Journeys to the Edge: In the Footsteps of an Anthropologist

Journeys to the Edge: In the Footsteps of an Anthropologist

by Peter M. Gardner

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In this fascinating and vivid account, Peter M. Gardner takes us along with him on his anthropological field research trips. Usually, the author’s family is there, too, either with him in the field or somewhere nearby. Family adventures are part of it all. Travel into the unknown can be terrifying yet stimulating, and Gardner describes his own adventures, sharing medical and travel emergencies, magical fights, natural dangers, playful friends, and satisfying scientific discoveries. Along the way, we also learn how Gardner adapted to the isolation he sometimes faced and how he coped with the numerous crises that arose during his travels, including his tiny son’s bout with cholera.
Because Gardner’s primary research since 1962 has been with hunter-gatherers, much of his story transpires either in the equatorial jungle of south India or more than one hundred miles beyond the end of the road in Canada’s Northwest Territories. Other ventures transport readers to Japan and back to India, allowing them to savor ancient sights and sounds. Gardner closes the book with a journey of quite another sort, as he takes us into the world of nature, Taoist philosophy, and the experimental treatment of advanced cancer.
Throughout this fast-moving book, Gardner deftly describes the goals and techniques of his research, as well as his growing understanding of the cultures to which he was exposed. Few personal accounts of fieldwork describe enough of the research to give a complete sense of the experience in the way this book does. Anyone with an interest in travel and adventure, including the student of anthropology as well as the general reader, will be totally intrigued by Gardner’s story, one of a daily existence so very different from our own.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780826265227
Publisher: University of Missouri Press
Publication date: 09/27/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
File size: 6 MB

About the Author

Peter M. Gardner is author of Bicultural Versatility as a Frontier Adaptation among Paliyan Foragers of South India and coauthor of The Individual in Northern Dene Thought and Communication: A Study in Sharing and Diversity. He is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

Read an Excerpt

Journeys to the Edge

In the Footsteps of an Anthropologist

By Peter M. Gardner

University of Missouri Press

Copyright © 2006 The Curators of the University of Missouri
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8262-6522-7


To the Very Edges of Our World

Have you ever wondered what it feels like to be an anthropologist plunging into an exotic culture? The delights and terrors may be hard to imagine. Let me share some stories about the eighteen months I spent doing fieldwork with hunting bands in the tropical forest of India. These include accounts of dancing under a full moon in a circle of smiling faces, hunting wild boars with spears, coping with elephant herds and army ants, and waking at dawn to find a venomous snake zipped into my seven-by-seven-foot tent. How different my stories are about fourteen and a half months spent with native Canadian hunters in Canada's northern forest. In that research I faced a bitter arctic winter in the wilds, 105 miles from a road. Yet, again, there are delights as well as terrors to describe. Not every project has involved extreme challenges. I have tales to tell of less worrying exploration in the cities of two of Asia's great civilizations, Hindu India and Japan—with their refined sculpture, music, and perspectives on the world. And even that is not the full extent of the travels I am ready to recount.

Imagine what it would be like to take your family to such places. Much of the time, my own family, including children, lived with me in the field, or nearby. These family experiences are part of what I wish to share.

Along the way, I met one of the world's most peaceful and egalitarian peoples, hunters who live quietly near the equator in a thorn forest. I also witnessed spirit possession at night, two magical fights with the strangest apparent consequences, temperatures cold enough to turn heating oil into jelly on a stormy winter night, and travel nightmares galore, including a family trip alone on arctic sea ice during a December vacation. The anthropologist must be game for any and all of it.

Yet anthropologists are not a breed apart. Like you, many of us feel an interest in exotic ways of life when we are starting our careers, and we are likely to have a bit of an adventurous streak. But we go into the field more innocently than most suppose. While well prepared for our scientific routines, we are seldom ready for a fraction of the personal pitfalls and challenges that await us. The time we spend in the field entails almost constant improvising. Unlike TV's Angus MacGyver and Hollywood's Indiana Jones or Lara Croft, we find ourselves muddling through crises as most ordinary people tend to; the last thing you can expect from us is an aptitude for crafting instant solutions to problems on the run, as the screen adventurers do. It tends to be lucky breaks as much as wits that see us through.

