Journeys to the Edge: In the Footsteps of an Anthropologist

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Things can go wrong. I mean, we know that, right? When you cut a tooth, it can splinter, whatever, right? Of course, we want to do it, and we will do it. Certainly it's one of the most important specimens, human specimens, in terms of understanding, you know, the spread of modern humans. And maybe it is the most important specimen, right? After a year of searching for D. Translated from Danish The curve is steep! Man, that looks pretty good!

The big spike is merely a marker. The important data is in the small bump next to it, a fragment with a few dozen chemical pairs of what looks like ancient D. That bump is around 40 base pairs, you know, the majority, at the height of the, at the top of the bump, right? It's a short fragment, and they will need to recover many more, but this is a promising start. The question is what ancient D. I mean, whether it's human that has survived in there? And that's, we can only find out by sequencing, so…. Sequencing is a process to reveal the exact order or pattern of the chemical base letters in the recovered sections of D.

But they will need to sequence many more D. Geez, I'm feeling, I mean, it's, it's pretty disappointing. I'll give you that. We, we could see that the fragmentation of Skhul was just…of the D. And it's so fragmented that you cannot map it uniquely in the human genome. Even though the chance is not that high, but there's still a chance, I think it's worth struggling, until at least there's no more hope.

And Eske does not stay dejected for long. He's already working on another ancient sample from a different part of the world, and this time he may just crack it. Although the genetic relationship of the Skhul people to us remains elusive, to experts like Berhane Asfaw, they are not a mystery. He believes migrations like the Skhul people have been occurring for millions of years. It's not only one time that these early humans moved out of Africa.

They have been doing it continuously for like 2,, years ago, there might have been multiple groups of populations moved into Europe and Asia. Whenever conditions change, these prehistoric people, they are not sentimentally attached to one place, they always follow their food.

Then as they are following their food, before they know it, they are far from their place where they used to be. When Homo sapiens began leaving Africa, about , years ago, they were actually following in the footsteps of more primitive species that had begun migrating over a million years ago. By , years ago, one of these early bands had reached well into Europe and Asia, and by , years ago, they had spawned two human-like species, a group called "Denisovans" and a robust people called the "Neanderthals. There is genetic evidence of contact among all three species, but the most momentous encounter seems to have been between humans and Neanderthals in the lands of today's Europe.

Humans entering Europe, about 50, years age, found a landscape far different than their African homeland. It was colder, but had bountiful forests, numerous lakes and rivers, a land teeming with wildlife, and even a species of humans that looked and behaved differently. Neanderthals had lived in Europe long before Homo sapiens arrived, but what were they really like? For years, they were depicted as primitive: But this turns out to be a very misleading picture. It's been calculated, the absolute volume of Neanderthal brains, on average, is actually higher than the modern human average, so, this is maybe an indication that they were not stupid.

They were actually probably quite smart. The Neanderthal lineage lived in Europe for more than half a million years; much more strongly built, with quite wide trunks, wide pelvis, a lot of musculature. And Neanderthals tend to have the body shape that is thought to be cold-adapted. Now, modern humans coming in, early modern humans coming in, they're looking much more African, or warm-adapted, in fact, in their body proportions and facial characteristics and so on, and did not have any of these skeletal or biological adaptations to the cold. Neanderthals were also lighter skinned than humans coming out of Africa, because of the latitude they evolved in.

In northern latitudes, there's less sunlight hitting our skin, it turns out. You have to have allow a certain amount of sunlight through to the deeper layers of your skin to synthesize vitamin D. So, people like me are mutants. We have light skin, because we lived in northern latitudes, we adapted to the new environment.

Neanderthals, without question, knew their environment very well. They were expert hunters, but I don't think any modern human had any illusions about the strength of the Neanderthals. But humans arrived in Europe with superior weaponry, like bows and arrows and spears they could throw, while the Neanderthals had only developed thrusting spears. Modern people rely very much on long-distance weaponry. Neanderthals didn't have this sort of weaponry, and they really had to be extremely fit and extremely strong in order to be able to just pull it off.

