Our anthropologists travel all over the world for their research; read samples of their adventures here!
Payson Sheets offers this recap of his summer fieldwork:
Chris Dixon [Co-PI] and I received a NSF grant for research at Cerén, El Salvador, but the mass murders there make it impossible to return. I spent July and early August with Chris, Rachel Egan, and Tom Sever (NASA, then U AL Huntsville) in the area of Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica. We were greeted by an earthquake and then a volcanic eruption, perfect welcoming’s. We were successful in the objective of finding and confirming an ancient footpath dating to c. 700-1200 AD, but going in a puzzling direction. We followed it out and discovered a new trail network connecting springs. There are ethnographic indications of natives believing that springs symbolize the origins of life: human, animal, and vegetative. This is Chris’ topic. Then we dug deeper and found an occupied paleosol hundreds of years earlier. Then we dug deeper (2.5m) and found another paleosol with fire-cracked rock from boiling water, charcoal, and then found the floor of an ancient house, perhaps 3000 years old. The four postholes indicate it is 5-6m in diameter. We will excavate it next year.
Report of an important discovery:
This summer an interdisciplinary team of specialists (James Cordova, Michelle Goman, Mary Pye), under the umbrella of CU Boulder, recorded and explored a group of unreported caves in the upper basin of the Balsas River, Guerrero, Mexico. Most of them demonstrate an extraordinary history of human occupation. We will be presenting our results in the near future in different venues, but in the meantime, I would like to call your attention to one of these caves.
The Cave of the Governors of Techan, a shallow cave that was carved to create a monolithic sanctuary with four were-jaguars in high relief displaying Olmec style iconography (circa 1000-600 B.C.). This is the first cave with Olmec style monumental sculpture located in Guerrero, the cradle of the earliest maize in the American continent.
A brief note was published by a Mexican newspaper:
I include a preliminary artistic depiction…[below] --Gerardo Gutiérrez
Eric and I had a good day – really, really hot, but “no problem”! Attached are a few pictures.
I depart from Delhi in just a few hours, so this will be my final fieldwork communiqué.
After two cool days in Coorg, Nilam and I descended to the steamy coastal city of Mangalore, in western Karnataka, a place celebrated in Amitav Ghosh’s novel “In an Antique Land.” It doesn’t quite have the same antique charm these days. There wasn’t enough time to tackle a real ethnographic encounter with the local matrilineal Bants, but we had an interesting tour of the city with a contact who is a patrilineal Beary. We also saw a famous Jain temple in Mudubidri, about 40 km north of town and a famous Sufi saint’s dargah at Ullal about 10 km to the south.
Determined to experience a journey on the Indian Railways, we booked two berths in a 6-berth AC compartment on the West Coast Express from Mangalore to Chennai. It left Mangalore at 10:30 PM and reached Chennai Central at 2:30 PM the following day: 16 hours in close quarters with the family of a professional cricket umpire returning from a Hindu pilgrimage to the goddess Mukkambikkai. When it was running, the AC made a huge racket, and the windows were so dirty that we saw none of the scenery. To cap it off, we had a big argument over prices with the railway porters and the taxi driver in Chennai.
Upon arrival, we discovered it was the beginning of a 4-day holiday in Chennai, so several of the bookstores we had planned to visit (eg. Higginbothams) were closed, and MIDS was utterly deserted. Chennai was also significantly hotter (97 F) and more humid than when we were last there in February. Despite all this, we met a number of our previous Chennai contacts including Kombai S. Anwar, the Tamil Muslim documentary filmmaker. I was invited to join a Tamil Muslim discussion group on the topic of “Sufism vs Wahhabism” and I gave a powerpoint presentation on my fieldwork in Tamilnadu and Kerala at MIDS before flying to Delhi. Nilam, meanwhile, had a long shopping list of items to procure and bring back to Colombo, a number of which were only available at a special folk-medicine dispensary in Adyar.
Here in Delhi, I gave a powerpoint talk at the Indian International Centre on the problems of Muslim identity in contemporary Sri Lanka. I also met the president of the newly-founded South Asian University, Dr. Kavita Sharma, and I spent a delightful evening at the home of Dr. Charu Gupta, a well-published Indian historian. Today, Friday, I finally made it to Khan Market and Janpath for some gift shopping, followed by lunch at the Imperial Hotel. I took the new Delhi Metro subway system and found it to be smooth, quiet, and cheap. It was also crowded, but that means it is working as planned.
I’ll conclude with some photos from this last phase of my fieldwork in India.