One thing anthropologists can be sure of is that, when strangers learn our occupation at parties or in airport lounges, they start pressing for details of our travels. They ask how we find the opportunities and the funding. "Don't tell me people pay you to do that!" they say, with awe. They wonder what motivates us to study folk who dwell in jungles, tropical villages, ancient cities, deserts, and arctic wilderness. Inevitably, their main question will be, "What is such work really like?" Rare is the anthropologist who is not eventually turned by these inquirers into a storyteller. Given the situations that most of us have faced in our travels, and being scientists, few of us find the need or inclination to do more than describe memorable events as we, ourselves, experienced them. What I offer you here are just such plain, factual tales. I think you will find they need no artificial embellishment.


Although I was born in England and attended high school in a New Zealand Maori (Polynesian) community, in western Canada, and in Kansas, the tale of my anthropological ventures really begins in Philadelphia, where I attended graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania.

Throughout my undergraduate years, I enjoyed reading about hunters and gatherers—people such as Polar Eskimos, Pygmies, Australian Aborigines, the inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego, Japan's Ainu, or the denizens of the Kalahari Desert. When offered the chance, I wrote papers on them. Yet I thought of this as a romantic, personal interest, something I imagined I would put aside once I got to graduate school. After all, given our changing world, those cultures were fast becoming the subjects of yesterday's research. I could hardly miss the fact that many of the well-documented studies of such peoples were crusty tomes from the 1890s to the 1940s.

Putting my fascination aside was not so easy when the time came. At Penn, A. I. Hallowell and J. Alden Mason had each done extended studies of peoples in the Canadian subarctic; Froelich Rainey, at Penn's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, was experienced with the Inuit (Eskimo); and Jane Goodale, also at the museum, focused on the Tiwi in northern Australia. I found myself hoping that hunters and gatherers were still available for study in southernmost India, where I planned to do my doctoral research. For some time this remained an unspoken hope.

By 1961 I learned that such ways of life did still exist there. The anthropologist Kathleen Gough and a fellow student who had lived and worked in south India reported to me that they had actually seen shy Paliyan hunters in the forested hills during the previous ten or twelve years. And Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf, at the University of London, wrote to me about his survey of similarly aloof hunting and gathering bands just to their west, the Malapandarams.

The Paliyans were my first choice. They dwelt on the lower slopes of the Palni Hills in the very heart of the area in which Indians speak Tamil, the tongue I had been learning for use in my research.

Their continuing elusiveness was especially intriguing. I wondered what explained their ability to refrain from contact with the bustling outside world. After all, for a good two or three centuries, several relentless processes have been disastrous for the original inhabitants of jungles, deserts, north woods, and other such regions on the edge of the so-called civilized or developed world. Any survivors of this contact were then sucked into the cultures of new and expanding nation-states. European epidemic diseases and the seizure of land by wave after wave of intrusive settlers may have done the most damage on some continents, but we should not underestimate the effects of people being drawn into the world market economy, being exposed to mission schools, and, frequently, being treated as merely one step above the beasts of the wild.

It surprised me that Paliyans had managed to survive into the mid-twentieth century as a somewhat separate people. Their success invited me to ask how they escaped the usual fate. One of my initial hunches was that they might have been holding back from excessive contact with neighbors due to their values. Yet even that needed explanation.

I wrote proposals to four separate agencies seeking funds to study how the Paliyans had managed to survive as long as they had. By the spring of 1962, I learned that two of the fellowship proposals were successful. I accepted support from the Ford Foundation because it offered me funding for eighteen months, instead of the usual twelve, and provided a generous budget for family travel, for travel within India, and for buying books.

Enough introduction! Let's get started on our journey to the tropical forest, then on to other adventures.


Stumbling into the Tropics

The Suspiciously Light Suitcase

"Getting there is half the fun," people say. I certainly have had fun along the way, but far more memorable are the awful moments when I was beset by disasters.

Heather was born in early June 1962, just as Trudy, my wife, was graduating with her B.A. and I was completing the preparations for our venture to south India to live among the Paliyans. To be sure, this timing was difficult for us, but we would at least be somewhat free to enjoy our child's first two and a half months before our departure. Part of that time we spent with my parents in Kansas, resting. What a contrast this was with the pace of the past year in school. There was much to do, nonetheless.

