Sarah Hirschey

Monday, June 9, 2014

Head-Binding in Paracas: Beauty or Torture?

On day two of our adventure in Lima, Peru, we were exposed to the fascinating history of various different cultural practices performed by a variety of Peruvian nations. One of the most intriguing of these practices that we learned about is cranial trepanation, in which the skull of the human being is intentionally deformed. This process is performed during early infancy when the skull is the most pliable.

While visiting the Museo Nacional Arqueología, Antropología y Historia de Perú in Lima, we learned about this practice of the pre-Incan Paracas nation (750 BC-100 AD). The museum displays skulls that have undergone three different types of cranial trepanation. These variations employ a variety of methods and result in a different head shape. One type, called tabulate modeling, utilizes a wood panel placed at the nape of the neck and projected upwards; a rope keeps the wood panel steady. It results in an elongated skull that extends upwards. The second type of modeling we saw is trepanning, which also produces an elongated skull. The third type is bilobular results in a heart-shaped, rounded skull that is produced by a very specific method of wrapping cloth.

Researchers strongly believe that this process was used in the Paracas culture as a means to delineate the social status of an individual. However, very little else is known, such as what does each separate shape say about the individual’s specific status? Our tour guide Fernando Benaducci Otayza (who was INCREDIBLY knowledgeable and passionate about Peruvian history!) had the opinion that head binding must have been performed on people of lower classes because it is an incredibly painful process (so, punishing?) with various neurological repercussions. I am encouraged to think the opposite, though simply because the process of head-binding requires a lot of planning and attention for an extended period of time; it makes more sense to me that this time could only be afforded to those of a higher social standing. After all, “beauty is pain” is a cultural saying that has reached just about every corner of the world.

However, the intrigue isn’t so much in whether or not I am “right” or the tour guide is “right”, it’s in the mere fact that there is an elaborate cultural process that dramatically changed the lives of the Paracas people and continues to baffle us to this day. -Sarah

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Mad as a hatter

This past semester, I took a class with a professor who specializes in mercury in the environment. This exposed me to various research projects about mercury in the Long Island Sound, USA . I learned that there are variations in the natural abundance of mercury in the environment and that humans have increased this level via various industrial practices. Connecticut, where I attend college, is a prime area to study the cycling and effects of anthropomorphic mercury in the environment because of this area’s historical contribution to the hat-making industry. In the 1800s and early 1900s, liquid mercury was used to mat fur pelts that were manufactured into fashionable hats. Due to the neurological effects of mercury, the saying “Mad as a hatter” was born.

A large group of professors and students from Duke University Department of Public Health visited Villa Carmen Station this weekend. Their project in medical entomology and environmental toxicology examines gold mining in this part of Peru to see if there is a correlation between the environmental mercury concentration and the mercury concentration in residents’ blood, hair, nails, and food intake. Historically, mercury is a key component in gold mining. The global increase in the price of gold has resulted in a recent escalation of gold mining in this area, and possibly, an increase in the environmental mercury concentration. With these data, the Duke team will compare incidents of malaria (and other diseases) to see if mercury makes individuals more susceptible to infections. Their project is an example of how environmental mercury research is of interest to many different scientists from different disciplines around the world.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

A risk worth taking

One of the clearest indicators of change in the environment from the Wayquecha cloud forest to the Villa Carmen rainforest is the abundance of fruit dotting the mass of green vegetation. Upon our arrival, we were guided down pathways lined with pineapple plants (imagine a ripe pineapple encircled by a fan of thick, large, green leaves). The garden, from which all the fruits and vegetables we eat at Villa Carmen come from, is full of papaya. Las trochas, or trails, are intermittently bordered with berries. Yesterday, we began training with various types of insect nets. During this session, Caroline pointed out a guava tree with many green fruit blooms. A little farther down the trail we finally spotted a ripe guava fruit begging to be picked. Having never picked a fruit of this size myself, I went for it! However, I immediately thought of those cartoons I watched as a child where the eager character bites into a fresh apple and meets an unwelcome worm, and I resisted my excitement to bite into the guava. Eventually I overcame my reluctance, took out my pocket knife, sliced up the guava, and dispersed it among the group members. It tasted incredibly fresh, slightly sweet, and had a relatively thick consistency. Needless to say, it was well worth the risk of a worm.

-Sarah

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Our first trap

On our third day at Wayquecha Biological Station, we began our adventure walking along the main road in search for a “secret garden gate” that Professor Chaboo described. At first, we were unable to find the gate, until we realized that a clay and bamboo house inscribed with the words “Casa Interpretativa del Manu” now camouflages the path. We walked down the hidden trail and were immediately greeted with an assortment of leaf beetles and grasshoppers. Each one of us on the trip collected some sort of insect or two. After the brief scare of Paige scaling the side of a relatively steep drop off in search of her water bottle, we continued our way down the trail to find a site to set up our first insect trap. Past the “secret garden gate”, we were immersed in a landscape full of new and exciting flora. A bit farther down, we crossed a small, wooden bridge suspended above a waterfall. Then, we continued on an open trail that scaled the side of a mountain overlooking the spectacular cloud forest.

We finally came upon the perfect spot to set up the Malaise trap. This consists of netting that catches insects flying in two directions. A roof of the same material meets the wall of netting and takes advantage of the insect’s instinct to climb upwards. The insect is channeled into a container filled with ethanol. We began by tying the tops of the 6×6 foot net trap to trees with rope and then secured it into the ground with stakes. Meanwhile, Alex circulated around us, filming the entire process. The incline and moistness of the ground made the set up a bit tricky, but we eventually completed the process with success. Afterwards, we took 20 or so minutes to ourselves to explore the beautiful moss-covered rainforest and observe the many other traps set up by other researchers. I think it is safe to say that there is no better location or circumstance in which to learn a field method!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Introducing: Sarah Hirschey

My name is Sarah Hirschey and I am a rising senior at Wesleyan University studying Earth and Environmental Science with a concentration in Geochemistry. I am very interested in learning about the interactions between humans and their environment and interactions between biotic and abiotic ecologies. During my study abroad in Peru, I plan to expand my knowledge of these interests by studying phytotelmata and the biotic and chemical environments the plant creates for other organisms.