Stories from the Field
Links, Leigh and the Leakeys
From January-July 2011 I was a research assistant in a small village in Coixtlahuaca, Mixteca Alta, Oaxaca, Mexico for Dr. David Leigh who is investigating the link between population density, land use activities and erosion.
The archaeology in the region is rich and has been studied by Dr. Stephen Kowalewski. Agriculture in the region is thought to have begun about 3000 years before present, and involved constructing a series of terraces and check-dams (known as lama-bordos in Mixteca Alta) in order to preserve soil and water. The Mixteca Alta is characterized as a semi-arid environment, with the annual wet season spanning May to October. Presently, many of the vallies in the area are dissected by arroyos and barrancas while hillslopes are covered by caliche or a calcareous crust, known as ‘endeque’ by the locals. Río Culebra is the main stream that flows through Coixtlahuaca, and comprises its only perenial river in this watershed.
The research assistantship entailed walking through arroyos, in Coixtlahuaca and surrounding villages, which exposed spectacular stratigraphy up to 20 m deep! I was responsible for mapping, describing and collecting samples. The picture below shows me taking samples from a profile that I described on one of the tributary barrancas of Río Culebra. (The layer I was sampling was very dry!) I was also fortunate enough to collect data for my dissertation research, which considers climate change and early arroyo formation. To understand climate change in the region, I aquired stalagmites from a nearby cave and am in the process of analyzing them.
The region of Oaxaca, in which Coixtlahuaca is situated, has very strong religious and cultural traditions. One of the most important religious festivals in Coixtlahuaca, shown in the picture above, celebrates the Señor del Calvario (translated as the Lord of Calvary), who is one of the patron saints of this village. It takes place during the final week of May, and includes lots of parades, events such as rodeos and dances, food and drink, markets etc. The girls on the project were asked to ride horses in the parade, and to be madrinas (translated as godmothers), which means we give the prizes to the winners of the main rodeo. The tall red post in the middle of the picture is where five voladores (flyers), whose feet are tied to a rope, descend from the top of the post to the ground by swinging around the post up-side-down. It originated as pre-Hispanic religious tradition, but in more recent times it has been assimilated into some Christian festivals (usually in Vera Cruz) and is referred to as the ‘Voladores de Papantla’ (flyers of Papantla).
In May 2009 I got the opportunity to attend a geological field school in the Turkana Basin, Kenya for two weeks. The field school was funded by an NSF grant and headed by Thure Cerling and Frank Brown of the University of Utah. These two well-known geologists have worked closely with the Leakeys and other paleoanthropologists to understand the environment in which our ancestors evolved. Meave Leakey, a famous paleoanthropologist along with her husband and daughter (Richard Leakey and Louise Leakey, respectively) established a field station at Ileret (known as the Turkana Basin Institute, abbreviated as TBI) on the northeast bank of the Turkana Lake. Meave Leakey, who is as pleasant as she is intelligent, was at Ileret when I was there. I not only learned much about the geology and paleontology/paleoanthropology of the region, but also about the local culture and how they survive in such a desolate environment.
We set out a few days to Koobi Fora (pictured above), which is managed by the National Museum of Kenya, is the location of many famous finds such as the first Australopithecus. It is a beautiful location, with many animals coming to drink along the lake’s edge. We bathed each night in the lake, but had to keep alert for the crocodiles who were bathing with us!