Anderson: Contemplating Guns, Germs and Steel in Panama | Pinhead Letters From the Field
by Chris Anderson
Jul 22, 2007 | 293 views | 0 0 comments | 3 3 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Our second week in our Pinhead internship in Panama started off with a bang, although not the kind of bang I would have ever wanted.  The Monday morning light revealed that all of the gringos were violently ill.  It struck mercilessly in the night, rendering me incapable of leaving the vicinity of a toilet for long.  Nathan theorized that we were all still adjusting to the different microorganisms present in such an alien (to us) environment, with the bacteria in the water posing the largest threat.  The dreaded fury of Montezuma is far-reaching indeed, and no longer confined to his previous empire.  Thankfully, his revenge is easily defeated with the application of two or three drops of chlorine per gallon of drinking water. 

On an unexpectedly related note, I am currently in the middle of the book Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond.  In this book, Diamond attempts to explain why human history has taken the course that it has.  For example, why was it Cortez who conquered the Aztecs with the advanced technology of that time, rather than the opposite happening, that is, Montezuma coming to Spain with better technology and wiping out the Spaniards? So far it is apparent that history occurred this way because certain cultures developed virulent diseases, steel, and powerful centralized governments (to name three of the important factors). That still doesn’t thoroughly answer the question, as it quickly raises a new one: why didn’t the other cultures develop those things? The root answer to this is food production. Those cultures that developed strong agricultural traditions were able to allow a significant portion of their population to specialize in governing or creating technology. Also, since they no longer had to move from place to place (they had all the food they needed) they founded large cities where large numbers of people were able to live closely together. It was the perfect environment for the spread of the new diseases which were acquired from the recently domesticated livestock. Those who survived these epidemics developed substantial immunities to these diseases.

After the initial excitement of Monday, the remainder of the week was spent working around our campus Centro Modrono, which is located in the highlands of Panama.  I hauled gravel from a stream to create a path that leads from the small hydroelectric plant (that supplies the entire campus with electricity) to the buildings that hold the washing machine. We are doing maintenance around the campus as part of our entire six month Pinhead Internship experience with Earth Train of Panama.

I have also been learning about other things, namely Spanish, the indigenous Embera Indians, and surprisingly enough, jazz. Working in such close proximity to the Panamanians gives me a huge opportunity to learn Spanish. They all speak very little English and in order to work with them it is important for me to learn Spanish. Spanish and I, historically, have not gotten along very well, but it seems that finally, pocco a pocco apprendo. Another thing that I have been learning about from my Panamanian counterparts is about the culture of the Embera peoples, one of the native Indians of Panama.  Most of the Panamanians are actually Embera. As an after treat one night, we were treated to a traditional song, sung in the Embera language, which I enjoyed.  In the spirit of sharing cultural traditions, I would like to recite some Shakespeare on a future night, to expose the Embera to a taste of “gringo” culture.

The infusion of culture continued throughout the week, when the wife of Grammy Award winning jazz artist Perez Zarate, Patricia Zarate, paid us a visit. I talked to her at length about living in Boston and we even played a game of chess together (it was a draw).  There’s a probability that she will be working with her husband and the Embera to evaluate how the Embera language might be used in their music to create new sounds.  

I am looking ahead to the coming weeks.  Armed with books detailing everything from the natural history of ants, the skills of biological illustration, I am ready to develop and hone all of the skills and powers of observation needed to be a scientist. Expect poorly drawn pictures and diagrams in the next update.

Chris Anderson is a Pinhead Intern Alumni. He interned last year in paleobotany at the Smithsonian. His six-month 2007 Pinhead Internship is with Earth Train of Panama. Chris is a Norwood High School 2007 graduate and was accepted to Harvard University. He has deferred for a year in order to take part in this internship.

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