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The time where there was no difference between humans and animals

Updated: Jan 17, 2019

Thiago Cardoso and Marilena Altenfelder

Huni Kuin Men beneath Samauma tree

"I would like to ask you a simple question: what is a myth?

It is not a simple question, it is the exact opposite, because one can answer it in different ways. If you question an American Indian, there would be many chances that the answer would be: a history of time when men and animals were not yet different.” (Levi-Strauss and Didier Eribon, 2009[1])

[1] LÉVI-STRAUSS, Claude; ERIBON, Didier. De près et de loin. Odile Jacob, 2009.

The world of the Kaxinawa (or Huni Kuin) indigenous people in the Brazilian Amazon was created in mythical times by the action of the ancestors, which perform large-scale transformations that create all the diversity of life – include humans - and shape the geography of today's world. It was at this time that the Huni Kuin were gifted by the art of making their cultural goods (the fire theft, weaving, drawing, pottery, planting etc.) given to humans by animals.


The stories tell how we gained many things: plants, fire, machetes, drawing, pottery, ayahuasca. We fought for this during the creation of the world. And how we had to fight, we Indians! The bible describes the creation of your world, strangers. Well, those stories my old uncle used to tell me describes our creation[1].”


But it was not just any animal. This animal “is an enchanted huni kuin”. Thus, the yuxin (or spirit) who was in that animal communicated to men their qualities. It was not by coincidence, that it was an animal, the squirrel that taught man the art of planting (we know that the squirrel is characterized by keeping, storing food for a long time) and the capuchin monkey taught the humans to copulate. When it came to "translating" this animal habit into human behaviour, the yuxin became a person to the human perception. In this way, the midwife rat (xuya), the weaver spider (Baxem pudu) and others, lived for some time among men, in a human form[2]. At this time when the animals were talking, the bird mutumwas very hard-working, had a good machete, and made good crops[3].


The founding myth of the Kaxinawá also explains the origin of the use of uni or ayahuasca - with which a ritualistically used entheogenic drink is produced. According to one version of the myth, there was a man, Yube, who, in falling in love with an anaconda woman, became an anaconda as well, and came to live with her in the deep waters. There, Yube discovered a drink with healing powers and access to knowledge. One day, without telling the anaconda wife, Yube decided to return to the land of men and return to his former human form.

On the other side of the Amazon, in the Northwest, elders of the Tukano people have been writing their mythical narratives in books. One of them is the sacred mythology of the Tukano Hausirõ Porã. In the 255 pages of the book we cover three great narratives. The first account tells the origin of the universe, created by the Grandfather of the Universe that with his rattle-spear (a magical instrument) made of stone is forming the world in layers and the first people, the cultivated plants, fishing traps and poisons, blessings and ceremonies. Here is a brief excerpt:


The grandfather of the universe is a being that already existed in this world. He lived alone in the Maloca of Heaven, where day and night existed, he had earth on the ground and magical instruments which were removed from his body. These things only existed in that house. With these instruments and powers, Grandfather of the Universe works days, months and years, praying. Seeing this empty world and the darkness outside, he ate ipadu and smoked cigarettes, thinking about how he could transform this empty world, what he could do to create humans and animals, lands and waters. He thought about it all the time[4].

In a second moment they narrate the transformation of anthropomorphic ancestors in the current sociodiversity and biodiversity, and the learning of new knowledge, techniques and instruments to live on this earth. After this, in mythical time the differentiation of languages and the dispersion of peoples takes place. The last part of this epic includes recent stories, such as conflicts between the Tukano and other peoples and the arrival of whites persons and their commodities.


What is the myth? In the famous passage at the beginning of this text, the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss answers a question from his interviewer Didier Eribon, a history of the time when men and animals were not yet different. What tells us a lot about how diverse people think of humanity and its relation to animality. After Levi-Strauss myths cease to be - for anthropologists - synonyms of legend and belief, or reduced to a way of thinking inferior to those of science or religions.


Myths have ceased to be material that characterizes traditional societies as opposed to Western ones, the first being inferior to second in terms of the ability to explain reality. The mythical elaboration thus refers to a way of thinking that confronts with particular and general problems of a human collective, be they physical, moral, juridical, social or cosmological, as in the relation between culture and nature. The Amerindian myth, as of the Huni Kuin or the Tukano, is therefore a science and expresses a philosophy, a way of organizing the world and explaining the existence of humans and other beings in history and in the present times.


For many representatives of indigenous peoples myths are not legends or fanciful explanations, but realities and express the difference in the world, or different ways of inhabiting the earth. Explanations related to the origin of the world, the plants, the animals, the sun and the moon, among others. They are means of reflection on the existence, the cosmos and social relations. These different explanations of their origin, led the native inhabitants of the Amazon to maintain different forms of connection with their places.

A first point that contrasts with our western form is that the relationship that these indigenous peoples mostly establish with animals and plants is not only subsistence but a vital relationship, full of meanings, values and interests of knowledge. In this way, living and non-living beings are more than natural resources, their presence in the Amerindian cosmologies forces us to take them from another perspective, otherwise we run the risk of mutilating a philosophical elaboration that has little or no correspondence with our assumptions about culture and nature.


Without doubt, these stories of indigenous life and their relations in economics, politics, and religion have visible effects in the way they manage landscapes and in the conservation of the diversity of life, that is, in the construction and maintenance of the Amazonian forest. We must take amerindian perspectives seriously, through the sensitive listening of their mythical narratives.


[1] Excerpt of a Huni Kuin narrative in Maccalum, Cecilia. Inca e Nawa: produção, transformação e transcedência na história Kaxinawa (2002, p.386).

[2] https://pib.socioambiental.org/pt/Povo:Huni_Kuin_(Kaxinaw%C3%A1)

[3] Enciclopédia da floresta

[4] Ñahuri; Kumarõ. Mitologia sagrada dos Tukano Hausirõ Porã. São Gabriel da Cachoeira, UNIRT/FOIRN, 2003.