The Salt of Plants: Ecology, Affections, and Sexuality in the Amazonian Knowledge of Ash Salts

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This piece by Jose Gabriel Dávila is the second post in the Emotional Ecologies series edited by Sarah York-Bertram and Jessica DeWitt. In this series, contributors were asked to reflect on what role emotion plays in connecting humans to their environment and more-than-human beings.

To Alicia Sánchez de Román, in her memory

For the Indigenous Nasa leader Quintin Lame, nature is where all knowledge felt by biological species is gestated.1 Now, in the Amazonian context, when we speak of the “sexualization” of the plant world in the rainforest, we are not talking about a reproductive morphology per se, but of an anthropo-cosmic paradigm that implies fecundity, death, and rebirth. It is, therefore, a general conception of the landscape perceived as a gendered and sexualized Body.

The Murui expression “Mooma Buinaima ɨaironaidena nobɨde” means “The Creator Father became ill (filled with salt), then he became breathless.”2 He takes that sickness out of himself and throws it out, into the jungle. This is the origin of the plants: they are the diseases of the Creator, but at the same time, they are his semen represented by the mineral salts they contain.3 Here we find a twofold process of impregnation—the forest Soil gets pregnant with its juices and latex4—a process of insemination. That mythical experience is not separate from the subjective experiences of nature as a vector of emotions. These sexual images serve as a model for the ecology of living interplay within the network of the forest. The Word of Salt5 is a discourse on the behavior and management of desire because these sexual images serve as a model for human and non-human entanglements.

The Word of Salt is a discourse on the behavior and management of desire because these sexual images serve as a model for human and non-human entanglements.

Mooma Buinaima is full of salt. He is full of semen, and all that vitality becomes his first illness: he weakens, he becomes breathless and, looking for the beginning of that suffering, he expels it in the form of phlegm and burns it in fire. He is relieved, only to fall ill again: he is filled with pride, he feels breathless, he becomes vain, he becomes hasty, he does not want to get up from the hammock. At every suffering he experiences, the Creator discovers it, casts it out, consumes it with flames, and finally tastes the result turned into nutrients for us. All that substance that the Creator throws out becomes Life. As a counterpart, the purifying fire is represented as the Devouring Mother: mistress of the summer that prepares the new fields of growth; cold bonfire that brings forth vitality; fire of abundance, fire of humanization, heat to sleep beside, but devouring light. This is the concept of ash salt (ɨaizaɨ), which refers to the fertile power present in all living beings.6 Also seen as the juice of the mother’s breast7 (eeiño monoɨ bibi), our primary feed, as well as the jungle animals concur the saltlicks8 where they lick the milk of mother earth.

Currently, several Amazonian Indigenous Peoples hold this type of salt as an indispensable mixture for the tobacco paste used for rituals, especially among the Murui ethnic group.9 The Murui’s traditional territory has been the region of the middle Caquetá River in the south of Colombia, in the vicinity of the Igara-Paraná basin. In their comprehensive work The Healing Forest, Schultes and Raffauf wrote a large compendium of plants used to prepare vegetable salt in the northwestern Amazon.10 However, Schultes and Raffauf express that the chemical and curative properties of these salts have not been thoroughly investigated. For this reason, I rely particularly on the knowledge of Óscar Román-Jitdutjaaño, named traditionally as Enokakuiodo.

Óscar Román-Jitdutjaaño, named traditionally as Enokakuiodo.
Enokakuiodo – Óscar Román-Jitdutjaaño.

Enokakuiodo was born around the time of the Colombian-Peruvian conflict (1932-1933) in the old rubber station of Entrerríos, one of the stations of the infamous Peruvian-British Peruvian Amazon Company, where numerous Nɨpode clans of the Murui People were enslaved to extract rubber. This time of exploitation led to the extermination of many of these clans along with the forced displacement and the spread of disease among many others. In the seventies, orphan Enokakuiodo started working in scientific institutes as an assistant in a pilot nursery that was created in Araracuara, a site of interest for several researchers such as the above-mentioned Richard Evans Schultes and Alwyn Howard Gentry, with whom Enokakuiodo collaborated. He became a botanical specialist himself, schooled in the language of taxonomy and simultaneously on traditional Indigenous knowledge. From there, Enokakuiodo has become a recognized wisdom-keeper.

Recently, in 2020 he published his book Ɨairue nagɨni (“Salt of Life”) in close collaboration with the anthropologist Juan Álvaro Echeverri.11 Ɨairue nagɨni is a 1500-page book that condenses twenty years of study of the conception and fabrication of the ash salt, and whose reading, accompanied by my personal experiences with the authors, inspired the birth of this short piece of writing. The fourth chapter “Eeiño jogobe bibe,” translated as “Environmental knowledge as sexual education,” addresses how the plant species used for making salt are interpreted through indexes that relate them with animals, birds, insects, parts of the human body, bodily affects, and emotions. I am not referring to a system or a taxonomy. What this Indigenous knowledge expresses is another logic of interpretation of the so-called ecological world through which vegetable species represent bodily affects and capacities.

A way to enact and coordinate the sensory and emotional dimensions that Murui People experience with other non-human subjects is to partake in the technical practices of making traditional ash salt…

Then, a way to enact and coordinate the sensory and emotional dimensions that Murui People experience with other non-human subjects is to partake in the technical practices of making traditional ash salt to mix with tobacco paste and consume it together with the mambe–a coca leaf powder mixed with Cecropia ashes.

