pith helmet
Tales from the Field


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

Anthropologist Frank Salomon, center, in a community hall in Peru with two incoming presidents of clan-like corporations. They are wearing khipus as symbols of their legitimacy. Salomon is trying to unravel the meaning of the complex knotting in khipus.

Copyright Frank Salomon
























Anthropologist Felicia Beardsley on the job in the Pacific.

Copyright Felicia Beardsley







Caught in the middle
Once you know that the Shining Path, a guerrilla army in Peru, idolized the murderous Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, you can figure out for yourself that fieldwork in Salomon flanked by two Peruvian men with necklaces holding long, knotted cords.Peru was perilous during their insurgency. Says cultural anthropologist Frank Salomon, a Peru specialist, "The danger was mainly to my associates, villagers who could expect reprisals if they were seen hanging out with me. It was a danger that I'd unintentionally bring on people." Reprisals meant public beating by Shining Path at best, and murder at worst.

map of south america, showing location of Salomon's teamThe government initially blamed the insurgency on foreigners, and villagers, resentful of the long-standing disruption to their lives, echoed that sentiment. During the worst period, around 1990, Salomon made some short visits. He remembers the mornings as placid, but, in the afternoon, at least on festival days, alcohol would loosen tongues, and he would hear villagers mutter, "'This guy could be a terrorist.' That was a danger warning," Salomon says. "People were extremely angry about terrorism, and lynchings did occur."

But danger lay on all sides, and the hairiest moments came courtesy of young, ill-trained and ill-paid police and soldiers who were suspicious of well-equipped westerners wandering through villages. "Teenagers with assault rifles would show up, roust me out of bed with high-power flashlights, and empty my pack," Salomon says. "People in my line carry topographic maps, which were considered military equipment. It was useless to hide things, they'd just tear everything apart."

Eventually, the threat diminished after word got around that Salomon was a legitimate anthropologist. By the mid-1990s, the Shining Path insurgency was itself fading.

But field workers continue to face hazards in South America, Salomon adds. "Our talk reminded me of many episodes when people got the wrong idea about me or others. One fellow Andean anthropologist had to flee a village where a rumor got out that she was a modern version of a legendary foreign devil, Spanish or white, who renders human fat for sale. The foreign devil is often incarnated these days as a sacaojos or 'eye-snatcher,' who allegedly trades in transplants.

Another bad rumor is about baby theft for the adoption black market. These rumors are not factual but in a way they are truthful; they reflect genuine experiences of abuse and perceptions of genuine vulnerabilities."

Beardsley gives a half-smile to the camera, eyes shaded by a hat.Running afoul
At about the same time that Salomon was being branded as terrorist and imperialist lackey, archeologist Felicia Beardsley, who's now at the University of California at Riverside, was helping direct an Earthwatch program on Easter Island, a Chilean territory that's home of the staring stone statues of staggering size.

One of Beardsley's duties was to greet volunteers at the airport, and that attracted the resentment of local hotel owners who were in the airport hustling business for their lodgings. The owners complained, and the police brought her in for questioning: "I was grabbed by two soldiers with machine guns, brought into a tiny room at the back of the airport for questioning. 'Who are you?' the soldiers screamed in Spanish. 'What are you doing?'"

The situation was all the more ominous, she says, because the Esmeralda, a Chilean navy training vessel, happened to be anchored in the harbor. This was in 1987, during the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, and, she says, the curriculum on the four-masted sailing ship supposedly included training in interrogation. "They would take prisoners and torture them, then throw them in the ocean."

Eventually, she was released, only to face a moral hazard. When Pinochet himself arrived at Easter Island, the police "rounded up everybody on the island and took us to the airport, where we stood behind a fence and waved Chilean flags," Beardsley says. "All the guards with machine guns were behind us, and there was no way we could leave." map of Pacific Ocean showing location of Palau and Easter Island

Handsome ransom

If being compelled to greet a dictator violated laws -- kidnapping comes to mind -- Beardsley had her own occasion to bend the law -- and test traditional law -- during a career archeologizing in the Pacific. In Palau, Micronesia, she says, people are born, live, and die in one village. Because they never traveled, her assistants did not know how to behave while accompanying her on what were, for them, strange journeys to nearby villages.

The men, who chewed the mildly narcotic betel nut, received permission to harvest nuts from local trees, but they got greedy and pulled down "huge stalks," says Beardsley. "This is what people make money from, and in essence it was stealing."

Later, one employee told her, "Boss, I have a problem. We can't leave here unless you pay some money." In fact, the price was $100 -- a huge sum that Beardsley felt compelled to pay.

Despite the perils, Beardsley eagerly returns for fieldwork, which now involves "salvage archeology -- quick, focused digs in areas that are about to be developed -- in the Federated States of Micronesia.

Why expose yourself to unnecessary risks? Because the allure is just irresistible, she says. Micronesia "is among the few areas in the world with such an extensive, complex archaeological record that remains to be documented. It is made all the more interesting by the very fact that the populations of today retain a very real and dynamic link to the populations of the past."

And, she adds, fieldwork has a more personal draw, one that many field scientists seem to appreciate: "It's like going home, because of the reception you receive. People are unbelievably friendly, once you get to know them. You become part of an extended family -- they take care of you, and you take care of them."

Frightened by fieldwork? Our bibliography doesn't even carry a computer virus...



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