Sunday, September 30, 2012

Schultes, Plowman and Davis

One River by Wade Davis combines the story of Richard Evan Schultes, the great pioneer of ethnobotany, with the story of Davis and his colleague Timothy Plowman, a generation later (that last link is behind a paywall). The book is a great introduction to the Amazon, but also to the scientific study of plants with the help of the indigenous peoples who use them everyday. The systems of knowledge used to classify and combine a huge variety of plants in the Amazon contain a tremendous amount of information, but that information is not necessarily organized and deployed in the same way that it has been in a biological understanding of plant life.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Making a whisk

In this image, Adalberto Rapu Lucu is making a whisk broom, using a wooden mallet. His raw material is the stalk that connects a cluster of fruits to a motacú palm (Attalea phalerata). These whisk brooms are very useful when floodwaters are rising or falling, to ward off swarms of biting insects. Behind him is a wattle-and-daub house, and the skin of an ox hanging under the roof. The picture was probably taken during March or April of 1997. Originally taken on Kodachrome film on a Pentax K-1000 camera, it was scanned and processed several years later. Adalberto worked with me as a guide and field technician from 1996 through 1997.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Tsimane health

Freelance journalist JeanFriedman-Rudovsky has an excellent story out in the New York Times about medical research on the Tsimane, a group of people who live in the Bolivian Amazon. They have been participants in The Tsimane Health and Life History Project since 2002, and the results of that work are building a foundation of information not just for indigenous Amazonian people, but for comparisons with populations around the world. A key aspect to this story is how Tsimane people benefit from improved medical care, while at the same time anthropological and medical studies move forward. The Tsimane live in the southwestern part of Mojos, many near the town of San Borja.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

From Florida to the Amazon

The Roseate spoonbill (Ajaia ajaja) is a beautiful bird that ranges from Florida to the south even as far as the Bolivian Amazon. It mixes with all kinds of other wading birds (egrets for example) in large flocks. Oftentimes raptors such as the Crested Caracara or the Snail Kite are nearby, watching the grasslands for snakes, frogs, and other prey. These photographs and the online database that organizes them are from BirdWalker. Full disclosure: my brother and sister-in-law, Bill Walker and Mary Wisnewski, are the eyes and brains behind BirdWalker. The photos are from around the United States, but I hope to lure them to Bolivia (with their camera) someday soon.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

From the Museum

Moleadores are fired clay artifacts that are found in many locations around the Llanos de Mojos, in the Bolivian Amazon. They are roughly 20 cm long, 10 cm wide, and often show signs of having been worn down on two sides (rarely on three). They are particularly common along the Apere River, to the west of the Mamoré River. They might have been used for grinding some kind of food. It is perhaps less likely that they were used for pounding, since many are worn in comparison to how many are found broken. They often have patterns of lines incised into the surface, incisions which are worn off through use. Ethnographic accounts speak of clay supports for cooking pots, and it is possible that moleadores were used for this, although they rarely show any sign of having been repeatedly burned. This example is from the collections of the Museo Yacuma, in Santa Ana del Yacuma.

Monday, September 24, 2012

From the library

The Upper Amazon by Donald Lathrap is now more than 40 years old, but is still an interesting read, and presents a vision of the archaeology of South America and the Amazon Basin which is still unfamiliar to many outside of American archaeology. The book is often compared with Amazonia, by Betty Meggers. Lathrap argued forcefully for the importance of the Amazon as a setting for cultural innovation, while Meggers argued that the achievement of pre-Columbian Amazonians was in how they adapted to the rigors of this “counterfeit paradise.” The conflict between these two ideas would shape Amazonian archaeology for decades, and comparing the two contemporaneous books (they were published in 1970 and 1971) is a great way to access that argument.

Friday, September 21, 2012

About the photograph

The photograph at the top of the page was taken on June 30, 2008, at 4:12 in the afternoon, while crossing the Quinato swamp, near Santa Ana del Yacuma, Bolivia. After a day of motorcycle travel and conversation with the residents of Miraflores, a small community on the edge of the wetland, my colleague Jaime Bocchietti and I headed back to where our motorcycle was parked. We still had at least a one hour ride to get back to town after getting back on the motorcycle, so I certainly had one eye on my watch to make sure that we would arrive before dark. The swamp holds water year-round, even through the dry season, which is very pronounced in Eastern Bolivia. The “shores” of the well defined swamp are lined with islands of forest, as well as drier grasslands. The forests are full of ceramics and earthworks, indicating that they were occupied in pre-Columbian times, and the grasslands are marked by raised fields, the remains of intensive agriculture. 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

For more reprints, please see my page at For academics, especially graduate students, is a good place to get access to reprints, look up other scholars, and learn more about other disciplines.