June 5, 2011

Form and Function

 

The courtyard

 

Our trip to Lima went swimmingly, and we arrived at our hostel around midnight last night. We awoke this morning to the call of an unfamiliar bird, chirping and whooping despite bus and car traffic, singing as we ate breakfast in our hostel’s courtyard.

 

 

 

The group’s first visit was to one of over 200 of Lima’s earthen mounds from the 5th or 6th century, most of which have since been destroyed. It was an island of history among the bustle of the city – an appropriate segue from pastoral Kansas.

Our guide’s name is Luis Villacorta, a savvy man with a ready smile. “People have always used mountains to meet God,” he said, pushing his palms together as we stood at the top of the dusty mound, surrounded by skyrises, all of which were taller than the mound. He was talking about the significance of the mound, which had muddily eroded away over time, though only slightly because of Lima’s arid climate. The Andes create a rain shadow over Lima. It almost never rains here.

 

Luis Villacorta, left

 

Luis then took us to the National Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, in which we received a crash course in Peruvian prehistory. But our next stop, Museo Larcos, stole today’s show.

 

Museo Larcos

 

Vines and flowers covered the museum’s bright white walls, creating an idyllic environment. It had an extensive garden within. The museum’s collections were strong in pottery and metalworking, and much of the jewelry and figurines within were stunning. “When people died, they wanted to become animals,” said Luis, explaining the designs on gold and silver necklaces made by the Incas. They had images of jaguars, alligators, and countless other animals. “Only after the Spanish arrived did the art show humans dominating animals,” he continued, and my mind immediately went to one of the chief purposes of our trip – to collect and document insects for the purposes of research. We’ll be leaving for the field station on the 7th.

 

 

Our research will help document an ecosystem that may not last much longer. Peru plans to build (and has already started building) the Trans-Oceanic Highway through the rainforest, imperiling biodiversity like nothing before. A paradox that describes our world: researchers racing to document biodiversity that may soon disappear because of the intractable advance of industry, and yes, science.

 

Quipus

 

An item in the Museo Larcos sparked a small conversation about the relationship of art and science, a relationship that this interdisciplinary team has been challenged to confront. The item was a quipu, a kind of abacus made of threads and knots used by the Incas. When laid out, they are beautiful, and not completely unlike a phylogenetic tree. It is interesting how beautiful forms can spring, unintended, from systems designed primarily for function. And the other way around.


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The Biodiversity Institute is home to about 60 graduate students and 30 research scientists and curators. They participate in field expeditions to all seven continents and represent areas such as entomology, ornithology, paleontology, parasitology and herpetology. As the authors of this blog, they share their experiences and adventures in collections-based biological research all over the world.

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