The Amazon basin is among the most biodiverse regions of the world. This diversity of plant and animal life is matched by equally complex variations in the human societies inhabiting the Amazon region. The region is home to several hundred indigenous languages, a variety of subsistence practices, from slash-and-burn agriculture to hunting and gathering and from cattle ranching to riverine lifestyles.
Amazonian anthropology is a relatively young field within social anthropology yet it has been at the forefront of significant analytical developments in the discipline as a whole. For example, the lasting influence of Lévi-Straussian structuralism as a seminal and formative theory continues to shape and inspire new developments in modern social anthropology and is deeply connected to its roots in lowland South American ethnography. Similarly, recent debates on what it means to be human, and on culture and nature have been heavily influenced by ethnographic and analytical findings from South America.
Amazonian anthropology at Oxford was pioneered by Audrey Butt Colson, who studied under Edward Evans-Pritchard, and Peter Rivière, who was supervised by Rodney Needham. Both worked in the Guianas - Audrey with Akawaio and other Pemon people, and Peter with the Trio. In 1967 Peter Rivière taught the first full-fledged course on the indigenous societies of Lowland South America to be offered in a British university.
At present, research and teaching on Amazonian anthropology in Oxford focuses mainly on the original inhabitants of the Amazon - indigenous peoples and their lifeways. Current research aims to shed light on the interrelatedness of people and their environments; the constitution of persons and social identities; and relations between the material and social world.