This message comes to you from Madikeri (British: Mercara), Coorg, at a blessedly cool elevation in the western ghats. It’s where the south Indian coffee beans are grown, and where many generals in the Indian Army were born. At our home-stay bungalow there are large slugs crawling on the bathroom walls, but the cook from Darjeeling serves us wonderful steamed momos. This widespread labor migration from NE India to the deep south is something I had not expected to see. They are running direct trains now from Assam to Kerala (4 days travel time).
Nilam and I flew from Colombo to Trivandrum on March 15, where we stayed three days at the Centre for Development Studies guesthouse. It was an opportunity to meet some CDS faculty as well as do a little extra fieldwork among the matrilocal Catholic fishermen along the coast. I also wanted to see the famous Padmanabhaswamy temple of the Travancore kings, which – it was discovered recently – has a subterranean treasure chamber containing 200 years of royal payola to the deity worth an astonishing amount. There are now guards at the temple carrying AK47s.
We arranged a car & driver in Trivandrum and headed directly north all the way to Calicut, which is where the Muslim matrilocal marriage belt begins. Our party was joined by a Malayali grad student, and the three of us worked as a team for about 10 days. We’ve been staying in whatever Indian hotels we can find, and each seems to have some unique problem. In Tellicherry they started chiseling the concrete floor above our room with sledgehammers, so we checked out the next day.
For those of you utterly captivated by kinship, the Muslim households in coastal towns like Calicut, Tellicherry, and Kannur are organized in multi-family houses, with each daughter and son-in-law receiving their own marital bedroom. As families expand, additional rooms are added: I visited one old house with 16 bedrooms. Ownership of these rooms is passed from mother to daughter, and diverging branches of the matrilineal family are often present under the same roof on different floors & down different corridors. Nowadays, however, many of these huge houses are falling into disrepair, and many bedrooms are vacant because the couples are living elsewhere (e.g. Dubai, Australia). Nevertheless, some of the houses are quite grand, and there are efforts to preserve them as architectural heritage.
My fieldwork in north Kerala has focused on the Muslims, who are currently the only community following a clear matrilocal marriage rule. Unlike in Sri Lanka, where the Muslims are generally egalitarian, I’ve found some very clear social stratification in north Malabar, including the Koya elite in Calicut, the hereditary matrilineal Keyis in Tellicherry, and the Arakkal royal family in Kannur.
For diversion in Kannur, the three of us went to see a current Malayali hit movie: “100 Days of Love.” With the male ticket queue extending into the street, I learned how to chat up women in the female queue to persuade them to buy tickets for us.
My application to visit Androth Island (Lakshadweep) was ultimately denied, which has given me a little extra time to visit Coorg and catch up on writing my field notes. I’ll release the car & driver Tuesday in Mangalore, and take a night train back to Chennai with Nilam.
I’m attaching some photos taken over the past two weeks. I’ll send them in two emails in order to minimize upload/download problems with the photos: look for Coorg report 1 and Coorg report 2.
Warm regards to everyone,
Dear Family & friends,
Phase I of my project is nearing completion. On Thursday Nilam and I drove from Nagercoil TN to Thiruvananthapuram (a.k.a. Trivandrum) in Kerala, stopping to see the historic (14th-18th century) palace of the Travancore Rajas at Padmanabhapuram.
The past two weeks have required energetic fieldwork, but I have to say the results are surprisingly good. Just about every local “contact” we have chased has generated solid case studies of matrilocal marriage patterns, first with the coastal Marakkayar Muslims in Karaikkal and Kayalpattanam, then with the inland Hindu Nangudi Velalars and Kottai Velalars in Tutukkudi and Srivaikundam. The latter two castes are known mainly from the colonial gazetteers of Tirunelveli and a couple of articles by Louis Dumont. In each of the coastal Muslim settlements (Karaikkal, Nagoor, Kilakkarai, and Kayalpattanam) Nilam and I have managed to find local people who have taken us into their (matrilocal) homes and given me permission to take photos that would not be allowed in “public.” Inevitably, we are shepherded around by men, not women, and it has been hard to talk with women without men listening and interrupting, but still we’ve heard quite a bit of peripheral commentary from women. In the Hindu and Christian houses, women have sometimes been our main interlocutors.
My introductory patter in Tamil has gotten more polished, and I have also been trying to speed-read Tamil billboards as we pass them on the road. In this case, traffic jams have tended to improve my literacy. One nice thing has been my ability to email photos to the people we have spoken with. There is someone with a smartphone in just about every Indian village these days.
Our arrival in Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of Kerala state, means that all of my enhanced Tamil linguistics will be of little use when I start traveling north from here on March 16. Tamil and Malayalam (the state language) are similar but only partially mutually ntelligible, so I will be communicating in English and a mash-up of three languages. Nilam, however, is surprisingly good at communicating in mixed Tamil and Malayalam.
