Peru 2011

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Gods and Animals

By Riley Wertenberger

Human interaction has always been fascinating to me — the way people act the way they do and how they use their resources to create communities, language, and ways of life.

These interests of mine, including the biology opportunities, lead me to study abroad in Peru. I have found that traveling broadens the mind and spirit!

Our cultural adventure began via tours of several museums of art and anthropology. At the National Museum of Anthropology and Architecture in Lima, there was a tablet of carved stone that stood about eight feet tall. The tour guide explained that the Chileca people used tablets like this in a temple to solidify a religion and exercise power over society. Each tablet had a separate god carved into the stone. A god would be sitting, fanged, and clawed with a crown of snakes. Some gods, depending on the animal represented, were used to strike fear into the people. Animals, food, pottery and people were offered to these gods, sacrificed for the god's pleasure and approval.

The use of animals in the artwork intrigued me as they were used to represent different things, much like they are used today. This representation made me curious about human vs. animal nature. Do we as humans believe that animals have a more pure spirit, free of sin? Is purity powerful? It seems so.

I believe that as human beings, we crave purity and justice and answers. We crave the knowledge of our origin and the power to control our future. For these reasons, we hope that if we serve gods, they will provide and bless us, here and after life on earth. The Chilecas did, at least!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Unaccustomed Customs

By Jeff Miller

Sign in Peru

This was my first experience outside of the United States. Upon stepping outside of the Lima airport, the first thing that hits me is the pungent smell of fish. Next is the obscene amount of traffic, cars weaving between the lanes, honking the entire way. After boarding the bus we proceeded to join this madness. Along this bumpy ride we saw many advertisements, many of which were very similar to ads we see in the U.S.

So far language has been the biggest barrier. I know very little Spanish; my only Spanish education was during two years of high school. My first true Spanish encounter here was with the customs agent checking passports. I handed him my papers, but unfortunately the airline employee in Houston ripped off and kept the larger portion of my ticket instead of the stub that he was supposed to take. This brought about much confusion between the customs agent and myself. Ticket stub in hand, he shot a question and me much faster than my Spanish skills could handle. I returned his question with a blank stare – I had absolutely no idea what he had just said. He leaned over and yelled to his nearest colleague, asking the same question. They continued to converse for a minute or two, my customs agent all the while confused. “Locked up abroad” flashed through my mind. Luckily, he stamped my papers before waving over his next victim.

Monday, June 6, 2011

A Student

As a researcher doing fieldwork in a foreign country, I normally stop in cities for the essentials: meet collaborators and process paperwork for research permits.  Little time is made for savoring the city or indulging in its daily life.  Early in the planning of this field course, we decided to dedicate 2-3 days to an orientation to Peru, through an academic tour of it museums and cultural life.  This is my 4th visit to Peru, so it is time that I also steep myself in this side of Peru;  I am as much a student as the other participants accompanying me.

Our tour of the archeological site, Huaca Huallamarca, was cool – an adobe pyramid dating from ~200 AD and an exquisitely-preserved seated female mummy with a spectacular head of very long black hair coiled around her tiny frame (an 1800 year old Rapunzel!) –  surrounded by high-rise buildings.  The next stops were to the National Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (a distilled walk through the human history of Peru) and to the privately-run Larco Museum.  The latter is simply breathtaking for outstanding museum design and display and for extensive collections of ceramics, weavings, and gold and silver.

The drive “home” took us through many neighborhoods, but I must say that the Bosque el Olivar stood apart. The ancient twisted olive trees were planted in the 17th century and today give a distinct character to this elegant area.  Who knew that Peru is a producer of olives and olive oil?

Monday, May 30, 2011

Voter Turnout

One of the interesting aspects of field research is having the opportunity to experience the culture of the community and the country we visit. For our varied group on the Peru trip, we are going to see places in Lima such as cathedrals, monasteries, museums and historic centers. But while we are there, something else will be happening: a presidential election. In Peru, it's mandatory to vote, so on voting day, most everything in Lima closes as 9 million people try to get around town to vote. We'll get creative that day about a walking tour, since taxiing around town is not recommended. It will be an unexpected opportunity to see how elections work and what voter turnout can be like in a different country.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Opening Presents

I specialize in chrysomelid leaf beetles. Chrysomelidae (about 40,000 species) forms one of the largest radiations of animals, and they present many interesting research problems. My approach is holistic, with extensive fieldwork to explore life histories, ecology, behavior, and laboratory study of morphology and molecules. In this part of Peru, I am particularly interested in chrysomelids that have become specialists of bamboos and bambusiform grasses, palms (at least the ones a 5-foot tall person can reach!) and a particular chrysomelid species that lives in unopened or slightly opened leaves of monocot plants in the Marantaceae and Heliconiaceae families. This latter group is particularly abundant here – nearly every rolled leaf has a few individuals of different species living in this tight semi-aquatic space. I like thinking of unrolling a leaf in the forest as opening a Christmas present – which specimens, how many individuals, what is their feeding pattern?