It is tempting to assume humans used their superior weaponry to kill off the Neanderthals, but recent genetic findings indicate the two groups were closer than once thought. We know that many people today have around a two percent input of Neanderthal D. So, clearly these populations not only met and had offspring, but that D. But does the fact that they interbred tell us something significant about relations between the two groups? Were they hostile or not? I think it's likely that it wouldn't always happen nice. Just like with modern human groups meeting each other, sometimes it's nice, but more often it's not, it's not peaceful.

And it involves different degrees of violence, different degrees of assimilation, different degrees of cooperation and different degrees of just avoiding each other. But if we didn't kill them off, why did Neanderthals go extinct while our Homo sapien ancestors survived? And can modern archaeology shed light on this enduring mystery? There are mountain caves in Southern Germany that were once occupied by Neanderthals, abandoned, and then reoccupied by Homo sapiens, creating a kind of lab experiment for archaeologist Nick Conard to compare the two cultures. He's been unearthing artifacts from each occupation and gives Niobe an insight into his discoveries and how he's interpreting those finds.

The last Neanderthal occupation is about here. Starting here, we have modern humans, and what's interesting is, when we look at the material culture that the modern humans made, and compare it to the material culture that Neanderthals made, the difference is like day and night. We find, essentially, no symbolic artifacts with the Neanderthals, and we find the whole spectrum of every imaginable kind of symbolic artifacts, as soon as we get to the period with modern humans.

These are the symbolic artifacts Conard's team has been finding: These are among the oldest figurative art ever discovered and reveal important qualities of the people who made them. They clearly have to do with ideology, perhaps religious beliefs with these people. And there's no question humans are here doing things that modern humans and no other people had done before. Among the figurines, Conard's team found some of the earliest musical instruments ever discovered. When can we prove that people made music? And it's again in this exact period, slightly in excess of 40, years ago.

This is a flute one. So, the wing of a swan. You can make one of these in an hour. It's not a problem to make it, if you have good stone tools. The key thing is the musical engineering to know the exact dimensions and exactly how to carve the holes. It's an ivory flute, and because it's hard and brittle, it would take far greater skill than making a wooden one. Whereas this one can be done in one hour, this takes about , if you know what you're doing. And, and these are functional flutes? These are actual instruments that we know can play notes? I think all of these symbolic artifacts were the glue that held society together.

The likelihood that music is played in the caves is percent. The likelihood that stories were told, that ideas were exchanged, that social interaction was taking place here, in my opinion, is essentially certain. To the humans who settled in Europe, music and art became the building blocks of a shared culture the Neanderthals may have lacked. What humans brought with them was imagination. What they brought with them were views of the landscape, of trees, of animals, which were alive.

We're the wise people. That's why we're called Homo sapiens. We plan, we think, we imagine. We innovate and have an ability to communicate. That was unimaginable to the Neanderthals. Just how much different Neanderthals were from Homo sapiens remains controversial, but both species would be put to the test by the onset of sudden periods of intense cold, signs that a new Ice Age was coming. These events were often very rapid. We know from climate records that some of them happened in less than 10 years. So, the human populations in in Western Europe would have seen this incredible chaos.

So, everything they were familiar with was just disappearing-all the plants, all the animals-within a few years. Neanderthals were cold-weather people, used to icy conditions, and as a species had survived twice as long as Homo sapiens. But at the end of this deepest of freezes, it was Neanderthals, not Homo sapiens that stood on the brink of extinction.

On Siberia's northern frontier, Niobe has come to this frigid and desolate spot to meet another unique group of hunter-gatherers. But to find these arctic nomads, he's had to hitch a ride on a vintage Russian Army tank.

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This relic of the Cold War is one of the few vehicles capable of plowing through snow and ice to reach one of the world's most unique cultures, the Chukchi reindeer herders. The Chukchi live seasonally: Niobe has visited the Chukchi before and speaks to them in Russian. As he did with the San bushmen, he will stay with them to observe their survival skills. The Chukchi have been herders for centuries, moving seasonally with the reindeer that are their prime source of food and clothing.

Niobe believes their lifestyle and skills are a reflection of a time when our ancestors somehow survived a global ice age. It is immediately evident they are right at home in a land frozen solid for nine months of the year. In part, it's because they've been raised here; they have known no other environment.

