Sunday, 20 January 2013

A Voyage Through Time

by Alex Tran

Kuna Yala.

In this post I'll give you a little peek into the time traveling that our NEO course has offered us. I won't go in any particular order. Let's start with the future.

Welcome to Winterland. 

Every day, before our guest speakers start their lectures, the students all go through a round of introductions.

"Hi I'm Alex from McGill, I'm interested in the evolution of signals in electric fish."
"Hi I'm Kelsey from Illinois, I'm interested in using ancient dog DNA to study the movement of ancient human civilizations."
"Hi I'm Peter from Arizona State, I'm interested in ant behaviour, specifically in the Cecropia - Azteca Ant mutualism."
"Hi I'm Larissa from Panama, I'm interested in insect vectors of diseases."


Then, came the turn of our speaker: "Hi I'm Klaus, I'm a gardener." Klaus Winter is a STRI scientist looking at the effects of climate change on plants. He effectively uses greenhouses as time machines, pumping in high CO2 levels that reflect the predicted levels of CO2 in the next decades. Together, these little greenhouses scattered across the STRI station form what is known as Winterland. 

Klaus winter and students.

An inflatable pillow.

In the long run, Klaus is hoping to increase the scale of his greenhouses and see how a diverse community of trees responds to the anticipated environmental conditions. Although this weird thing might look somewhat like a time machine, it's a small greenhouse made of ETFE (ethylene tetrafluoroethylene). According to Klaus, these "inflatable pillows" show promise as the building materials for the future larger greenhouses. Compared to glass, it is lighter, more flexible, more cost-efficient, and has better optical and thermal properties. It's also self-cleaning, which is always a big plus. With rapidly increasing amounts of CO2, forests as they are may change completely, affecting not only the trees themselves but all biodiversity that inhabits them. What Klaus does now allows us to peek into the future.

Now let's go to the past.

Church in Natá, the 2nd oldest city in Panamá.

What better way is there to travel back in time than listening to a lecture by an archeologist? We had the pleasure of having Richard Cooke present to us a historical perspective of the isthmus, a first non-biology class. Just like detectives arriving on a crime scene, archeologists arrive in the present to look for hints of a story in the past. Dr. Cooke pulled up images a stone wall of this place called La Cueva de los Vampiros. To me, it really looked like just a stone wall. But with the right eyes and tools, you can read a story from the past. By looking at the soil chemistry, the types of deposit, the radioisotopes and the tools used on the rock, archeologists can reconstruct certain events that happened along with their timeline. Amazing.

I also never realized how tiny pieces of information could provide so much insight. The discovery of similar mastodon tusk spears in different areas proposes a path used by ancient human civilizations. Manatee-tooth carvings found on the Pacific side of the isthmus suggest exchanges between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts since manatees were inexistent in the latter. Others pieces of the puzzle, however, are more difficult to interpret. Dr. Cooke explains that when it comes art, one may get hints of religious beliefs or social structure, but in the end it's often still just a guess. One enigmatic image recurring in pre-colombian art forms in the isthmus was this anthropomorphic crocodile feathered with stingray tails. Interestingly, it was not only found in artifacts associated with the rich, such as golden earrings, helmets and plates, but also in artifacts that the poorest treasured, in the form of iguana dung. Whether this represented an almighty clan, a symbol power, or a revered deity, we may never know. 

And now, back to the present.

Erin, Peter and Buttons in Galeta.

These relics are small glimpses into the past, and many were forever lost after the arrival of the conquistadores which resulted in the wiping out entire civilizations in the 1500s. As Dr. Cooke noted, the current indigenous groups - the Ngobe, the Kuna and the Emberá - are living relics representing a very long-lived lineage. 

Unfortunately, still today, these indigenous groups must fight to defend their land and culture. Canadian corporations are overseeing the development of destructive colossal mining projects in Ngöbe territory. The ongoing losses of mangrove ecosystems are resulting in an increasing number of floods, threatening the homes of the Kuna. The neglect of the Darién province from the Panamanian government effectively causes poor health problems and low income opportunities to persist for the Emberá. Today, indigenous groups all over the world are links to the past, but they may not persist in the future unless a change of attitude comes along.

Ngöbe children performing the Jegi.

Performance during a historical reenactment of the Kuna revolution in Ukkupseni.

In an ideal world I would have a picture of the Emberá, but I have yet to see them. Soon, though.

Thanks for reading!

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