Nilam and I both feel the need to take a break from the fieldwork. We fly to Colombo on Sunday morning, where I look forward to washing my clothes and spending some quiet time writing on my computer. We’ll drive his family car across the island to the east coast on Friday the 6th for about 4-5 days of focused fieldwork, then back to Colombo to prepare for Phase II in India. I still have not heard whether the Indian Govt will give me permission to visit Androth Island in the Lakshadweep archipelago (a restricted travel area).
Over the past 10 days my rhinovirus has moved south in synchrony with the road map: sniffles in Pondicherry, runny nose in Ramanathanpuram, cough in Kayalpattanam, sore throat in Nagercoil. I am hoping there won’t be any trouble further “south” for me in Colombo. I am staying hydrated with Kingfisher lager whereever the religious authorities permit it to be sold.
Nagoor home tour, February 16, 2015
Asalaam alaikkum from Adirampattinam.
If you can pronounce my greeting, you will automatically receive bonus blessings from Nagoor Andavar, the Sufi saint whose dargah shrine is at the center of the Tamil Muslim town where I have been working for the past couple of days.
Instead of a diary report, this time I thought I would simply show you some of the amazing old Muslim houses I have glimpsed in Nagoor. The oldest & richest homes consist of a series of 3 inner courtyard rooms (open to the sky) in a row, stretching back from the front verandah which is right on the street. There is a large bedroom to the right of the verandah which is reserved for the senior man in the family, while other family bedrooms are located off the inner courtyards. Each courtyard room has a raised marble platform around a sunken central floor where the rainwater drains away. Each courtyard room has a name and a designated activity: “main” courtyard for social events, “inner” courtyard for private family activities, “cooking” courtyard for food prep. At the very back of the house there is a laundry and washing room with a private well, and beyond that there is a coconut & banana grove for drying laundry and defecation. Even some of the oldest houses now have inner attached toilet & baths, and room AC. But the wildly colorful paint schemes and the massive teak pillars remain. I also saw several homes with large safes for storing jewelry and precious stones, since many families are in the gem trade. I will also include a few photos of a 1920s-era Muslim mansion that struck me as having French colonial influences, which makes sense since Karaikkal (next door to Nagoor) is a former French colony.
With that introduction, I will let the photos speak for themselves.
Asalaam alaikkum, friends & kindred.
Beth and I got back from India on Tuesday, and the jet lag has worn off for me . . . but not for Beth. She is still going to sleep at 4 PM and waking at 2 AM.
The Sufi shrines conference I attended, sponsored by CAORC and the US Embassy in Delhi, was generally successful, despite quite a few last minute cancellations and visa denials. The venue was Hotel Kailas, the only accommodation available at the Ellora Caves not far from Aurangabad, Maharashtra. The hot water was tepid, but the beer was ice cold, and we had the entire hotel to house the conference participants.
On the mesa above the Ellora cave temples there is the historic Sufi & royal necropolis town of Khuldabad. with dargah tomb-shrines dotted across the landscape. The most famous dead saints here are from the musical Chishti Sufi order, so we arranged to sponsor a qawwali Sufi musical performance right inside one of the dargahs, where this kind of music is meant to be performed. There are some very famous Persian & Urdu historians and poets buried here as well. It is said that, by licking sugar from the threshold of their tombs, one acquires the saint’s eloquence and memory. I say, anything to prevent Alzheimers.
The embassy flew us down to Chennai for the final 5 days, where I gave a couple of academic presentations. It was useful for me to make some professional connections there in preparation for a 2 month fieldwork project I am planning in Tamilnadu & Kerala in February 2015. As always, I was captivated by the Tamilnadu State Handicrafts Emporium, where I took some of the final photos.
Photos taken at the annual flag-raising ceremony at the Jailani Sufi shrine in the central part of the island of Sri Lanka. The militant Buddhist monks, in collaboration with the government Archaeology Department, have recently torn down a number of Muslim buildings at this site, arguing that it is a sacred 2nd century BC Buddhist monastic center. However, the Muslim pilgrims came anyway, and the event had the same highly-charged energy as before. In these photos, you can see how everyone is trying to touch or grab the flags, which are believed to be energized by the power (barakat) of saint Abdul Qadir Jilani.
Here are a few more photos showing what I have been up to in Sri Lanka for the past couple of weeks. It has actually been an unpredictable mix of topics, ranging from Hindu wedding ceremonies, to Sufi Muslim saint veneration, to low caste upward mobility, to diasporic constructon of new religious centers. And along the way, there are always unexpected photo opportunities of one kind or another. Here’s a sample of images, each with a brief explanation.