But they have also developed superb cold-adaptive clothing and live in small, heat-saving shelters, both made from animal skins. Temperatures here can drop below minus degrees, but it's warm and cozy inside the tents where everyone gathers around the fire for food and warmth. Niobe is one of the few westerners to have spent time with the Chuchki. Another is Cambridge anthropologist Piers Vitebsky, who lived with the Siberian nomads and explains their ruggedness in simple terms.

I suppose the key is you don't have to see the cold as an obstruction or an enemy. Cold actually makes the landscape easier to handle. You can travel immense distances.

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On a sledge, in winter, you can travel hundreds of miles in just a few days. Then there's the food. When you kill animals, the land becomes a gigantic open-air deep freeze. That means you can arrange to ambush, for example, a herd of wandering reindeer, caribou. Slaughter them at far greater scale than you could in the summer, and you just pile them up and use them.

A herder's life is unrelenting, but Niobe observes that it's women's work that keeps the community warm. Paulina is making a pair of reindeer-fur pants for her husband, Sasha. To live in the far north, it takes a mastery of fur clothing, and these women have it. It's understanding how that fur changes through the year and then wearing the appropriate hide at the appropriate time. That is the genius of this technology. Most of us see an arctic environment as utterly hostile and as very dangerous to survival.

I think the key trick is to imitate the animals, because we are a hairless animal and all the other animals around us in the cold are very hairy. What you have to do is you have to take their fur and put it all over your own body. There are boots in Siberia that are made directly from the shin fur of reindeer. So, there's an inner boot, and that's short fur because it's taken from a reindeer killed in July-summer fur, in summer-so their fur is their least, because they're actually trying to lose heat all the time, because they hate heat.

That's what the antlers are doing too. They're kind of a radiator.

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And then, over that, you have an outer boot, which is made from fur killed in November, when it's at its thickest. And even your sleeping bag is made the same way. It's hard to believe anything grows here that the reindeer can eat, but there are small bits of edible plants under this snow. And these get exhausted pretty quickly. When they do, it's time to pack up and find better grazing land or return to their villages until the snow clears.

For the reindeer and their keepers, this cycle of seasonal migration makes life possible. The Chukchi offer Niobe and us a glimpse at our ancestors' ability to adapt, innovate and rely on each other, even in the most challenging of environments. Could these traits have given Ice Age humans a survivability edge over the Neanderthals? When the times are rough, social networks suddenly become extremely important.

It's very important if you can go to the next group over and somehow be connected to them and somehow be taken in or helped out. Homo sapiens may have had another advantage. Like the Chukchi, they carefully crafted cold-weather clothing. Clothing was one of the most important innovations brought into Europe by modern humans. But that was made possible by one of the most important artifacts ever invented: But perhaps the simplest explanation for our ancestors' survivability may be their greater numbers. Modern humans can reproduce extremely fast. The result of that is the human population expansion is very quick.

What we know about Neanderthals is not only are they living in small groups, but the overall population seems to have been extremely small. By 40, years ago, the Neanderthals, Denisovans and all other archaic species were, for the most part, gone. There were four or five species wherever we went, but we were the survivors, because we brought with us very sophisticated ways of looking at the world, division of labor, very extensive toolkits for hunting and gathering. And gradually, I think, I don't think there was a holocaust, I think that, in terms of a model, I see us displacing people.

By 25, years ago, we had reached all the lands between the Atlantic and the Pacific, including the Arctic, and were poised on the cusp of a vast new territory. By now, the last great Ice Age had reached its peak, and the world became even colder. As the seas froze and the ocean levels dropped, a new land appeared in the waters of the Bering Straits that would eventually connect North America and Asia.

This land, called "Beringia," would last at least 10, years and for long stretches may have looked like the cold, rocky landscape of today's far eastern Siberia. Here, another arctic people, the Yupik, live off the land, or, in this case, the sea. And they travel over and through the icy waters in another echo from the past, the skin boat "umiak. When the sea freezes solid, people can walk or sled across the ice, but when the ice breaks up, the umiak is light enough to carry and sturdy enough to row, a perfect Beringian vessel.

Making one is a fairly quick operation, and Niobe joins in. Up here in the Arctic, every resource is precious, so all the wood in this frame has probably had several lives already. This could have been a doorframe once; now it's about to go out to sea. When the boat's frame is ready, it's covered with a single walrus skin, shaved so thin, it's almost transparent. What's remarkable about this kind of boat is that every part of it can be found in a completely treeless landscape: Many experts believe the first people to enter North America did so by working their way along the Bering land bridge in skin boats just like this.

