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Commentary on "Tayag Woman Transforms her Children into Animals."

Tod D. Swanson


According to one Pastaza Kichwa story the animal species originate by transformation out of an original human family.   As the last world was ending and this world was emerging a human mother sent her children away to become the various birds and animals.   As she sent them away each to their own distinctive habitat they cried out in sorrow missing their mother.  But as each did so their words no longer came out in human speech but in the cries distinctive of each animal.  Although their cries were different each expressed the same word “Mom!”  And each expressed the same sorrow at being separated.  After she had sent her children away she sang one last song in that original language and sank into the earth forever.


   Why did she have to send them away? Could she have done otherwise?   The answer seems to be “No.”   Just as human children grow up and go away so the children of this first mother grew up and went away to become birds and animals.  She sends them off just like another mother might send her children off to be soldiers or doctors or lawyers.  The difference is that she sends them off to be birds and animals.


    What does this tell us about the meaning of biodiversity?   It suggests that the world before this one was like an immature family.  Speciation was a solution to the problem of physical and emotional crowding. The world had become uninhabitable in the same way that a home with no boundaries between adult children and their parents becomes uninhabitable.  They invade each other’s space.  The emergence of the species is a process of growing up.  As new species emerge they get their own room--their own space, their own eco-niche.  Some in the canopy.   Some under the ground.


    The now unintelligible calls of birds and animals guard the privacy of these spaces making them safe from eavesdropping by outsiders to their species.  When the birds were children they no doubt told their mother and their siblings everything.   Later, when they grow up and get their own lives they guard the privacy of their communication and become a mystery to their mother.  The transformation of human child voices into bird and animal calls hides the privacy of their adult space.  This is for the good of all.  Although they may be saying intelligent things to each other they don’t want us to hear them and we do not want to eavesdrop.   This is a process that is painful but necessary for emotional security in an adult world.  A home in which adult children did not put boundaries around themselves would become dysfunctional and incestuous.


   What does it mean about the human relation to bird and animal species?  It suggests that the difference of appearance, food, and calls (or language) is a protective barrier between them that could be broken down.  It is like a child who adopts a different style of clothes, hairstyle or room decor.  Perhaps they adopt a different voice a different style of music or become a vegetarian.     However, behind each bird call or animal call there is a human voice that has gone away and changed. Perhaps the child adopts a different style of dress.   Behind the distinctive plumage of each bird is a human style of dress transformed into this exotic form.


    The emergence of this world was a solution to a problem.  If this is the case it means that that although we could break through the communication barrier between ourselves and the animals it might not be a good idea to do so.   It means that a species barrier differs only in degree from the privacy barrier around a new human family.  It is painful for children to put distance between themselves and their parents but it necessary for their own well being and for the well being of their parents.  


    After she had sent her children away she sang one last song in that original language and sank into the earth forever.  The woman who told the story sang the song for us but had no idea what it meant.   I listened mesmerized at the idea of hearing the language the birds and animals used to speak before they grew up and had to go away.  It was a language that humans no longer spoke either.  We recorded the song and gave it to specialists in endangered languages Lev Michael and Christina Baer.  They analyzed the words and confirmed that it was a form of Zapara.   


In this conclusion, one could say that this story accounts for the meaning of all of the sounds of nature.  The first mother, who goes to dwell in the earth is, in some way, the earth herself.  Her unintelligible song is the sound of the earth.  Although we can no longer decipher the words we know that its meaning is a lament for the separation of her children.  Similarly, the call of each animal expresses the pathos of being alone.  It is the haunting cry of separation, of aloneness, of grief.  What are the animals?  In some way or another they are all wakchas (orphans).  Nevertheless it is the boundaries between each species that creates space and makes this world habitable.


Amazonian culture cultivated listening to nature.  But when people listened what did they hear?  One answer is that they listened to the “llaki”  (pathos, sadness, longing, suffering, or love) of nature. This “llaki” is a longing to overcome the distance between species but is at the same time a recognition that this distance is what creates the private space each species needs in order to live its adult life.  Awareness of this pathos was key to creating the empathy that made their working relations to plants and animals possible.

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