My next objective is to climb the multi-religious pilgrimage route to the top of Adam’s Peak, where Adam fell to earth from Paradise, and where the Buddha and Lord Siva are also said to have touched down. After that, I intend to relax and do some sightseeing in the Kandyan Hills.
Salaam, Ayubowan, Vanakkam,
February 27, 2014
Dear family & friends,
Here are a few snapshots of Kuala Lumpur street scenes and the Hindu Temple at Batu Cave on the northern edge of the city.
We are getting ready to drive south to Melaka (Malacca) tomorrow morning. I’ve spent the past two hours studying the maps to figure out how to escape KL’s octopus of ring roads and crazy multi-level intersections. Thank goodness they don’t allow 3-wheel tri-shaws on the streets of KL.
Michelle Sauther, Associate Professor of Biological Anthropology, is currently embarking on a new study in South Africa. The site, called Lajuma, is a unique, highaltitude mist veldt. She and her colleagues, Dr. Frank Cuozzo (University of North Dakota), Dr. Krista Fish (Colorado College) and Dr. Sauther's student, Mike Strinden are studying the dental, disease and behavioral ecology of nocturnal greater galagos (locally called bushbabies, due to their plaintive cries that sound like human infants).
It is 2:30 PM in Akkaraipattu, Sri Lanka, and Nilam and I are dozing in our room after a heavy chicken biryani lunch at BMH Hotel (i.e., restaurant). The marriage interviewing project is beginning to shape up, now that I have become acquainted with how to operate my digital voice recorder. [I have sent a separate plea for technical help with audio file conversion to Grant.] So far, I have interviewed 7 couples about their matrilocal marriage “stories,” plus interviews with a low caste temple priest, a high caste sorcerer, and a Sufi sheikh. My introductory Tamil patter is getting more polished each time. Nilam and I have borrowed a pair of external computer speakers from his niece so we can listen to the interviews together on my laptop. Still, as the recording time steadily adds up, I am worried about the arduous process of translating and transcribing all of this babbling in Tamil, a portion of which I do not immediately understand. When Nilam and I get back to our room at the ANH Guesthouse, we are generally exhausted by the interviewing and the withering heat, so we have not been devoting enough time to actually listening to the recordings and extracting the useful passages. If I could only obtain some cold beer in this “dry” Muslim town, I’m convinced the dialog transcription process would move along much more efficiently.
This morning I interviewed my old Sufi Sheikh friend, Makkattar, about his constant use of a cellphone to confer blessings and curative incantations to his followers, some of whom live in Denmark and New Zealand. He claims he receives 1000 cellphone calls every day from disciples and seekers asking for his divine blessings via cellphone. His followers regularly give him the latest model cellphones as a devout gift to their Sufi master, and he in turn passes his used cellphones on to his favorite followers, who treasure the worn-out equipment that has touched his saintly ears and transmitted his saintly words. He said he has gone through 50 cellphones in the past ten years, each one acquiring barakat from heavy use. Spiritually speaking, this is a win-win form of recycling. I am thinking this might be a good topic for an article in the New Yorker, inshallah.
Meanwhile, I will attach a few photos of the people I have been interviewing about marriage.
Love to all from the lower latitudes,
7 June 2012
My month of research in Sri Lanka is winding up, and I thought some of you might be interested in a quick final report along with a few more photos.
My main goal was to collect some individual first-hand accounts of how young Tamils and Muslim couples in Akkaraipattu are getting married in the period since the tsunami (2004) and the defeat of the Tamil Tigers (2009). I already have tons of detailed fieldnotes on marriage and kinship from my fieldwork in the 1970s, so a comparison with contemporary marriage practices may indicate what sorts of social and cultural changes have occurred over the past 40 years. Using a digital voice recorder (technology I have seldom used in the past) I interviewed about 10 young Tamil couples and 10 Muslim couples, inviting them to share their “marriage story” (திருமண கதை) with me if they wished. In most cases, it was like turning on a fire hydrant: the stories gushed forth so quickly that I sometimes I didn’t have my recorder ready. The utter counterproductiveness of IRB “informed consent” regulations is immediately revealed in situations like this. The first newlywed Tamil couple I visited for an interview were married last May, and I was present at their wedding. In fact, I even appear in their professionally-produced wedding video! However, when I visited them again this time to see their new baby and ask for their marriage story, they froze up and became apprehensive when I recited my long statement in Tamil about confidentiality and informed consent, and in the end, they declined to be interviewed. The clumsy IRB consent protocol had signaled something ominous and frightening, precisely the opposite of what is required in ethnographic fieldwork. So I quickly learned to let people pour forth their marriage stories first, then assured them afterward about confidentiality. Then, of course, many of them were disappointed to learn that their true names would not appear in my book.