They may have even trekked at least part of the way across, when ice didn't block their progress. Regardless, by to 20, years ago, our ancestors set foot upon a land no one but animals had entered before. Although archaeological and other evidence pointed to America's first people crossing the Bering Straits from Asia, discoveries of ancient artifacts that appeared European in origin led to a counter theory, that the first Americans actually crossed the Atlantic not the Pacific.

And beyond the scientific findings, many Native Americans believe they are neither Asian nor European, that their people have always been here. In , a chance discovery, in the hills near Bozeman, Montana, would begin a year saga that finally unmasked the origins of America's first people. Sarah Anzick was just two years old when that discovery occurred on her family's land.

What I've been told is that these construction workers, who had received permission from my father to extract landfill for a local high school project, were actually just digging the dirt out, and one of the construction workers noticed one of these giant artifacts had come tumbling out from the site. To their amazement, they would unearth over a hundred stone and bone artifacts, all about 13, years old. Shane Doyle is a Crow Indian historian who has studied these artifacts, identified as belonging to Clovis people.

The Clovis culture had a very distinctive style of fluting that they used to make their spear points and their arrowheads. So, you can see how it's been fluted down the middle here and would actually be attached to a, a larger wooden spear point. These were all the tools that they needed to get by on a daily basis by hunting and gathering.

They were hunting everything from wooly mammoths to bison. And so they needed these. These were the most precious commodities as far as survival goes. But why did they bury such valuable and important items? The answer soon became clear. As the men dug below the artifacts, they were stopped in their tracks by a young boy's skeleton, covered in red ochre. They had chanced upon a burial site of one of the oldest human skeletons ever discovered in North America.

As a child, Sarah Anzick was hardly aware of the discovery's significance. But she became a molecular biologist and in the s was working on the human genome project, when she realized an opportunity to discover the true origins of Native Americans might lie with D. And I started thinking about, you know, we have an ancient remains that's 13, years old, and so, I kind of began to put two and two together, thinking, "Wow," you know, "wouldn't it be really neat if we could take a glimpse into the ancient past through the genome sequencing of this ancient individual?

Sarah decided to contact local Montana tribes to see if they would have objections similar to those voiced by Native Americans when scientists tried to recover D. The discovery of a 9,year-old skeleton in Kennewick, Washington had triggered a contentious legal battle. Native Americans said the bones were sacred and should be reburied, while scientists wanted the knowledge their D.

The battle was ongoing when Sarah approached the Montana tribes asking to do D. One of the tribes was quite supportive and interested in my findings, and the second tribe, on the other hand, were not. Sarah decided to go forward anyway. But she had never worked with ancient D. So, on her own time, at a private lab, she began by practicing on old animal bones and failed. And so, at that point, given the challenges and the obstacles and the heated debate with the Kennewick Man, I just put everything aside and took a rest. But, in , over in Copenhagen, D.

The Copenhagen team, with Sarah joining in, went to work. Unlike the much older Skhul sample, they were able to get strong D. They focused on recovering D. They then compared Anzick's distinctive patterns to the genomes of nearly modern populations around the world and to a few ancient population samples previously decoded. It took the team four years, but they finally narrowed down exactly where the genes of the Anzick Child had come from.

These findings were really significant: As expected, major elements of the Anzick Child's genome came from across the Pacific. One third of the boy's genome matched genes from a 24,year-old Siberian skeleton. So, he's part ancient Siberian. His other genes matched those of ancient East Asians, so, two thirds of his genome comes from them. But this specific genetic combination can no longer be found in any living populations west of Bering Strait, only in living Native Americans east of the Strait.

So what does this mean? So, basically, you can almost imagine, you know, these two very distinct groups of people meeting each other, interacting, and you can say the child of those, if you want, is actually, genetically speaking, Native Americans right? What we believe is that there was a cross between Eastern Asians and Siberians, up in the Bering Strait, and they crossed over the Bering Strait and populated the Americas. So, from the edge of the Asian continent or from the now-vanished land of Beringia, the ancestors of the Anzick Child came to North America, bearing a genetic signature found nowhere else in the world and would pass it to generations of Native Americans to come.