One essential task was readying our tiny daughter for international travel. Her tender age did not exempt her from the immunizations that were required by law in those days. The always painful yellow fever shot and the smallpox vaccination were the worst. No handbook told us what to do when not one but two vaccinations refused to take. Doctors and nurses strained to see on Heather's tiny arm an approximation of the reaction they had to certify. It was worryingly close to our departure when they finally declared her legally and medically ready for what lay ahead.

Another basic bit of business was shopping. We needed lightweight camping gear suited to jungle living, camera equipment, tropical clothing, a mosquito-proof foldaway cot for Heather, books, gifts, and much more.

We also needed training. Because we would carry a snake antivenin into the forest with us—one that would be effective against the bites of cobras, kraits, and south Indian vipers—Trudy and I had to learn how to give intravenous injections. My father was a doctor, and one of his experienced nurses solved that problem for us. She rolled up her crisp white sleeves, stuck out both her arms, said "practice on me," and talked us through it. Only then did we know that it was harder to give such a needle than to receive one.

At last our travel date drew near and we were ready. We had an embarrassing amount of luggage to ship, but the crucial items were stashed in a strong little Samsonite suitcase: our joint passport (which now contained our new baby's photograph and my long-awaited research visa), our three World Health Organization immunization records, a thick packet of traveler's checks, Heather's diapers for the first part of the trip, and a good supply of baby bottles and formula. Off we went by train to spend our last ten days in Washington, D.C., bidding farewell to Trudy's family. We would take the Santa Fe up to Chicago, then the Baltimore and Ohio on to the capital.

Two hours after our express left Chicago, I pulled out the Samsonite bag to prepare Heather's bottle. Whoops! The bag was far too light, given all that we knew to be in it. I flipped open the latches in pure panic. All it contained were four cotton dresses and the underwear of a middle-aged woman. Only then did we realize that the suitcase had unfamiliar initials on it.

The staff of the B&O was unbelievable. With an understanding porter's assistance and the train's telegraph, we dealt with Heather's immediate needs at the next two stops. That part turned out to be easy. What really concerned us was the loss of our passport, research visa, and immunization records. It seemed impossible that we could get replacement documents with all the required signatures and stamps in the brief time that remained. Where would we even begin? When we stepped down from the train in Washington, exhausted from worry, it was to unexpected news from Dad. Trudy and I had apparently shared a porter in Chicago with a woman whose bag was the same model and color as ours. Opening what was a puzzlingly heavy suitcase, the poor woman found our passport on top, on the inside cover of which was written my parents' telephone number, to be called "in case of emergency." She did just that. To our relief, the railroad not only took full responsibility for the switch, it also made and kept a promise to have everyone's bags back in their own hands within two days. That innocuous looking Samsonite was clutched especially tightly in my hand the following week as we boarded our Cunard liner, the RMS Mauretania, for Southampton, England.

A Stop to Visit the Past

My parents had not been in England since leaving there in 1946. Stimulated by my plan to stop over in England for ten days, they could not restrain themselves from turning the occasion into a full family visit. All went along except my older sister, who by then was married with two young children.

Neither of my grandmothers had yet had a chance to hold one of their great-grandchildren, so Heather's arrival added to the already special event. It was sufficiently special that no one chose to mention our sixteen-year absence.

Trudy and I spent part of our time in Britain doing an American-style "everything tour" by rented car, completing as much in two days as my relatives claimed they would aspire to do in two years. The very idea of it left them breathless. First there was Blackwell's bookshop in Oxford, where fellowship funds allowed me to acquire a number of hard-to-find Indian anthropology books, such as Louis Dumont's valuable monograph on the Kallar, the dominant landholders in the region where I would work. That afternoon we lunched on hearty meat pies in a Stratford-upon-Avon pub, saw one of the Bard's comedies at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, then pushed on to southern Wales for dinner and a night's sleep.

Dawn found us poking about in the ruins of the thirteenth-century Caerphilly Castle, which a gatekeeper must have left open by accident the evening before. The castle's great leaning tower was wreathed in the morning mist—"dragon's breath," as Merlin is said to have dubbed it. Surely there were knights asleep within, and drowsy guards on the battlements. By midday we had spent time browsing in both the austere Roman legionary post at Caerleon and the ethereal remains of Tintern Abbey in its green, green Welsh valley. The abbey arched up elegantly into a now clear sky, its lofting form still hinting at the ideals of its builders. It was a weekday and there were few other visitors. We lunched there, sitting on the grass to prolong a peaceful moment. Leaving Wales, we made our way due southeast on a little-traveled masterpiece of straight Roman road building, across the Cotswald Hills toward Wiltshire and Stonehenge.