What I have been generally discovering is that traditional arranged marriages and Dravidian-type cross-cousin marriages are still very common, but love marriages and inter-caste marriages are clearly on the rise. The wedding rituals for the Hindu Tamils and the Tamil-speaking Muslims have changed in different ways over the past 40 years, the results of both Hindu Brahminical influence and Muslim Islamicization (and also TV and Bollywood movies). However, the matrilocal marriage residence and dowry property system remains intact, with parents of a daughter required to provide a dowry house to attract a suitable son-in-law to live with her. This works great for most brides whose parents are sufficiently wealthy to at least provide a house-building plot, but for the poorest women it gives them no means of attracting a husband. (Men generally do not inherit parental property: it all goes to women as dowry.) The solution in some cases is for the daughter to work abroad in Saudi Arabia or the Gulf as a housemaid for years at a time, sending her wages back to Sri Lanka to get her own dowry house constructed. In many cases, the wife retains exclusive ownership of the dowry house throughout the marriage, and her husband is in some sense her house guest. Of course, there are lots of variations and exceptions, and there are some delightful stories of how love marriages got launched through cellphone and text messaging mistakes.
A secondary topic I explored on this trip is the variety of student artwork painted on the external masonry walls of schools in the eastern region of the island. I have promised to come up with a paper about this “wall art” (சுவரோவியம்) for the Madison South Asia conference in October 2012, so I have been snapping photos of these student paintings everywhere I see them.
I will attach some photos with this message to give you a glimpse of my fieldwork milieu, concluding with a focus on nutrition.
With sweaty best wishes from Sri Lanka,
26 May 2012
We had a truly amazing day in the field — we saw a single social group of silvered langurs with more than 50 individuals. This is amazing because it is a very, very large group for langurs anywhere (and they range throughout southern and southeast Asia and Indonesia. Also, it is amazing because as recently as 2008 it was thought that no more than 30-40 members of this species existed in Vietnam. I have seen more than 100 the past couple of days. I will send some pictures soon.
28 May 2012
On Tuesday we drove from Ho Chi Minh City to Kien Luong, Kien Giang Province on the western edge of the Mekong Delta. We have been working on a silvered langur conservation project in this area the past few years. It is interesting (at least to me) for a host of reasons. 1) Silvered langurs were first noted to live in this area in 2000 by my colleague Hoang Minh Duc (check out the picture of Duc watching langurs). 2) Until 2009 it was thought there were less than 40 silvered animals in this region of Vietnam – a relic population on a few limestone hills in Kien Giang. 3) In 2009 we confirmed the presence of more than 220 silvered langurs in this region – the largest confirmed population of this species anywhere. 4) We are working with (and against) a Swiss concrete manufacturer on the conservation project. And 5) the 100 or so silvered langurs that live on the hill at Chua Hang are quite easy to observe because they are used to hearing and seeing humans – humans that are nearby to visit a pagoda (Chua) and to enjoy the beach (see the beach picture).
I must write that the beach looks nicer in the picture that it does close up – lots of liter and the water is not clean this time of year. It is a pleasant place to work just the same – while it is hot and humid there is also a pleasant coastal breeze. Also while we end up walking a few miles each day – it is on nice paths, not bush whacking through the juggle. On Wednesday and Thursday we saw more than 60 animals pretty amazing – they are easy to observe and do not flee from humans (as most primates in Vietnam do – and for good reason, they are hunted even though this activity is illegal throughout the country). I’ve seen lots of feeding behavior – green mangoes, a couple of other types of small fruit, leaves, and buds (I’ve included a few pictures). I’ve also seen animals grooming one another (an important social behavior), seen some babies – many langurs are characterized by having babies that are a dramatically different color than parents – I’ve included a few photos of youngsters from yesterday – they are bright yellow/gold rather than dark silver. While most of the observations the past couple of day have been of the animals in trees we also watched a group of more than 30 pass over a limestone cliff face for 30 minutes (out of more than 8 hours of observations) and I have included a few pictures. Finally, it seems that the monkeys watch us as we watch them – I’ve included a couple of pictures of this also.
Hi All – a note from the tea fields:
Our UN Research team has been interviewing in the “upcountry” of Sri Lanka lately. We’re talking with women who pick tea leaves all day and men who labor on the tea plantations.
Most of the people we talk with live in line rooms that were built by the British when they planted tea here, when Sri Lanka was “Ceylon.” The room dimensions are about 10′ x 10′ where I was this morning – a misty, remote, high-altitude location in a poorly managed tea estate where about 15 families live in line houses, sharing just one water tap.