That would fit with the idea that you see Native Americans as being something genetically completely unique. Back in Montana, Sarah and Eske were nervous about releasing the study's results, wondering what Native American reactions would be. We didn't want to publish without some communication to the local tribes to tell them of our findings, because we didn't want them hearing about this for the first time through a publication. They invited Crow historian Shane Doyle to the discovery site to assess his reaction to the study and their findings.

We met him at the Anzick site. And he knew nothing about this, what we had found. And he became extremely emotional, and he took out his drum and he start playing a song. I was really overwhelmed with emotion. The results show that American Indians are from America. We don't come from any place else. Nowhere else in the world is there Native American D. We understand that the study's been made, and we can't go back in time now. And so I think you should put the boy back. He's given us all this information, and now it's time to return the favor, and put him back where his parents left him, where his grandparents shed tears for him, and it's just the right thing to do.

On a rainy fall day, representatives of various local tribes joined in the solemn ceremony to return this special child, their most ancient relative, to his original resting place. Initially, Sarah and Eske had misgivings about Shane's request to rebury remains that would be lost to science forever. I had a huge conflict. I had a scientific community who was telling me how important this was.

And then I also had the Native American communities who were also very passionate about seeing this child go back to his resting place. It had been a long and emotional struggle for Sarah Anzick, but in the end, she did what she always knew she would. From the first day that I set eyes on these remains, I always felt like it had a story to tell, you know? And I always felt like it was important that this child had the chance to tell his story.

And as it turns out, the child called Anzick is far more significant than anyone could have imagined. Close to 80 percent of all living Native Americans carry his genome, and that percentage is even higher in Central and South America. This means the descendants of a single band of ice age hunter-gatherers, who crossed the Bering Straits around 15, years ago, would eventually create virtually all the great civilizations of North and South America that flowered long before European contact.

By 5, years ago, there was just one frontier left for humans to conquer: Almost 10, miles wide, the Pacific Ocean covers about a third of the earth's surface. Its islands are like grains of sand, scattered across a vast blue void. Yet somehow, early humans managed to reach them all. These are distances that are greater than the distance across Europe. The whole settlement of the Pacific really is something that's under-celebrated and undervalued in terms of representing, you know, the capabilities of these people thousands of years ago. They did an amazing thing.

In the 18th century, when England's Captain Cook arrived in the Hawaiian Islands, he found people he called Polynesians had been there long before him. How was this possible? Cook needed navigational charts and full-masted ships to reach the middle of the Pacific, while Polynesians had less sophisticated-looking boats and sailed with no charts.

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So how did they reach specks of land in the middle of a 10,mile-wide ocean? Some experts believed the first people to reach Pacific islands drifted on crude boats, pushed by trade winds that blew west from South America. This theory of accidental drift originated with Thor Heyerdahl, a visionary Norwegian explorer. In , Heyerdahl and a small crew set off from Peru to prove his theory. The men built a balsawood craft, called Kon-Tiki, and just drifted westward on the currents. After days, they crashed into a reef off a tiny island in the South Pacific. Luckily, no one drowned. It was an extraordinary adventure that embedded in the public imagination the idea that humans from South America settled the Pacific.

But was Heyerdahl correct? Anxious to learn more about the famed explorer, Niobe traveled to Oslo to meet Heyerdahl's son. Well, if anything with my father was…that I'm myself a traditional academic. I'm trained to, to collect samples, data, analyze it and draw conclusions from what I have found. My father, he jumped to the conclusion first. He was, in many ways, also an artist with an imagination. He started with the conclusion and worked his way backwards, like a lawyer defending his suspect. To Heyerdahl, his main idea was those people came from South America, the Polynesians and those guys, because they were sitting in the wind with their boats and the wind would blow them to the northwest, a completely ethnocentric European idea.

And wrong as well. Recent genetic studies of Pacific Islanders reveal their origins are not in the Americas but in Asia. If we look at the Polynesians and their other, you know, close relatives in Micronesia and parts of Eastern Melanesia, they share many of these genetic traits, all the way back to Taiwan. So, a lot of the genetic evidence that's emerged in the last two decades has helped to reinforce the picture that archaeology and linguistics have been giving us for quite a while.

