pith helmet
Tales from the Field
   

 

Frightful fieldwork
Vulnerable to volcanoes
Hepatitis and blue berries
Antarctic anxiety
Human hazards

 

RIGHT: A Dogon woman descends the hill to fetch a pail of water, ceramic jug at the ready. Drinking water is a major hazard for travelers -- and local people as well.

BELOW: Wearing traditional clothing, three African women sit around a cooking fire. Pots and containers are visible at their feet.

Photos at right and below:
© David Tenenbaum

 

Wearing traditional clothing, three African women sit around a cooking fire. Pots and containers are visible at their feet.

   

Loose lips sink ships -- and field workers
A young African woman holds a jug on her head.Keeping your lips tight while working in the field might be good insurance against infections carried in food and water -- if you didn't have to eat and drink, that is. As University of Wisconsin-Madison anthropology professor Frank Salomon learned while working in the Andes Mountains in Peru, drinking can be dangerous: He attributes his worst infection in 30 years of fieldwork to sharing corn beer with the locals. Passing a gourd bowl from lip to lip was the most logical explanation for a bad case of hepatitis, he says.

Although eating and drinking together may be dangerous, anthropologists have little choice if they're trying to establish ties with the locals, Salomon says. "My advice to graduate students is if you can't [eat with your hosts], change your program. You have to accept the risk. If you refuse to share food in almost all societies, it's a basic turning down of the social bond."

You choose: Blueberries -- or oatmeal a la kerosene?
While experts say that eating should be safer than drinking -- cooking kills microbes, after all -- hazards remain. In 1985, for example, ornithologist David Willard and other naturalists were collecting specimens on a tepui in Venezuela. A tepui (rhymes with ker-flooie) is a geologic oddity that rises steeply from the surrounding jungle, forming a biological island with flora and fauna that evolved separately from the lowlands.
Map of South America, showing where Willard's team was located

The tepui was accessible only by helicopter, but the group's departure was delayed when the chopper didn't show on schedule. Lacking a radio, the researchers simply had to wait and hope. With plenty of stream water and food on hand, that should have been easy -- except that the food had been drenched by a leaking kerosene can.

If edible food was in short supply, the group was at least well stocked with botanists, one of whom suggested eating some of the blue berries that were abundant on the tepui. No member of the berry's genus (group of species) was harmful, the botanist said helpfully, and, as Willard recalls, "Everybody latched on to it as a nice alternative to kerosene-soaked oatmeal."

Through sheer chance, Willard had been out collecting during the feast. Summoned by a botanist who did not eat unknown plants, he returned to camp and found the crew hanging in their hammocks, dazed, bewildered and with slow heartbeats. On the bright side, the adventurous botanist who had eaten the berries first, was already starting to perk up. To speed the recovery, Willard dug into his collection of birds for native Venezuelan version of chicken soup. Everybody, including two scientists who were in their 70s, survived.

After their return, the scientists thought the toxic berries might contain a drug to slow heartbeat, so they sent samples to pharmaceutical researchers. Willard, who's now with the Field Museum in Chicago, has no word about any progress on that front.

Nothing like flying in the mountains -- in a cloud.

 

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