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 Lonchocarpus nicou  Kichwa: Sapi barbasco, Shuar: Timiu


Lonchocarpus nicou is a cultigen whose root is used primarily as a fish poison.   When found in the forest (as in the picture above) the plant is a clear sign that the location is an old home or garden site.   According to tradition Lonchocarpus nicou, called Timiu in the Shuar language, was once a human man who had a brother named Masu.  These two brothers became transformed into the two plants most commonly used as fish poisons.  Timiu, the older brother was transformed into a the powerful fish poison plant Lonchocarpus nicou while Masu, the younger brother was transformed  in the “weaker” fish poison plant Clibadium surinamense.   A brief examination of this story will show that the relative weakness of Clibadium surinamense when compared to Lonchcarpus is due to a difference in the moral character of the two brothers when they were human.   The weakness of Clibadium surinamense is due to a moral fault called killa (quilla)  in Kichwa. 


In a Quichua version of the story a hunter was walking alone through the forest when he heard a particular tree frog called an atan (Shuar: kaka).  This frog, which is generally heard only in old growth forest at night, has a loud a- rhythmic call which Runa men jokingly associate with the sound of a woman in the throws of sexual pleasure:  “atan a-tán atán.”    Hence the name of the frog atan.   Hearing this sound the hunter jokingly calls on the atan to come down from the tree and make love with him.   Later, as he again passed the tree on his way home he was startled to find a woman.  “That woman was a beautiful woman, a good looking young woman.”  The hunter was overcome with fear but she put him at ease, “You said to me ‘tan tan tan do me’ well now do me then.”   After making love the woman turned back into the atan and climbed up the tree without letting go of his penis.  When his penis stretched out tremendously the man panicked and cut it off with a machete.  The pieces were eventually thrown into the various rivers where they became anacondas.   


In the Achuar version of this story there are two hunters rather than one and the hunters are named Timiu, Lonchocarpus species, and Masu, Clibadium surinamense (Descola 1994:280-81).     Although the Achuar version does not mention the sound of the frog, in a Shuar version both brothers joke together about the frog’s erotic call expressed in Shuar as “kaka kaká kaká (Pellizzaro 1979:115).  When the woman appeared the older brother (Timiu in the Achuar version) resisted, sticking to the task of hunting while the younger brother Masu succumbed to the seduction of the atan woman.  It was his penis that was stretched out and thrown into the rivers to become anacondas.  In Quichua such joking is called quilla-chi-na: (flirting, seducing, literally: “making someone to be quilla”).  A shinzhi aicha yaya (strong hunter) would have resisted the temptation to make sexual jokes about the forest.   The idle sexual joking had consequences which spiraled into the sexual encounter and finally into transformation.  The two brothers became the plants Masu, a weak fish poison that can only kill minnows in relatively still shallow water; and Timiu, a potent poison that can kill larger fish.  While both could now be seen as aicha yaya (a complementary term for great hunters and fishermen) plants useful in the male task of fishing, Masu is a weaker fisherman because as a human lover he was more of a quilla, while Timiu is a stronger fisherman because as a human man he was more able to control his sexuality. 

Yukuna Myth of Barbasco and the Fish People

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