top of page

Amazonian Religion and Nature

Contact Hours: 45  

Credits: 3

Instructor: Tod Swanson


Program Pitt in Ecuador


ANTH 1713


Course Description 


The course examines Amazonian religious life as cultural way of engaging nature as human-like and alive.  It thus explores cultural knowledge of water, weather, plant and animal life seeking to uncover underlying assumptions that constitute a systematic, if implicit, religious philosophy of nature.  It also teaches students how to ask key questions and to carry out qualitative ethnographic research in the Cultural Anthropology and the Humanities.  How do Amazonian people understand their relatedness to a natural world believed to be alive and human-like?  How do they understand the hidden social lives of plants and animals.  What is believed to cause new species to emerge or to become extinct? How are human emotions related to the seasonal cycle of rains?  How is plant and animal ecology believed to serve as a model for understanding human society and vice versa.  What aesthetic, emotional or religious practices were developed to create bonds of empathy or communication between human beings and the natural world.


Learning Outcomes:

At the completion of this course, students will be able to:
•  Give a basic description of Andean/Amazonian religious relation to land, plants and animals

•  Analyze an Amazonian narratives on plant and animal origins to determine its underlying assumptions 
•  Articulate how relations to the land mediate relations to family.
•  Describe Native thinking about the key emotions and patterns of behavior that hold a group of relatives together with
their land or tear them apart.
•  Describe Native practices of listening and speaking with the land or responding to the land.

•  Articulate how nature works as a pattern for organizing Amazonian social life and conversely, how social life works as a model for understanding nature.

•  Carry out simple qualitative research in Cultural Anthropology and the Humanities.

•  Understand the aesthetics of Amazonian engagement of other species.

•  Articulate how people came into a special relation to the forest and animals as they matured.

•  Articulate patterns of similarity that distinguish Native stories of encounters with animals and their world

Method of Instruction

This course is a field course which teaches students how to elicit and analyze indigenous knowledge of nature.  Because Amazonian cultures are oral cultures their knowledge of nature has not been codified in texts but rather in origin stories, art, songs, prohibitions and patterns of speech for addressing nature.  It is thus these materials which the course teaches students to analyze.


Assignments and Grading Procedure

Grades reflect your performance on assignments and adherence to deadlines. Graded assignments will be available
within 48 hours of the due date via the Gradebook.   3 tests for a total of 46%   (Test 1: 15%; Test 2: 15%; Test 3: 16%).  These tests are primarily multiple choice intended to measure comprehension and the ability to apply concepts learned from the assigned videos, readings and lectures.  

4 essays of 400 words each that critically examine the readings, videos, or field engagement of indigenous culture .  The essays are due by end of day each Friday and should be posted through that weeks forum on the discussion board.  (11% each for a total of 44%)



Descola, Phillipe.  In the Society of Nature:  A Native Ecology in Amazonia.  Cambridge University Press, 1996 [1986]. 

Muratorio, Blanca.  The Life and Times of Grandfather Alonso:  Culture and History in the Upper Amazon.  Rutgers University Press, 1991.

Overing, Joanna and Alan Passes.  The Anthropology of Love and Anger:  The Aesthetics of Conviviality in Native Amazonia, Routledge Press, 2000.

Swanson, Tod.  Singing to Estranged Relatives:  Quichua Relations to Plants in the Ecuadorian Amazon.  Journal of Religion and Culture, Vol 3.1 (2009) 36-65. 


Course Schedule



Saturday, July 2.      Arrive in Quito


Sunday, July 3

8:00 AM Breakfast

9:00 AM Tour colonial Quito (founded 1535)

12:00 Lunch At Hotel Real Audiencia

1:PM  Hike in the high altitude páramo polylepus forest.

6:30 PM Arrive at Yanayacu Cloud forest Station

Monday, July 4

Introduction to the course

Tuesday, July 5

The Local Land as Object of Religious Emotion and Action.


Wednesday, July 6

Social Relation to Land in the Andes and Amazonian Chacras.


Thursday, July 7

How the Relation to the Land is Mediated by Family Ties


Friday,  July 8.  

Free afternoon

No classes


Saturday-Sunday  July 9-19

Monday,  July 11.  

Travel to Waorani community on the Río Nushino.   Planting a tree,  On weaving a roof, Waorani dance and marriage


Tuesday,  July 12. Waorani community on the Río Nushino

Wednesday,  July 13. Waorani community on the Río Nushino

Thursday,  July 14 

Estrangement and the origin of the animals



Friday,  July 15. Free day

Saturday-Sunday July 16-17


Monday,  July 18

Amazonian Traditions on the Avoidance of Anger

Tuesday,  July 19

Llakichina and Empathy

Wednesday , July 20

Origin Stories continued:


Thursday,  July 21


Friday,  July 22   Free afternoon.  No class 


Saturday-Sunday  July 23-24

Monday,  June 25

Tuesday,  June 26

Wednesday,  June 27


Thursday,  June 28

Friday,  July 29  Travel to the Airport         

bottom of page