What’s the furthest place you’ve ever been?
If you’ve been doing archaeology for a while, I’m sure you’ve been asked that question. The word “archaeology” stirs up images of distant places, far from the comfort of living rooms, restaurants, and office cubicles. If we’re honest, the lure of distant places was one of the things that caught our imaginations and sent us in pursuit of careers in archaeology and anthropology. We want to see magnificent landscapes and know remarkable people who speak different languages, wear different clothes, and live different lives. That’s a core idea in anthropology. Those distant places and unfamiliar people are worth knowing. The encounters challenge us to see the larger world that’s out there and maybe understand our world just a little better.
A few weeks ago I had lunch with friends from my Graduate School days at the University of Kentucky and I was reminded of the furthest place I’ve ever been. It was Colombia more than 20 years. While I was working on my archaeology Master’s degree at the University of Kentucky in the early 1990s, another friend of ours, a PhD Student from Colombia invited me to travel with him over the winter break to the upper Guaviare River Basin in eastern Colombia. He had been working with the Nukak Maku, an indigenous hunter-gatherer tribe that lived deep in the jungle between the upper Amazon and Guaviare basins. He’d hoped to find them over the Christmas holiday to collect soil samples from their abandoned encampments and collect data on winter activities. Some researchers speculated that the Nukak were the last true hunter-gatherers left in the world. Their first formal and sustained encounters with Colombian anthropologists had been in the 1980s. As a graduate student, I was researching Early Archaic period hunter-gatherers in the Ohio Valley. I was looking at 8,000 to 9,000-year-old lithic assemblages and archaeological feature descriptions, trying to learn more about hunter-gatherer settlement system and how those ancient peoples lived and adapted to the landscape. Here was a chance to engage in some ethno-archaeology and to see how a real hunter-gatherer group lived.
What could possibly go wrong with that?
With very little planning and a dismal grasp of Spanish vocabulary and grammar I flew from Kentucky at the end of the fall semester and met my Colombian companions in Bogota, my Colombian friend and a guide who would take us there and back again. The next day we started our trip east toward the jungle. Our destination was San José del Guaviare, the small capital of Guaviare Department in Colombia’s southeast frontier. From there it was downriver in an outboard driven dugout canoe, and then on foot deeper into the jungle until we found the small farm of a Colombian settler family my friend had been staying with during his research trips, and from there we’d hoped to find the Nukak Maku. It was not an easy journey. There’s not space in a blog like this to describe the days it took to get there, but we found them. Only a few days before we arrived, the Nukak Maku had set up camp near the farm of our host family. We’d arrived at the farm at dusk, late in the day. A few of the Nukak, met us on the trail we followed from the river and guided us to the farm. The farm family were grateful for our arrival and welcomed us to a dinner of salted peccary and plantains. The dark was gathering too fast for us to visit the Nukak’s camp, but as night descended we heard loud rhythmic singing and laughter from the farm clearings’ edge. The Nukak were celebrating something.
I never learned what it was.
Stay tuned tomorrow for Part 2.
By Michael W. French
Wood Environment & Infrastructure Solutions, Inc.