Pedersen, M. A. (2001) ‘Totemism, animism and North Asian indigenous ontologies’

This week’s paper is by Morten A. Pedersen who is Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Copenhagen.

Kate Leonard proposed this paper and wrote the following summary.

The paper:

The paper is structured around an investigation of three possible interpretations of North Asian ontology: totemism, animism and perspectivism. These three ontologies are explained using ethnographic examples and are linked to social organisation.


This article examines the extent to which new theories of animism advanced by Descola and Viveiros de Castro are consistent with the indigenous ontologies of North Asia. Based on a survey of North Asian ethnography and on fieldwork in Mongolia and Siberia, it is proposed that an analytical distinction between animist and totemist modalities will shed light on indigenous ontologies in North Asia. Whereas the ontologies of Northern North Asia (NNA) are predominantly animistic in nature, the ontologies of Southern North Asia (SNA) are predominantly totemistic. This opposition falls in line with established anthropological distinctions concerning North Asian societies, such as the one between ‘horizontally’ and ‘vertically’ organised social formations. Finally, adopting Viveiros de Castro’s notion of ‘perspectivism’, I address the question of why, when perspectivist notions seem to thrive in NNA, the societies of SNA do not show them.


North Asian Animism (or Animic system) is defined as an understanding that most natural entities have an “interior aspect” which may be very “soul-like” in some cases (e.g. human or bear) and more spirit-like in other cases (e.g. cooking fire), and that all of these entities exist in the same social or natural realm in that they have empathy (or “analogous identification) for each other. However, certain entities are not able to communicate with any others and are therefore isolated. As Pedersen states: “The basic shape of North Asian animist cosmology, therefore, is a whole with holes in it” (2001, p.416).

It is suggested that an animic system can only really succeed in a social environment which is characterised as horizontal: charismatic leadership, egalitarian ethos, bilaterial descent, direct exchange, etc).


Pedersen suggests that in Southern North Asia the prevalent ontology is more totemic than animic.

Totemism is defined as “a particular relationship between social entities and natural species”, in other words: “what matters, what makes a society totemist, is the fact that the difference between Species A and Species B is similar to the difference between Clan 1 and Clan 2” (Pedersen 2001, p.417). Social spheres still consists of human and non-human entities, as with animism, but in a totemic ontology there is a distinction or separation between different groups of humans as well, and only shamans can move between these spheres (as one group member stated: the shaman is the queen in the game of chess).

A totemic system is linked to a vertically oriented society: inherited leadership, hierarchy, patrilineal descent, indirect exchange, etc).


In a perspectivist ontology most natural entities have a “soul-like” quality, like animism, but the way each entity perceives the world is fundamentally different due to the fact that they are not physically similar. Pedersen considers perspectivism to be a “stronger” version of animism.

North Asian Ontologies

For Pedersen, the three ontologies discussed in the paper are closely linked to the relevant social organisation. It is not suggested that a distinct separation exists between the three, but rather they represent extreme ends of a sliding spectrum.

Main points of the group discussion:

I proposed this paper as I felt it explicitly laid out the author’s own conception of what animism and totemism entail and how they could be illustrated using examples from ethnography and anthropology. As part of my broader PhD research into ritual in LBA Ireland I am interested if it is possible to isolate and identify aspects of prehistoric ontology and cosmology, and in a related vein to see how this can highlight prehistoric social organisation.

Present at the Reading Group this week were myself (Kate Leonard), Eve Campbell, Karina Hensel, Thor McVeigh and Ros Ó Maoldúin. Most of the comments were positive (which doesn’t always lead to a lively discussion) but there were also some issues raised relating to the connections made between the ontologies and how they are linked to social organisation.

It was stated that Pedersen seems to see cultures as bounded units. This point led to a discussion surrounding cultural identity and how religious systems are not individual, they are a cultural commodity.

Another major point of discussion was Pedersen’s relation of cosmology to social structure, it was suggested that this is depicted as a ‘trajectory’ and that this ‘trajectory’ only applies to his own study area of North Asia. In particular footnote #2 was cited, which discusses an Australia example which contradicts Pedersen’s model. All group members thought it would be interesting to see if the model proposed in this paper fits or is contradicted by other cultures.

The discussion concluded with the following question (of which no answer was forthcoming): Can you have a shared cosmology between two different ontologies?


Pedersen, M. A. (2001) ‘Totemism, animism and North Asian indigenous ontologies’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 7(3), 411-427.

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One Response to Pedersen, M. A. (2001) ‘Totemism, animism and North Asian indigenous ontologies’

  1. WONDERFUL Post.thanks for share..more wait .. …

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