That archaeological evidence reveals human populations migrated into Southeast Asia and by at least 40, years ago had managed to reach island groups such as Indonesia and the Philippines, perhaps when sea levels were lower, narrowing the channels. For early humans crossing the Asian continent, this should have been the end of the line: Southeast Asia, on the edge of the mighty Pacific Ocean, an impassable barrier to the further colonization of the planet. Except it wasn't really a barrier. Just like for these Philippine Islanders today, our ancestors found ways to live with the sea, and soon they were crossing it.

The wonder is that Heyerdahl and other experts could not see the obvious. There are perhaps no other cultures as comfortable at living with the sea as the inhabitants of the Pacific Islands. That they, and not people from South America, would conquer the Pacific now seems obvious.

But how exactly did they do it? The first thing they needed was the right kind of boat. There is no archaeological evidence of the earliest boats, but there is one place that might offer a clue: Papua, New Guinea, the world's largest tropical island, which lies just west of Indonesia. The immense Sepik River drains a tropical wilderness. Here, humans live in a labyrinth of streams and swamps.

And they travel throughout in dugout canoes, a vessel that probably has been in use for tens of thousands of years. And these men are still making them as their ancestors did many centuries ago. The craftsmanship of the canoe-makers is extraordinary. Over time, Papuans took the dugout to astonishing extremes, by making war canoes that were long, and fast. The Papuan have very long dugouts. And that is a very clever idea, because every sailor knows: The Papuan peoples, as far as I know, never had any sailing boats, because they did not venture into the sea. Those canoes would capsize.

Canoes are best in calm waters, not in ocean waves. So, island people added an outrigger. The outer rig widens and stabilizes the boat's thin hull, so waves hitting the boat from the side can't easily tip it over. And with a sail to catch the wind, these boats could move easily and swiftly between closer islands. And, as it turns out, they could indeed sail into the wind, putting to rest Heyerdahl's idea that they could only drift with the wind.

Wind tunnel tests on a model of an ancient Polynesian vessel clearly demonstrate they could tack, which is how sailboats sail into the wind. As sailors head into the wind, they steer the boat from one diagonal direction to the opposite diagonal. Crossing the sails over allows the wind to push the boat forward on a zigzag path, something every modern sailor knows.

So island hopping by outriggers throughout the Southern Pacific settled this region fairly quickly. But it's many miles of open ocean to mid-Pacific islands like Hawaii, a perilous trip for a small outrigger. Somebody, probably around 2,, 2, years ago, gets the idea, "Aha. I get rid of the outrigger, I bring another canoe hull in, I put them together, right, and I've got a catamaran, basically a double-hulled canoe.

And that was then the platform that allowed an even greater phase of expansion. A catamaran is still one of the best sailing vessels in the world, swift and stable with enough deck space for crew and supplies. But how did early Polynesians navigate their immensely watery domain? Kalepa Babayan is one of the ship's senior navigators. He sails the Pacific without charts, G. He learned this extraordinary skill from the last traditional navigator, a legendary sailor named Mau Piailug.

Translated from Hawaiian When the net is ready, form a circle. Now deceased, Mau was living on a remote island in Micronesia when director Sam Low captured him on film. Translated from Hawaiian Hold your course. The current is strong. Mau Pialug was one of a handful of navigators who still practiced the ancient art of non-instrument navigation, the ability to use the rising and setting points of stars, being able to find your way across thousands of miles of ocean with no instruments, no charts, with no assistance at all from anything other than what he had memorized.

This footage shows Mau teaching these young men how to navigate by the night sky. These lumps of coral represent the rising and setting points of highly visible stars. The star called Mailap, the "big bird," is the first to rise in the east and the first to set in the west, defining two compass points. Since the axis of the earth always points north, toward the North Star, by memorizing the position of the other rising and setting stars, the navigators always know where they are. On cloudy nights or in daylight, Mau teaches the young men to read swells and currents to keep the boat on the desired path.

These are timeless navigational skills that enabled their ancestors to master the mighty Pacific. To set out in a canoe, a thousand years ago, would have taken an almost superhuman race of people to be able to endure that kind of voyage. The ocean was always their road. Going to sea, for sea people, is one of the most natural things that you can do. With astonishing navigational expertise, Pacific islanders moved swiftly and systematically across the ocean.