The road wound on and on through expanses of tea bushes, and in many places was washed away so that it was difficult to traverse. The women pluck tea leaves from early morning until the daylight begins to fade, wearing a plastic tent over their heads so the rain will run off while their arms are free to pick leaves. They earn less than two dollars a day for 200 kilos of tea leaves. If their sack of leaves weighs less than 200 kilos, their wage is cut in half.
Elders are dependent upon their younger family relations to care for them, as there are no pension plans. We’ve been listening to descriptions of extreme domestic violence, child abuse, and violent fighting between neighbors that is linked to cramped housing, alcoholism, grinding poverty, lack of education, among other unmet needs. We hope our report will lead to legal aid and education programs here.
It is actually chilly in this high region of Sri Lanka. When they offer me a hot cup of tea during our discussions, I drink it with a new awareness.
Our next research area is in the north of Sri Lanka, where the civil war has currently displaced 235,000 families.
We do have time to rest in between our intensive interviewing; there are cute puppies at our bungalow.
Summer 2007: Rubasingam Parwathy, the storyteller, tells a long story about how Kaddalnachchiyamman (“Sea Ruler Mother”) warned the people of Navalady about the coming tsunami. Midway through the story I accepted betel from her. “She tried to protect us but we didn’t take her seriously.” She grieves the fact that the tsunami divided her sisters who once lived nearby. She wants her son to marry because she is getting old. The girl he was going to marry in January 2005 was killed in the tsunami along with her mother – they were machchan and machchal. They had to take him to the hospital when he tried to poison himself.
She agreed that the Nagapucaniyamman Kovil in Navalady must be repaired after being damaged by the tsunami, because you can’t have a ruined temple in your ur, and besides they have seen the nagakanni (female cobra) swimming across the lagoon to Navalady from Mamangam this week, so the Nagapucaniyamman has come here. Who knows what an offended Amman will do? Her catangu (tiruvila) should be held in August.
She also tells a story about how Pattiniyamman, Mariyamman, and Kappalainthamawa all came to Sri lanka together in a boat from Kerala.
Pattiniyamman said she would have to live in the jungle so she went to Koralimadu (interior from Morakkatonchenai); Mariyamman came to Navalady, but then they changed her named to Kaddalnachchiyamman; and Kappalainthamawa became a Christian (her very old church is across the lagoon from Navalady – and this is where some people from Navalady, those who are angry with Kaddalnachchiyamman, go to worship after the tsunami).
She can’t envision matrilocal household clusters in Navalady again in the near future because most people still don’t want to come back here – they’re still afraid.
“We have to try to get dowry property on the other side of the lagoon now. Maybe sisters will come together here again when they are very old. This is a place for the old people now. We have everything we need here – fish from the sea, coconuts. There are girls who have property here, but we have to find a groom who will come and live here, and that is difficult. Most still don’t want to be here.” The mother of the children in the photo died in the tsunami, and she helps care for them because the father never remarried.
I have an interview with a GS tomorrow, and that will be my last on this trip. I do have some meals coming up with Tillanathan of Mandur and the deep sea divers who are going to roast lobster, but no more actual interviews. I’m off to Bundala Bird Sanctuary in a few days.
Summer 2008: I recently met Rubasingam Parwathy again, a wonderful elderly story teller who lives in a fishing village called Navalady on the Indian Ocean, which was devastated by the Asian tsunami. Most of Navalady’s children died in the enormous waves that totally engulfed their homes near the beach, but Parwathy cares for three young children who survived their mother. In my most recent ethnographic study for publication that I just sent to our National Science Foundation Grant PI, Dennis McGilvray, she tells a story about how the village’s local goddess, Kadalaadchiyamman (“Sea + ruling + mother”) came to visit the village the day before the tsunami. In her story, the goddess was disguised as an elderly woman wearing a dirty white saree and using a staff to help her walk. She visited many individuals in the village and told them to leave because “tomorrow the sea is coming,” and almost all of the people she spoke to died in the waves. Parwathy explains that the people shouldn’t lose faith in their goddess because she tried to warn them, but they didn’t understand her message.
Last year very few people came to the annual propitiation of this goddess in her temple on the beach, but this July her celebration was very well attended. An image of the goddess that used to be on top of the front entrance had all of her multiple arms broken off above the elbow by the waves, but now she has been given undetectable prosthetics. Each hand holds a different weapon as she stares out to sea.
Parwathy’s youngest son was about to be married to his cross-cousin (the ideal marriage partner in Dravidian kinship) at the time of the tsunami. Sadly, her life was lost, and he did not wish to be married thereafter. Parwathy is still hoping very much that he will marry as it is her duty as a Hindu Tamil mother to see that all of her children are married.
