Who Is Civilized? Part two of “How Forests Think”

March 29, 2016 Sharon Ryals Tamm

This is the second part of Sharon’s article, How Forests Think Reveals The Need For Nonhuman Personhood, a compelling review of the ideas within the book How Forests Think by Eduardo Kohn.

Mediating Eating and Death

For the Runa people, all animals are conscious selves and have souls just as humans do. Kohn says this is “because animals are conscious of other beings…For example, both the dog and the agouti possess souls…because of their abilities to…notice those beings that stand in relation to them as predator or prey.” He mainly uses examples of predator-prey relationships and the semiotics that determine how one eats or is eaten. Though the Runa see animals as conscious selves with souls, they also hunt, kill and eat those same selves (and are occasionally eaten themselves). Hunting involves attention to how the selves being hunted think, and then tricking them into thinking something else. If the monkey had accurately understood the true threat behind the indexical sign of the falling palm or even the indexical sign relationship between the hunters and the loss of her troop, she might not have been killed.

Eating is where all human cultures must reckon with their relationship to the lives taken in order to eat.  Kohn goes to great lengths to describe the ways in which the Runa do this and the complex realities they have in order to differentiate selves from meat. Part of this differentiation happens through dreams that closely reference the physical world and are practical and predictive. The Runa own and protect domestic animals including chickens and pigs. Similarly, all the wild animals of the forest are owned and protected by the spirit masters of the forest. A Runa hunter dreams of butchering his own pig and knows he will successfully hunt and kill a peccary in the forest the next day. The domestic pig in the dream signifies the peccary and the man in the dream signifies the spirit master to whom the peccary belongs.

Perhaps we kill because we represent mountain lions as top predators, potential equals, perhaps even selves like ourselves.

In Runa cosmology, when any living being dies she continues on forever as a spirit of the forest. What is left behind is no longer a whom. When one grandmother died, “she entered…the world of the spirit masters…married one of them… and just discarded her skin…for her children to bury.” The dead body is no longer a being, but a thing. In the process of the hunter’s dream the peccary has already surrendered his “skin” to the hunter, the body of the peccary has already become an it, dead meat. The peccary himself is with the spirit masters just as the grandmother is, leaving the it of her body behind. The complexity of Runa reckoning was hard for me to grasp, but in a brief conversation, Christine Hastorf, a UC Berkeley anthropologist specializing in the same region and language groups told me, simply, that “animal and human souls are interchangeable.” This implies a kind of equality. The recognition of animals as selves equal to human selves includes them dynamically in living culture, not merely objects subject to human needs.

It is interesting that recognition of human and animal soul interchangeability is integral to a culture in which humans live with the real possibility that they can be prey as well as predator.  One characteristic of “modern” culture is total elimination of all species of predators who can in any way challenge the human position as top predator. Deer kill dozens of people in the U.S. each year, yet no one is alarmed when they see deer. If a mountain lion is so much as glimpsed near ever-expanding human territory, she is immediately hunted and killed. Mountain lions are so much less likely than deer to kill a human or even to attack that there is no statistical basis for our reaction. Perhaps we kill because we represent mountain lions as top predators, potential equals, perhaps even selves like ourselves. At the very least, though it’s not said in so many words, mountain lions can represent us as prey, something our culture deems unacceptable.

Hell is only for white people, never the Runa or the living beings of their forest.

The Quichua word puma absorbed into English refers to all large New World cats including jaguar and mountain lion. To the Runa it means predator, though it also is specific to jaguar, the quintessential predator. Linked to runa (human) in the phrase runa puma, it refers to the human predator or human jaguar. Runa puma is not a metaphor. Human predators are real and show up in many ways. A runa puma could be a hunter who has faced and is equal to the jaguar, a powerful predatory shaman, an “uncivilized” human who preys upon, enslaves or kills humans, or a jaguar who doesn’t stay deep in the forest but comes into the village hunting people and domestic animals. A Runa man said one such jaguar was his recently deceased father. The man went to the forest and shouted at the unseen jaguar, calling him father, invoking their familial relationship which requires that the jaguar protect the family and their chickens. He also advised his father that now that he was a jaguar he should behave like a jaguar and go far from the village and hunt jaguar food not chickens.

Who is Civilized?

A stunning characteristic of runa puma is that they are always seen as white. Kohn does not know if this is due to the predatory impact of white European colonialism or whether it was a runa puma quality thousands of years older than colonialism.  The Runa people say they have always been civilized and were already Christian, having always had the ethics and ways taught by missionaries such as wearing clothes, not murdering other humans and being monogamous.  Though they were and are still heavily impacted by the colonial world there are parts of it that will never apply to them. For example, the concept of heaven easily integrates into the forever world with the spirit masters of the forest. However, hell is only for white people, never Runa or the living beings of their forest.  Members of indigenous cultures, ones my western philosophy professor dismissed as “primitive animists,” often see the culture such professors represent as being shamefully uncivilized and its members not fully human.

Though the Runa of Avila don’t murder one another, they are one of the few forest peoples who at one point, lead by the visions of shamans, completely wiped out Spanish colonialists with whom the Christian God said he was angry and they burned all the colonialists’ non-indigenous plants and animals.  The worst part of colonialism for the Runa was during the attempt to harvest rubber plantation style. Those trying to exploit rubber hired uncivilized people, those willing to prey on humans, to capture and enslave Runa people to work on the rubber plantations.  Many Runa were killed. It was the life of the forest that essentially saved them. In the Amazon, native rubber trees grow singly at a distance from every other rubber tree. When planted together, a fungus spreads from tree to tree and kills them all. The rubber industry failed and moved on to enslave other parts of the world where the fungus didn’t exist.

Our cultural habits and systems also barely recognize anyone but male white property owners as persons rather than objects.

Similarly, the gradual success of nearly eliminating whale hunting worldwide first began with the discovery of tar and oil sands in the Americas an easier cheaper oil source for products that relied on whales. As easily accessed fossil fuel becomes limited and more costly both economically and in terms of the health of the planet, will whale hunting be renewed worldwide? Or will we dramatically change our relationship to night and day, temperature change, movement of people and things and the types of energy needed to control our relationship to these realities?

A massive institutionalized hierarchy of convoluted reasoning, required to maintain the earth as the center, was rocked to its roots when evidence shifted our rotational center to the sun. Shifting the position of humans in relationship to life away from being the sole life forms who are selves and therefore have dominion over all other life forms which are things, challenges not just how we habitually conceive of our humanness—it challenges our ethical, legal and economic systems, and things as basic as how we use the world and what and how we eat. Our cultural habits and systems also barely recognize anyone but male white property owners as persons rather than objects. Since rights under the law apply only to persons, protections for those without specified personhood, such as peoples of other than northern Euro-Caucasian extraction, women, children, non-heterosexuals, the poor, and all beyond human living beings, are built on shaky ground at best.



Sharon Ryals Tamm, retired and writing. Volunteer for Daily Bread, Youth Suitcase Clinic and International Marine Mammal Project of Earth Island Institute.


“Women and the Labor Movement: 1880-1920.” The Evergreen State College 1975.

Three chapbooks of poetry. 1976, 1977, 1978.

“FireGrrl”, 2013. An historical novel based on the 1974 USDA experimental hiring of 4 women to a 16 man hot-shot crew to determine if women could fight forest fires.

Recent accomplishments:

2014 Marine Mammal Naturalist Certificate, American Cetacean Society, San Francisco chapter.

2012 Open Ocean Dive Certificate, Sausalito, CA and Kona, HI