Childhood in the jungle

28 Nov 2022

Do children who grow up surrounded by untamed wilds develop a different concept of nature to Western urban kids? Anthropologist Francesca Mezzenzana is exploring what the consequences are. A portrait from the new issue of the research magazine EINSICHTEN.

Green, green and more green, as far as the eye can see. Trees, bushes, swinging vines in every conceivable shade, interspersed with brightly colored petals and giant butterflies. The rainforest in Ecuador’s corner of the Amazon region ranks as one of the most biodiverse places on Earth. It is home to countless bird species, from the tiniest hummingbird to the mighty harpy – one of the largest birds of prey in the world – not to mention formidable mammals such as jaguars, apes, sloths, tapirs, armadillos and manatees, but also reptiles such as caimans and huge anacondas.

Another culture

For people from the Runa people, it is natural that trees think; they are certain that supernatural beings exist in the forest. Francesca Mezzenzana explores how children in the rainforest learn to live with nature.

© Oliver Jung

Heavily affected by the processes of globalization

Yet is not the wonders of nature that repeatedly lure Francesca Mezzenzana back to the primeval forests of Ecuador. It is the people, some of whom inhabit the remotest locations amid an endless sea of green: the Runa people, for example, who take it for granted that trees think and that even worms can communicate with each other. People with no doubts that the forests are populated by supernatural beings who appear to them in dreams and give them instructions, for example. Mezzenzana is an anthropologist and has come back to the Amazon region time and again ever since 2011, when she was researching her doctoral thesis at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Whenever she is here, she lives with Runa friends and family – at times close to urban environments, but sometimes far off in the jungle. She studies how people perceive their environment and develop as individuals in their communities.

She joined the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society at LMU in summer 2021, with an ambitious project in her sight: “We want to know how the surrounding environment affects children, what kind of relationship they develop to flora and fauna, i.e. to non-human nature,” she says, providing a brief summary. Do children who grow up in the Amazon jungle behave differently toward the environment than, say, their contemporaries who are raised in Munich, running around in the sheltered spaces of nurseries and playgrounds and learning about animals more from books or visits to the zoo than from everyday life?

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2:17 | 28 Nov 2022

Excursion in a canoe

Since 2011, Francesca Mezzenzana has been traveling regularly to the rainforest of Ecuador, sometimes to remote settlements.

© Franks Mayancha

It often takes Francesca Mezzenzana several days by motorboat to reach some of the most distant Runa settlements. While they are geographically far removed from major agglomerations, this, the anthropologist stresses, does not mean people are cut off from the global community. While some communities still live off subsistence farming and hunting, everyone’s life is deeply shaped by larger global processes. The youngsters attend bilingual schools, where they learn Spanish and Amazonian Kichwa, a variant of Quechua. Mezzenzana herself communicates with the Runa in both languages. The young people are conversant with digital technology and social media. “An interesting mix,” she feels.

Curious about how other cultural groups think

What kind of relationship do children develop to animals and plants in their immediate vicinity? This kind of question takes on special significance against the backdrop of species extinction and climate change: If we want to know how to behave toward our planet in the future, we need to find out what governs our behavior toward our environment. And on this score in particular, we may have a lot to learn from peoples whose way of life is intimately intertwined with other living beings. It is no coincidence that Ecuador became the first country to enshrine the rights of nature in its constitution in 2008.

This move acknowledges the fact that indigenous peoples personify nature or aspects of it. Decisions about building roads, cutting down trees for commercial purposes and exploiting natural resources thus acquire a different meaning – and possibly lead to different results. Conversely, one could argue that the perspective of those people in Western industrialized nations that reduce nature to an object is partially responsible for destruction, climate change and the extinction of species. If you feel no connection with animals, plants and ecosystems, you might be more likely to exploit them and do less to protect them – especially if defending them would mean foregoing a certain degree of luxury and convenience.

In light of these considerations, failure to pay keen attention to how other cultural groups live and what they think could be critical to the future of humanity. We also need to be aware that other peoples see the world differently and hold different philosophies – and that this does not necessarily mean they are wrong. There is more than one way to see one and the same situation; and there may be more than one solution that leads to the same goal.

In contact

Francesca Mezzanzana studies the life and thought of the Runa, in the midst of impenetrable nature.

© Franks Mayancha

Mezzenzana herself has discovered this again and again on her stays with the Runa: “One key experience for me was when I was there a number of years ago with my then-four-month-old son,” she recalls. At the time, she was utterly exhausted, she says. A woman from the village approached and explained matter-of-factly that she would now take the baby and look after him for a few weeks so that Mezzenzana could get some sleep and get on with her work. The native of Italy was horrified, as most European women probably would have been: “I freaked out at the idea. There was no way I was going to do that,” she says. “But no one of my Runa friends understood my reaction. For them, it was a perfectly normal suggestion.”