She complains that she is getting old. We are almost the same age, so I commiserate with her. She asked me what she can do about her arthritis. I told her I ride my bicycle to her house because it’s good for my body, and explain that staying active, like she does, is good medicine.
In Navalady most of the residents are elderly now. The younger survivors live in a new post-tsunami settlement inland, 7km from the sea beach. This is problematic for the men who engage in the various forms of fishing as a livelihood. Sometimes I encounter whole groups of men who eat, sleep, cook, and work on fishing nets together under palm thatch shelters near the beach. They explain that they like to be together because they all lost their wives and children in the tsunami.
I love cycling on the beach road by the breaking surf, and I do it daily just for exercise whenever I’m back in Batticaloa District – my “stomping ground” since 1991. Now I have interviewed many households there, so riding a bike along the road I now stop and enjoy friendly conversations with many acquaintances.
I really enjoyed writing this last piece, “The Sea Goddess and the Fishermen,” which explores personal family shrines built by individual fishermen in memory of their lost family members – for some lost all their loved ones – and interesting commentary on “protection” and religious practice. The people of Navalady are confronted by increased political violence at this moment in Sri Lanka’s quarter-century-old civil war, as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam once again are beaching boats there as they reestablish their presence.
I spent the last two months in the southern Mexican states of Oaxaca and Guerrero carrying out field research on environmental change over the past 10,000 years as part of a larger study of the history of human impact on the ecology of the Río Verde drainage basin. The research included sediment cores extracted from ponds and estuaries for pollen and isotopic studies of past plant communities, geomorphological studies of erosion, phytolith studies of past vegetation, soil isotope studies of climatic and vegetation change, and studies of landscape features using satellite imagery.
The study was funded by a CU Innovative Seed Grant and by a Research Grant from NASA. Collaborators included scholars from the Mexican Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social (CIESAS), Cornell University, Richard Stockton College of New Jersey (RSC), Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), San Diego State University (SDSU), and the University of Utah.
The project has been very successful. We spent the first half of the project coring ponds and estuaries for pollen and isotope studies. The first couple of weeks were on the Oaxaca coast where daytime temperatures often reached 110F. The work included a day-long hike into the “fire swamp” carrying our coring equipment and spending hours struggling through the thorny scrub, heat, and bugs.
We often had to wade through deep irrigation canals, which wasn’t so bad until we spoke with a local landowner who was shooting at a crocodile that had been eating his goats. The strong afternoon winds played havoc with our sampling platform, but we were able to get deep cores from several ponds in the region.
The coring team of Michelle Goman and Willie Guerra from Cornell along with Pepe Aguilar from SDSU also worked out some kinks in the sampling procedure. Project geomorphologists Ray Mueller and Lucia Pou (RSC) carried out a geological survey of ancient river deposits. While coring on the coast I also worked with CU alum Stacy Barber who is now Assistant Professor at the University of Central Florida on a Ground Penetrating Radar Study of the ceremonial center of the ancient city of Río Viejo. I also assisted graduate students Michelle Butler (UC-Riverside) and Guy Hepp (Florida State) on investigating possible Ph.D. projects.
In late May we travelled to the Mixtec Highlands of western Oaxaca and eastern Guerrero for more coring studies. This part of the project was a real road trip since we were investigating possible sampling locations over a huge area based on evidence from topographic maps and aerial photographs. We spent time in the towns of Putla, Chalcatongo, Huamuxtitlan, and Tamazulapan. Some days we drove for over eight hours through treacherous mountain roads. We stayed in some pretty bad hotels and ate a lot of tortillas, eggs, and chicken in little restaurants along the way. We spoke with dozens of local officials to obtain permission for the research and were greeted with support and interest.
We spent time in some amazing places like the Mixtec town of Chalcatongo home of a sacred cave where the Mixtecs kept the mummy bundles of their prehispanic kings and queens until the Spanish destroyed them as idols. Chalcatongo is also over 8000’ in elevation and morning temperatures were sometimes in the 40s. We had a few rainy days where we almost froze on the sampling platform, but we ended up with several deep cores from two sinkhole ponds. One of the cores was almost 6 meters deep and exhibited banding, which might be annual varves possibly giving us the ability to look at climatic and vegetation change on an annual basis.
We often left the field in the evening wet and muddy hoping to get to a local restaurant with a wood burning oven used to make pizza so we could sit as close to the oven as possible and try to warm up. We also extracted another deep core from a pond at Huamuxtitlan in the state of Guerrero. The pond sat at the base of the 1000’ cliff of a gypsum mountain. In Huamuxtitlan we were kindly assisted by Gerardo Gutierrez (CIESAS) who has worked in the area for over a decade and who gave a colloquium in the department last semester. Gerardo took us into some very remote areas along the border of Oaxaca and Guerrero looking for possible sampling locations.
