 1
  • Eugenio Stierlin
    • 2
  • Michael E. Sigman
    • 3
  • David W. Roubik
    • 4
  • Derek Dorrien
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of Central FloridaOrlandoUSA
  2. 2.Santa CruzBolivia
  3. 3.National Center for Forensic Science and Department of ChemistryUniversity of Central FloridaOrlandoUSA
  4. 4.Smithsonian Tropical Research InstituteBalboaPanamá

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