Anthropologist Philippe Descola has won the 2014 International Cosmos Prize, a Japanese award, for his study of the isolated Jivaroan Achuar people of the Ecuadorian Amazon. Their lives had previously been unknown to the wider world.
“It was an eye-opening discovery when I witnessed their activities in interacting with nature, completely different from the Western view of nature that dichotomizes humans and nature,” the 65-year-old professor at the College de France in Paris said during a visit to Tokyo.
Descola, who studied under renowned anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, lived in Achuar communities from 1976 to 1979 as he conducted ethnographic fieldwork on their coexistence with nature.
“Through slash-and-burn horticulture and hunting, they collected and buried droppings of animals and created a forest with much more varieties of plants than those found in surrounding areas,” Descola said.
He also explained that the Achuar people communicate with animals in dreams and have a unique relationship with nonhumans.
The Cosmos Prize is awarded by the Osaka-based Commemorative Foundation for the International Garden and Greenery Exposition, also known as the Expo ’90 Foundation.
The organization’s citation said Descola’s achievements are “deemed to have universality that can be applied to various parts of the world in addressing environmental challenges.”
The foundation also said that Descola has explored “the fundamental relationship between humans and nature as the ‘anthropology of nature,’ from a global perspective, thereby establishing a new model regarding nature and culture.”
Descola first studied philosophy but developed a desire to experience how other people live.
In Achuar communities “life was hard but I never felt intimidated by the people,” Descola said. “I was much more afraid of being lost in the deep forest.”
Regarding Japanese people’s view of nature, Descola said they “should have their own way to interact with nature and I believe diversity is more important than anything else on Earth today.”