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Gear

One of the things that I forget when getting ready for an expedition is how much I have learned about field research in the past and how much there is to learn if you are new to fieldwork. I'm not just speaking of learning field collection methods or processing insects in our field lab station. When you are going on your first expedition experience, you don't know what gear to bring. What will the weather be like? What shoes are best in the muggy Amazon rain forest? What socks should you bring? What will best carry it all from Kansas to Lima to the field station and back? It is a charming reminder how much we learn from our first expedition even before we walk a trail. These are but a few of the things we are going over in weekly pre-departure meetings.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

A New Venture

In June 2011, a team of eight University of Kansas students and two professors will participate in a unique interdisciplinary expedition to Peru. Unlike many Biodiversity Institute expeditions, this one brings together people from several backgrounds, among them entomology, ecology, English language history, journalism, graphic novels, and art. Join the group through this website as they learn field methods, experience the varied cultural landscape of Peru, and explore the Amazon rain forest at the Los Amigos Biological Research Station.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Monkey Puzzle

We were standing at the top of what looked like a pyramid made of mud blocks, about thirty meters tall, which had a broad, dusty plateau at the top. The half pyramid was located rather incongruously in a wealthy residential district, rather like a dung beetle caught napping in a lingerie drawer. Our tour guide had told us that at the turn of the century, there had been more than two hundred such mounds in Lima, and now fewer than one hundred remained. They had been used as a means of communication with other pyramids – which loomed over the desert landscape -- and religious worship. From our vantage point, we could see sky scrapers, banks, private condos, and (another incongruity) lines of drying laundry. I pointed out a strange looking tree, asking no one in particular what it was. The guide answered that it was a monkey puzzle tree. I thought it was an apt name: the branches were arranged like spokes around a central axis, each frond positioned for optimal sunlight. As I stood looking at the trees, I thought about how odd they looked, and I reached for my sketchbook to whip out a quick drawing before we had to leave. Then one of the biology people on the trip asked the scientific questions: what climate did the tree flourish in? What organisms relied on it? Was it a native plant? At that point, I had a miniature epiphany.

Even though the other student and I were looking at the same object, our different disciplines and interests lead us to have very different experiences with the same tree. We occupied the same world, but that world had a doubleness to it -- they would see the tree as an organism, as part of the complex web of life, as a thing that functions in a certain way to achieve a certain end. On the other hand, as the self-described “art person,” I saw the tree for its appearance – for the shapes and colors and how it was set against the white background of the buildings. As a “literature person,” I saw the tree for what it represented: a symbol of the life that thrives despite pollution, despite being choked by cramped alley ways and concrete and refuse. A thing of beauty tucked into an ugly world, subject to the same hardships as the inhabitants of Lima.

I began thinking about how the scientific mind observes the world in contrast with the humanistic mind. If one sees the world in terms of function and metrics and the physical, and the other sees the world as a complex arrangement symbols and truths that humans create, then what can form a bridge between the two?

The study abroad trip itself provided the answer: communication is the bridge. Though we see the world with two different lenses, we experience the same world. We´re able to touch the leaves and examine the trunk and take photos. We talk about what we see and feel and reaffirm the oneness of physical place.

This may seem like an incredibly obvious point to some of the readers, but others may understand the difficulty I´ve faced in trying to reconcile the aims of science and art. Like many others across the countryside, our university is reassessing how and where it allocates funds. Each discipline feels it must defend itself against budget cuts; unfortunately, the result is often that one discipline tries to downplay the usefulness of the “other” to emphasize its own value.

This is lamentable, in my opinion. We need a variety of voices and perspectives to tackle our problems. As one of the faculty members on this trip said to us many weeks ago (I remember it because I thought it was such an insightful phrasing of the issue), “Science and art are complimentary and equally valid ways of investigating our world.” The monkey puzzle tree is a sadly one-dimensional creature when I look at it from a single perspective – artistic or otherwise.


Sunday, June 5, 2011

Form and Function

Lima museum

Lima pyramid

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 skyrise, 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.

Lima

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 Larco, stole today’s show.

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.

Quipus

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.

An item in the Museo Larco 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.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Voter Turnout

One of the interesting aspects of field research is having the opportunity to experience the culture of the community and the country we visit. For our varied group on the Peru trip, we are going to see places in Lima such as cathedrals, monasteries, museums and historic centers. But while we are there, something else will be happening: a presidential election. In Peru, it's mandatory to vote, so on voting day, most everything in Lima closes as 9 million people try to get around town to vote. We'll get creative that day about a walking tour, since taxiing around town is not recommended. It will be an unexpected opportunity to see how elections work and what voter turnout can be like in a different country.