The main source of salts are palms, particularly thorny palms (Astrocaryum and Bactris genera). The second group of species appreciated for salt are aquatic and riparian plants, mainly Cyclanthaceae, but also Aracea and Thurniaceae. These are “cold” salts with a sweet taste. The more than sixty species from which salts are extracted are organized into eight main groups which refer both to the processes of gestation, as well as the technical processes of preparation of salt and tobacco paste. These eight main groups are: jenua (search), maraikɨ (phlegm), jobaiya (burning, transformation), daibiriya (filtering, fertilization), faniya (molting, skin change, menstruation), zokuade (dodging), rukude (roaring, agitation), dujude (curdling, coalescing, breeding).

Jenua (search) encompasses several aquatic plants and fauna associated with difficulties and obstacles in the learning process: getting stuck (related to ɨkorɨ, crab), being immobile (related to jogaɨrɨ, rivershrimp), being conceited and becoming impotent (jibuirɨ, caloche fish). For its part, jobaiya (burning) organizes species related to transformation of animals and certain plants that change their skin and bark, their flowers, fruits, and leaves. It also refers to human emotions, describing sudden changes of mood. This group contains species of trees of the Sapotaceae family: ɨaikona jifikona (Ecclinusa bullata), which have properties of being hot, sticky, contagious and difficult to control; they are symbolized by the tarantula dɨokɨ moi, whose abdomen resembles the shape of the fruits of that tree.

A wild hog under a tree sketch.
Ɨaikona jifikona, illustrated by Cristian Román Muruy

Now, daibiriya (filtering) means fertilization. This group encompasses zaɨkorɨ (Thurnia sphaerocephala), an aquatic plant associated with the anaconda, whose body is “cold” like that of the female. Faniya (skin change) is like menstruation—a category that brings together species associated with blood, rage, and arrogance. Two species of Leguminosae are included, jizairai (Inga edulis) and rangogɨ(Parkia pendula), which indicate pride and overconfidence. These species are important; captain trees spread their branches, shading the rest of the woods.

Snake in a tree sketch.
Zaɨkorɨ, illustrated by Diego Guerrero Román.

The name of the kañakona palm (Mauritia carana) suggests the idea of being alive and well (kaade), even as the trunk of the palm is permanently covered with parasites; this is the reason why it is considered a dujude breeding salt. This is understood as  part of the growth process of the jarɨna palm (Attalea maripa). The jarɨna palm is a powerful index of the learning process: as it grows it throws away all that dirt which goes to feed its roots, revealing its simple and elegant stem.

A Amazonian Dolphin swimming under a palm tree sketch.
Jarɨna illustrated by Óscar Román.

This practical ecology of obtaining salts offers a vivid narration of human and non-human affections through the ecological, biological, and semiotic indexes of the Amazonian species assemblage.

This practical ecology of obtaining salts offers a vivid narration of human and non-human affections through the ecological, biological, and semiotic indexes of the Amazonian species assemblage. Each of these living organisms provides an insight into the Creator’s body. Humans and non-humans embody the landscape through the consumption of these derived substances: secretions of the very body of Mooma Buinaima, who left the traces of our affective education in the flesh of the Amazonian Forest relations.

Feature Image: River. El Café, Caqueta, Colombia. “7D2_9708” by Diego J. Lizcano is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.


1 Manuel Quintín Lame Chantre. Los pensamientos del indio que se educó en las selvas colombianas. Popayán: Editorial Universidad del Cauca, 2020.

2 Oscar Román-Jitdutjaano, Simón Román Sánchez, Juan Álvaro Echeverri. Ɨairue nagɨni. Sal de vida. Leticia: Universidad Nacional de Colombia Sede Amazonia, IMANI, 2020.

3 Low concentration of sodium ions and high concentration of potassium ions.

4 Latex still has that contemporary significance of condoms and contraception, however, in the northwestern Amazonian cultural material imaginery, latex comes after ‘milking’ the tree, a texture that is also akin to semen. Latex is substance of life, almost as much as of death, historically, after the genocidal episode of rubber.

5 Referring to the traditional ‘rafue’ type of discourse employed by Enokakuiodo, which consists of a long narration both proper and steeped in traditional morphological and semiotic constructions, with a special intonation and caesura, which includes a mythical load that does not cease to be scientific.

6 Juan Álvaro Echeverri, Óscar Román-Jitdutjaano,, “Ash salts and bodily affects: Witoto environmental knowledge as sexual education”, in Environ. Res. Lett. 8 (2013) 015034 (13pp). doi:  10.1088/1748-9326/8/1/015034.

7 The true breast of the Mother, in this human-plant code, is associated to the chapena tree (Dulasia sp.) and the chapeyɨ, a cold healing grass related to basil, another symbol of woman.

8 Very special places used by tapirs (Tapirus terrestris) and other species in the southeast of the Colombian Amazon.

9 Best known by the imposed name of “witotos.”

10 Richard Evan Schultes, Robert Raffauf, The Healing Forest: Medicinal and Toxic Plants of the Northwest Amazonia (Historical, Ethno-& Economic Botany). London: Dioscorides Press, 1990.

11 Román-Jitdutjaano, Román Sánchez, Echeverri. Ɨairue nagɨni. Sal de vida.

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Researcher on embodiment of landscape, semiosis and material culture in the northwest Amazonia. MA in Art History. Currently PhD student at the Amazonian Studies program at National University of Colombia. Currently member of Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America (SALSA). The Amazon Basin as Connecting Borderland Fellow, Getty Foundation. Interested in the relationship between religiosity and the subtle everyday life among indigenous past and present. His latest published book is Piel tumbaga (2022).

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