From islands east of Indonesia, beginning about 3, years ago, they moved east, south and north, settling one island after another, finally reaching Hawaii around A. What it tells us, this, this instantaneous kind of dispersal and continuous successful settlement from that point onwards, is that these people knew what they were doing. These people were prepared. They know where they're going, and they know what they need to survive when they get there. The raucous bark of howler monkeys and the deafening cry of chicken-like chachalacas are constant, a Niagara of noise that gushes between the cuipo trees that tower into the canopy.

The late humorist Will Cuppy wrote that the howl of the howler was caused by a large hyoid bone at the top of the trachea, and could be cured by a simple operation on the neck with an ax. He lands in a humid jungle teeming with exotic wildlife and people who speak a magical, musical language. Nearly a million people took part in the five days of spectacles, which featured a float parade, 48 conga-dancing groups and 10 culecos —enormous trucks that blast music and drench spectators with somewhat inaptly tap water. He was consumed by ambition and lacking in humanity and generosity.

Was he guilty of being part of the Spanish power structure? He was guilty as hell. He was also an authentic visionary. When we reached the mountains at dawn on the third day, the guides warned us that evil spirits inhabited the forest. The Kuna refused to go farther. For the final nine days we had to muddle through the jungle on our own. I accompanied Navarro on his second traverse, in He was then 35 and running the National Association for the Conservation of Nature Ancon , the privately funded nonprofit he started that became one of the most effective environmental outfits in Central America.

Affable, wittily fatalistic and packed with a limitless fund of Balboa lore, he shepherds hikers through ant swarms and snake strikes while plying a machete the size of a gatepost. As a consolation, Arauz leaves me with the prayer a dying conquistador is said to have chiseled in rock in the Gulf of San Miguel: Ever since Balboa took a short walk across a long continent, the swamp forests that fuse the Americas have functioned as a gateway. Sure that he would provide the Spanish a faster passage to the spices of the Indies, he had petitioned King Ferdinand for men, arms and provisions.

He set off on September 1 with a force of heavily armed Spaniards and hundreds of Native American warriors and porters, some of whom knew the way. Which is why we launch the trek in Puerto Obaldia, a tiny village some 30 miles north, and why the frontier police that accompany us wear bandoleers and shoulder Ms and AKs. Our small retinue is drawn from the three cultures of the region: The Kuna are notoriously generous and hospitable. They hold a spontaneous evening jam session, serenading my party with maracas, pan flutes and song. We all join in and toast them with bottles of Balboa beer.

The following morning I befriend a scrawny, tawny junkyard dog, one of the many strays that scavenge the Armila streets. Into the rainforest I have brought reckless optimism, a book on native birds and what I had hoped was enough bug spray to exterminate Mothra. As I slog through the leaf litter on the forest floor, the entire crawling army of the jungle seems to be guarding it: Mosquitoes nip at my bare arms; botflies try to burrow into them; fire ants strut up my socks and ignite four-alarm blazes.

Bullet ants are equally alarming. The sweet bell tones of antbirds that prey on them fleeing a swarm. We chance upon an astounding array of mammal tracks: In case of a peccary charge, Arauz suggested that I climb at least eight feet up in a nearby tree since they reputedly have the ability to piggyback. His dad looked into a pot and noticed a clump of rice bubbling to the surface. He looked a little closer and realized the rice was embedded in the nose of a monkey. He listens intently and, without a tickle of irony, adds that the same monkey would have yielded three pints of cacarica fruit punch.

I laugh uneasily when he shows me the three-foot pit viper he has hacked in half beside my backpack.

Citation Styles for "Journeys to the edge : in the footsteps of an anthropologist"

The jungle air is heavy and moist; the tropical sun, unrelenting. We average seven or eight miles a day. During the homestretch I cheat a little—OK, a lot—by riding in a piragua. Sandbanks erupt in butterfly confetti as our canoe putters by. According to legend, he and Leoncico clambered up the rise together, conquistador and conquistadog. From a hilltop clearing Balboa looked south, saw a vast expanse of water and, dropping to his knees, raised eyes and arms heavenward.

Then he called his men to join him. The only sign of humanity is a circle of stones in which a Bible, sheathed in plastic, lays open to the Book of Matthew. Having summited the historic peak, I, too, raise my fists in exultation.