Anthropology Beyond the Human: An Amazon Tribe's Deep Connection With the Rain Forest
Living with the Runa in Ecuador, the author says, is also about living with all the other kinds of beings the Runa live with.
Do forests think? Can a dog's dreams predict the future? Should nature have rights? These are some of the thought-provoking questions that Montreal-based anthropologist Eduardo Kohn explores in his new book.
Here he talks about living with the Runa people of Amazonian Ecuador, how his Jewish refugee grandfather inspired him to take up anthropology, and what it's like to be with a dog that is tripping on hallucinogenic drugs.
Your book is full of fascinating paradoxes, starting with the title, How Forests Think. Most of us don't think forests can think. Can you unpack the concept a bit?
I'm very interested in the connections we might have with the kinds of lives that lie beyond us. We're obviously facing a kind of environmental crisis, in large part because we've grown increasingly disconnected from the world. My book seeks to show how we're all connected to the living world.
At a more academic level, we're burdened with a sort of mind-body dualism, the Cartesian divide, which people have had a lot of trouble getting themselves out of. I'm trying to get beyond that.
You frequently use the phrase "an anthropology beyond the human." Can you explain what you mean by that?
Anthropology is the study of humans. It has two things that make it distinctive. First, it's focused on human beings in terms of their exceptional qualities—that we have a culture, that we speak and use language. And all of this is grounded in a kind of representational faculty: the action of making meaning that depends on the use of conventional signs.
The other thing that makes anthropology unique is a specific kind of a method, the use of ethnography. Ethnography is a kind of deep "hanging out." In other words, spending huge amounts of time with people and allowing oneself to be immersed in their world.
But what I realized hanging out with the Runa people, who live intimately with the rain forest because they don't buy any food—they hunt, they fish, they grow things—is that doing this kind of ethnographic project does not just mean living with people. It's also about living with all the other kinds of beings the Runa live with.
And that led me to realize that anthropology can never be just anthropology. It must also include that which lies beyond the human, because we're actually deeply connected to biological life.
That's most clearly appreciated in a place like the tropical rain forest that is teeming with so much life. I'm hanging out with humans, but those humans are not just hanging out with other humans. So all of a sudden anthropology is not just anthropology. It's anthropology beyond the human.
The book grew out of research you did over a period of four years on the Runa. Give us a picture of their lives.
The Runa live just east of the Andes in Ecuador. I don't want to romanticize them. These are people who are very much the product of the Spanish conquest, who in some way or the other have been in contact with the outside world for the past 500 years. Some Runa live in small towns or farms near town.
Some, like the people I worked with, live in fairly remote areas, where there are no roads, and all of their subsistence comes from the forest or their gardens. That's the key thing. It's not so much contact they've had with the outside world. It's the fact that they've been living in an intimate way in the tropical rain forest over many generations. This allows them to have a very attuned knowledge of all the complicated biological processes that the rain forest exhibits.
They move pretty freely between the real world and the spirit world, don't they? Tell us about "Runa puma."
One of the first things I learned about the village where I did my fieldwork, from Runa people who were into shamanism and taking hallucinogenic drugs, was that in their visions they would see people from this village transformed into white jaguars, or Runa puma. Runa is person in the Kichwa language, and puma is jaguar. And I was, like: Whoa! There's a place where people turn into jaguars? And that's why I ended up going to this particular village. I wanted to figure out what's going on with these Runa puma.
It must have been challenging to live far removed from your own world. Did things happen that disoriented or frightened you?
I have a very bad sense of direction. I would often go out with hunters, and they would find some animal and go off in hot pursuit and ask me to stay behind and wait for them. So I'd be in the middle of this forest, sometimes for hours, waiting for these people to come, just completely having to trust that they would come back.
So that was a space that was psychologically difficult. But it was also a very interesting space because often the animals that the hunters were pursuing would double back to me. So I had these very interesting encounters with wild animals that did not feel threatened because I wasn't hunting them. I had one encounter with a wild pig that I write about in the book.
You have a long family connection to Ecuador, don't you? Indeed, you were following in your grandfather's footsteps.
My grandparents on both sides are European Jewish refugees. My grandparents on my mother's side were Italian Jews. My father's side were Czech Jews. They all found refuge in Ecuador, which in 1939-40 was one of the few countries that was taking Jews.
My grandfather, who was very important in my life, was a pharmaceutical chemist, who began exploring the medicinal plants of Ecuador. One expedition was picked up by National Geographic, I think in a 1946 issue. And he continued going to the Amazon to do all sorts of things. He was even sent down by the company he worked for to investigate the products used to shrink heads! My grandmother was an amateur archaeologist. So I was very much immersed in archaeology, anthropology, the tropical forest, medicinal plants from a very young age.
Ecuador is the first country to have enshrined the rights of nature in its constitution. Can this be a precedent for other nations?
One thing that makes Ecuador special is that it still has a very high indigenous population. And beginning in the '90s that population became very proud of being indigenous. Political parties were formed with indigenous platforms. This constitution was an attempt to translate into legalistic terms recognition of the ways in which people like the Runa and other indigenous people apprehend the basic "animacy" of the world, and how we're connected to it.
So Ecuador has opened a door to allow things like "thinking forests" to have some traction at the global level. Many people, like Oliver Sacks, are interested in this way of thinking. I think it's a reaction to the ecological crisis.
One of the creatures, apart from jaguars, that the Runa are very closely attuned to is their dogs. Indeed, they spend a good bit of time trying to interpret their dogs' dreams, don't they?
Dogs and people are very similar. We, like dogs, are wild animals. But we're also domesticated, as are dogs. So dogs are in some ways the wild counterparts of humans. They go out into the forest, and they can detect things before humans can. So people become very interested both in seeing what the dogs are seeing and communicating with them to understand what they're doing. Dream interpretation, just like with humans, is one method the Runa use. They also give their dogs hallucinogenic drugs.
My next question is definitely one of the weirdest I've ever posed in an interview: What's it like to be with a dog that's tripping?
[Laughs] The idea about tripping is to get the dog to open up to an understanding of human speech. So you would think: Oh, yeah, you give hallucinogens to your dog, and all of a sudden you can see what's going on! But that's not how the Runa see it. They say: We always see what dogs are doing. We understand them completely. It's they who don't understand us. So it's uninteresting to the Runa. That's why they tie their snouts shut, so the dogs don't talk. You want it to be interesting only for the dogs. You don't want them to start talking to you. In physical terms, the dogs are basically very dazed. They walk around, and they fall asleep. [Laughs] They don't, like, start taking out paint and making wild paintings.
In what ways did the experience of living with the Runa change you?
They were some of the best years of my life. It was a bit like camping. I lived in thatched houses with people sleeping on the bamboo floor. There was no electricity or running water. And I would regularly lose a lot of weight. But I also felt much healthier than I normally do. For example, I would go to sleep when the sun set and wake up whenever I needed to wake up. So I was able to align what you could call my internal ecology with the larger ecology, which in cities we tend to be more distanced from.
I was able to experience another way of living and being. And then to discover ways to find it in my own life. Here in Canada, where I live, we have a cabin where we take our children and get them out into the forest. You have a taste of this way of being, and you realize you don't want to lose it. You want to find it in your own life.
Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at simonworrallauthor.com.