The second month of the field season was spent in the Nochixtlán Valley of Oaxaca where I have carried out geoarchaeological research with Ray Mueller for the past 20 years.
This field season we were joined by Naomi Levin (Utah) and Bill Middleton (RIT). Ray and Lucia continued the research on sediments exposed in deep river cuts in the region to examine periods of erosion possibly triggered by ancient agriculture or climatic change.
Naomi began a study of soil isotopes, probably the first research of its kind in Mexico, to investigate climatic and vegetation change in the region. She also took phytolith samples, which will be examined by Bill to track changing plant communities associated with the buried soils.
Bill and his students also took modern sediment and plant samples to create a phytolith reference collection.
The sedimentological and isotope studies of soils and sediments exposed in the river cuts were both fascinating and at times a little frightening. Some of the river cuts are over 60’ deep and required the use of a rope ladder or climbing gear. Fortunately, Alex Borejsza from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México stopped in to visit for a few days and brought his climbing gear, which helped us tackle some of the deepest river cuts. While repelling off a 60’ deep exposure was certainly scary, the most daunting part of the time in Nochixtlán was our hotel with its irregular water availability, moldy walls, and bad smells.
We spent some time with CU grad student Michelle Trogdon who was carrying out a study of ancient agricultural terraces exposed in the river cuts. I also spent a fascinating day with Jamie Forde at Achiutla where he plans to conduct Ph.D. research on the contact period.
We are now back in Oaxaca City enjoying the easy life here and organizing samples for our return to the U.S. The field project was a great success and now comes years of laboratory analyses.
Dear Family and Friends:
We returned to Hanoi last night after nearly three weeks in Ha Giang Province, where we are working on a conservation and behavioral ecology study on the Tonkin snub-nosed monkey. This was my fifth trip to this province and I always enjoy my time here. We work out of Tung Ba Commune, which is beautiful this time of year with extensive rice paddies. Our field site, Khau Ca Forest, is about a three hour hike from the commune. Next to our camp there are quite a few bananas browing and a couple had beautiful banana flowers. We picked another and had a nice banana flower salad!
We spend quite a bit of time each day hiking through the forest collecting a range of information about both the animals and habitat. This is the onset of the rainy season, meaning the leeches are fairly common – so we do wear leech socks. In the picture of me waiting for monkeys, I am sporting a pair of these important fashion items. [If you’d like to know more about anti-leech socks, you can find out more – and see Bert’s picture – at mosquitohammock.com!]
Khau Ca is the only place in the world that the Tonkin snub-nosed monkey can be seen on a regular basis. We estimate that at least 70 monkeys live in the forest presently and the population appears to be growing. I’ve attached a couple of pictures of these beautiful creatures – in one picture there are two adult females and one is grooming the other.
Grooming provides both hygiene (removing parasites and dirt) and social cohesion – grooming seems to be quite relaxing. I have also attached a picture of an adult male that clearly demonstrates the unusual nature of the face of this species.
Adult males are nearly twice as large as females (I estimate that males average 15-16kg and females 8-9kg). This makes these monkeys one of the larger arboreal mammals in the world. I have also included a picture of a snake (as a reminder that it is good to look at the ground on occasion trekking through the forest.
We work closely with the Forest Protection Department (FPD) of Ha Giang Province. This governmental agency is similar to the Department of the Interior in the USA. I hosted a party my last night in Khau Ca this past Thursday at the nearest ranger station. A young adult male goat was slaughtered and prepared for the evening – I’ve attached one picture of the party with Quyet (on the right – my close colleague and an extremely talented young biologist), Mr. Tue (in the middle – the FPD official that does a wonderful job overseeing our research), and me (on the left – but you probably could pick me out of the crowd). Well, the crowd is not pictured but there were 18 of us – a great time.
Finally, I have attached one picture of our drive home – titled “family car” and while cars are much more common today than just a couple of years ago, the 90cc motorbike is still the main mode of transportation.
A big change has occurred this year – people are wearing helmets. A national law went into effect on January 1 and the vast majority of folks you see on the road are wearing helmets. I’ve been told by some that children are exempt; other friends have told me that children are required to wear helmets.
Inspiration for this section comes from a work by one of our former graduate students: Dispatches from the Field: Neophyte Ethnographers in a Changing World by Andrew M. Gardner and David M. Hoffman (Ph.D. Anthropology, 2006 University of Colorado at Boulder) . ISBN 1577664515