The scientist kept her baby with her. “But this situation made me think,” she admits. “The Runa routinely entrust their children to other people in the village. And the children suffer no obvious harm. On the contrary, they grow up as healthy and happy members of their society.” That is not to say that our notion of bonding and having a reliable caregiver are wrong, she adds. Yet we should also consider that this is certainly not the only way to do a good job of raising human children.

What nature asks of us

Read the answers in the new issue of our research magazine EINSICHTEN at | © LMU

Not like the (over)protected children in urban Western societies

“The Runa children also learn in a very different way to children in Central Europe or the USA,” Mezzenzana notes. “Parents don’t often teach them explicitly to do things or urge them to think about their behavior.” Instead, even the very youngest put themselves to the test in nature. “If a child wants to learn to catch fish, it goes to the river and tries and tries until it works,” the anthropologist tells us. “And the grown-ups trust the child and its capabilities – even if this means leaving him alone by the river.”

It seems obvious that children in this kind of society see themselves differently to the (over)protected children in Munich, Rome and New York. So, how does growing up surrounded by nature influence children's relationship to nature? Is their experience very different to that of many children in Western industrialized nations, who take special classes to learn about awareness of and responsibility for nature, because their everyday milieu gives them few points of contact with wild animals and plants?

Scientists actually disagree about how far the extent of children’s interaction with a natural environment shapes their later concept of nature. The common assumption is that children everywhere in the world share a comparable understanding of physical and biological phenomena, and that their conceptual grasp thereof is not shaped until later, via the agency of education and society.

How does children’s interaction with a natural environment shape their later concept of nature? | © Oliver Jung

A whole series of studies lend credence to this assumption, attesting that even babies follow animate beings rather than inanimate objects with their eyes. They also tend to be irritated if, say, elements of a picture are stacked on top of each other in such a way that, in keeping with gravity, they ought to collapse. The problem with such studies is that, as a rule, only babies from Western industrialized nations take part in them. “But 80 percent of humanity does not live in Western cities,” Mezzanzana points out. Logically, therefore, the findings of such studies may not generalisable to the whole of humanity.

Francesca Mezzenzana wants to move on from here and has designed a large-scale comparative study. In the years ahead, she and her colleagues want to observe widely differing children: those who grow up in indigenous communities in Ecuador and Chile; those that grow up in an urban environment in the USA; but also children from an ecovillage in Italy who, although living within a Western industrialized nation, nevertheless inhabit a setting that attaches great importance to conscious environmental education. “This is the first comparative anthropological study in the world to address this issue,” Mezzenzana states, underscoring the significance of her research project.

The scientist is convinced that daily surroundings have a definite influence on the way children conceptualize non-human nature – and how they behave toward it. That said, distilling this view into the simple formula “living close to nature plus personalized nature equals environmentally conscious behavior” is probably not accurate. From archeological investigations, for example, we know that hunters and gatherers were already making an irreversible mark on nature thousands of years ago, albeit not on the scale of modern-day interventions.

Empathy for flora and fauna in one’s everyday context

To take things a step further, the basic assumption that plants and animals have feelings and preferences alone does not necessarily result in what, in Western terms, we understand as “environmentalism”. This was something Mezzenzana discovered in an earlier study. To complete it, she spent time living with Runa families and observing the children as they played and told stories. “I first looked at how children imagine non-human entities. Then I examined how they expressed empathy for these entities in everyday life,” the anthropologist explains. And although the children attributed agency to animals and plants, this did not automatically translated in a greater care for all types of living beings. Empathy, it seems, is not the same as sympathy or care. Another interesting finding was this: Whereas children in the jungle tend to develop empathy for animals and plants in their immediate environment, Western children often feel affection for lions, giraffes and whales – creatures they know only from books and films.

Mezzenzana is convinced that growing up in the midst of nature creates a different impression on children than occasional visits to the zoo and picture books about farms. Last summer, the researcher was once again back in the Ecuadorian rainforest. This time, she spent a whole week with a mother and her baby (just a few months old), making videos of the two for subsequent analysis. The child spent little time in the house and hardly ever played with conventional toys. Most of the time, the baby was either in her mother’s arms or on the floor outdoors. And even at home, the baby mainly played with plants, beetles and lizards,” Mezzenzana reports. “For me, it is inconceivable that this close relationship to living beings does not have an impact on the ongoing development of the child. Our project aims precisely to understand the effects of such interactions on child development.

Text: Stefanie Reinberger

Francesca Mezzenzana

Francesca Mezzenzana | © Oliver Jung

Dr. Francesca Mezzenzana is a fellow of the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society (RCC) at LMU Munich. Born in 1987, she studied anthropology at University College London. She earned her Ph.D. in anthropology at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Mezzenzana was a postdoctoral researcher at both the Laboratoire d'Anthropologie Sociale at the Collège de France in Paris and at the University of Kent in Canterbury, UK, before coming to Munich in 2021. Her work at the RCC has won her a Freigeist (Free Thinker) Fellowship from the Volkswagen Foundation.

Read more articles of the current issue and other selected stories in the online section of INSIGHTS/EINSICHTEN. Magazine.

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