Shape-shifting Amazonian dolphins

Curator Laura Osorio examines an Amazonian dolphin tooth necklace and shows examples of necklaces made of jaguar, monkey and rodent teeth.

Animal tooth necklaces were used as ritual items designed to harness the powers of the animal they were taken from. Here we focus on a dolphin tooth necklace and the dolphin's cultural significance to indigenous people.

Dolphin tooth necklaces

According to Murui-Muina people, river dolphins are shape-shifters, who can disguise themselves as men and women, and use other river creatures as their clothing. For example, an electric eel is changed into a belt, fish are made into shoes and a crab becomes a watch. The dolphins wear hats to disguise the blowholes on the back of their necks and, so disguised, they attend parties and bars to seduce or rape their victims. Their teeth can be filed to produce a powder used for love spells.

As dolphins are shape-shifters, their teeth can't be used for healing. Although river people inhabit the entire Amazonian region, for the Murui-Muina, these disguised dolphins appear as white people –  well-dressed, perfumed and wealthy. They're associated with the acquisitiveness and greed of foreigners in Amazonia, as well as the foreign diseases that are a product of cultural contact. 

This living necklace embodies not only the power of river dolphins but also a point of cultural contact and trauma, splintering and annihilation as well as new knowledge and experience.

Read more about the history of this dolphin-tooth necklace and other objects collected from the Murui-Muina on the SD CELAR website.

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Curator's Corner: Shape-shifting Amazonian dolphins