As discussed in Sex and Magic: Tapir anthropomorphism, the tapir is a sacred animal whose place within these animist cultures can approach what those of us in the West would understand as “anthropomorphized”.
While anthropomorphism is often used in a pejorative sense to describe a sentimental view of animals that lacks a certain sort of scientific objectivity, this blog post instead proposes reframing the issue through Eduardo Vivieros de Castro’s concept of the “multinatural”, developed in his ethnography of the Achuar people .
Despite originating from a different Amazonian ethnic group, the animist Nukak practice of building “the house of the tapir” serves as an example through which we can explore the potential application of “multinaturalism” to conservation practice, and contemporary ecology.
“The house of the the tapir” is a peculiar structure in that it “manifests the highest energy investment per architectural unit of all the structures built by Nukak” , yet is not meant to be inhabited by humans. In fact, it is relatively rare. Anthropologists posit that the “house of the tapir” serves as a refuge for the spirits, taking the form of the tapir, as they roam and graze the forest during the night.
While this this may be understood as a structure performing a sacred or merely symbolic function, it is not quite a temple in the conventional western sense of the word. It doesn’t quite translate as a “sacred site”, as it also serves as a place to to store tools, and rest while working cultivated garden areas or chagras, where the house of the tapir is often sited. Some suggest that it is in fact better understood as a replica or model – “the house of tapir” is at once both the literal building seen in the photograph above, but also refers to an entire parallel spirit underworld.
The existence of such parallel spirit worlds are understood by some as a cornerstone to understanding an animist worldview, one in which the nonhuman environment contains a spiritual or supernatural essence. As an example, where a westerner may see a garden as a miniature forest, the Achuar may see the forest as a garden that is tended by spirits. This animation of the natural world provides a framework based on social kinship relationships, sitting in stark opposition to a naturalist worldview of the moderns . Instead of projecting the static “laws of nature” in an attempt to understand our social relationships, anthropologists suggest animist cultures project social structures onto the natural world.
These kinship relations differentiate themselves from anthropomorphization in that in a multinatural worldview, “the common point of reference for all beings of nature is not humans as a species but…humanity as a condition” .
As advances in behavioral science and ethology prompt us to reconsider the cartesian supposition of nonhuman animals as simple machines, elements of an animst worldview seem to come back into focus .
Whether or not you believe in spirit underworlds or nonhuman animals with souls, understanding the natural world as a set of vibrant social relationships may in fact be a more useful than one which restricts sociality to intra-human relationships. In this way, “building the house of the tapir” becomes less of an anti-modern, anthropomorphic practice, and perhaps more about taking time to acknowledge the overlapping worlds we share with the beings around us.
Marcus Owens is trained as an architect and currently in the PhD program in Landscape Architecture at University of California Berkeley. His interests hover around, urbanism, development, multispecies ethnography and the production of public art and design. He was co-curator of “Multinatural Histories”, a contemporary art exhibition at the Harvard Museum of Natural History.Bibliography
 De Castro, Eduardo Viveiros. “Cosmological deixis and Amerindian perspectivism.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (1998): 469-488.
 Politis, Gustavo. Nukak: Ethnoarchaeology of an Amazonian people. Left Coast Press, 2009.
 Conan, Michel. “From vernacular gardens to a social anthropology of gardening.” Perspectives on Garden Histories. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection Washington, DC (1999).
 Lorimer, Jamie. “Multinatural geographies for the Anthropocene.” Progress in Human Geography 36.5 (2012): 593-612.