There was an abrupt change in the weather as we neared our destination; a storm swept in with low black clouds, gusty winds, and biting air. This was a stroke of fortune for us. By the time we reached Stonehenge, the only other person there was a keeper who huddled away from the autumn blast and ignored our arrival. We roamed about as we wished, touching the remains of Britain's deep past with our hands in ways that we imagined were not normally possible. Just as happened at Caerphilly Castle, we had a strange sense of being alone with Britain's ages. What an end to our tour! Eventually, though, we had to face up to the demands of the modern world and dash back to the London suburbs, where we were expected for dinner.

We hoped to accomplish one last bit of preparation for the tropics in London before traveling on. Trudy and I both read the warning labels on medicines. The possible side effects of long-term use of the main antimalarial drug were sufficiently frightening (they included irreversible anemia) to suggest that a child might actually be safer forgoing its use. So we dropped in on the London School of Tropical Medicine to see if specialists there had ideas on how best to ensure Heather's protection. Their leading malaria expert put aside his work to meet with us; to our relief, he had something new and relatively safe to recommend.

The Real Casting Off

When we drove to Southampton to board the P.&O. Line's proud new vessel, the Canberra, my parents and my younger brother, Don, came to see us off. The moment was surprisingly heavy. It was one thing to say we would sail to India in a lovely ship and undertake well-funded Ph.D. research there; it was an altogether different matter to actually embark on such a venture. I was twenty-three years old with a precious young wife and baby; the Tamil language essential to my study was still not coming easily to me; and I knew little of what really lay ahead. On top of this, as I leaned over the ship's rail and waved to my parents, one of Dad's recent worries came back to bedevil me. He had told me of his fear that Heather would be unable to cope medically with the conditions she faced in India. Were any of us up to it? Could we deal with the responsibilities? When the crew cast off the hawsers and the gap between ship and pier grew to ten, twenty, then thirty feet, the full weight suddenly hit me of what I had so long and so thoughtlessly desired. All I really knew and trusted was slipping away, and tears welled up to obscure my vision. Waving blindly for what seemed long enough, I retreated to a more private part of the deck.

Soon other feelings took over, ones of excitement and delight. This was Trudy's fourth ocean voyage and my fifth. Seasoned travelers though we were, the three weeks to come would bring us sights, smells, and sounds that were entirely new: Gibraltar, the Mediterranean, the narrow streets of old Naples, Pompeii, active volcanoes, the fabled passage between Odysseus' Scylla and Charybdis, Messina, a glimpse of Crete at sunset, Port Said, the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, Aden, Socotra, the Indian Ocean, Minicoy, Colombo (where we would leave the ship), and finally India itself.


Excerpted from Journeys to the Edge by Peter M. Gardner. Copyright © 2006 The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of University of Missouri Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Contents COME WITH ME To the Very Edges of Our World 00 WITH HUNTER-GATHERERS IN THE SOUTH INDIAN JUNGLE Stumbling into the Tropics 00 Seeking the Quiet People 00 Utopia in a Thorn Forest 00 Whimsy, Wild Boars, and Wilder Spirits 00 With Princes into Wilderness 00 Bulls, Bites, and Other Challenges 00 Rewards of Fieldwork 00 Travel, Paris, and the Devil's Advocate 00 LURED BACK TO INDIA Through Alice's Looking Glass 00 Savoring India Personally 00 BRAVING CANADA'S NORTH Toward Northern Forest 00 Subarctic Ways 00 Private Thought Worlds 00 Tasting the North 00 Experiments, Puzzles, Exams 00 The Very Edge of the Inhabited World 00 QUICK ASIAN POSTSCRIPTS Performers in Indian Bronze 00 Time Edges in Japan 00 TREADING OLD PATHS AND NEW Journeys that Converge 00 Adapting to the Path of Cancer 00 A Note of Thanks 00 Notes 00 Bibliography 00 Index 00

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Mathias Guenther

"...The two voyages are interlinked as the ethnographic travels and labors are rendered understandable and meaningful, coherent and resonating, by being grounded within the author’s personal life and worldview."
author of Tricksters and Trancers: Bushman Religion and Society

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