Between the Lines

In taking a gap year, I made the decision to learn by looking up. For a nerd like me, admitting that you can’t learn everything with your nose in a book can be painful. Admittedly, I would still dive straight into a library if I were looking for nuclear theories or a chronology of the Tudors, but I am quickly learning that the academic fields that strive to explore our similarities, differences, diversity and homogeneity as humans lack luster in text.

Last year, in a panic over what subject to apply for at university, I plumped for anthropology and archaeology. I read and read. Anthropology and Anthropologists; Adam Kuper. An Introduction to Environmental Archaeology; John G Evans. Power, Sex, Suicide; Nick Lane. Persistent tropical foraging in the highlands of terminal Pleistocene/Holocene New Guinea; Patrick Roberts. The Incredible Human Journey; Dr Alice Roberts.

That last title was a re-read of a book I was given in primary school. I had asked for it after watching the BBC documentary of the same name, in which Roberts travelled the world, visiting archaeological sites, genetic research centres and indigenous communities to trace the emigration of homo sapiens out of Africa and around the world. Out of all of the fascinating books I read last year, this one was yet again my favourite. I discovered very little new information, and some of the theories are becoming outdated, but unlike any of the others, this book sparked memories of watching Roberts’ conversations with almost every kind of person imaginable. I remembered native north Americans telling her about their folk tales of the split in the ice and the emigration of their ancestors from the north; I remembered conversations about genetic analysis at the Max Plank Institute in flashy open-plan spaces; I remembered the people of Flores describing the stories of what could have been homo floresiensis, existing in the maze of caves on the island.

Last week I was sat on a bus next to Sintra, another fellow who was testing out her Portuguese by reading a book she had bought about the political party PT. As we wound through the hills of Parana, I couldn’t help my eyes drooping – I never could stay fully awake on long bus journeys. I was nervous, and with my eyes closed, my brain began to swarm with images. Colourful dress, hunter-gatherer techniques, translators. Reindeer coats, folk tales, displaced peoples. Ever since that BBC series, I had marvelled at anthropologists and their opportunities, and here I was about to visit an indigenous community in Brazil, utterly unprepared.

I do not plan on taking this space to retell what happened during our visit (though if you are interested I’m happy to talk about it!), but to reflect on my own expectations. Anthropology was always a somewhat uncomfortable seat for me; although I was fascinated, in reading the first book listed, I was forced to realise that any study of people as a contained, representative of humanity was problematic, and deeply rooted in colonialism. As a white European, to walk into this community and ask deeply philosophical questions felt like those early 20th century anthropologists, and to dumb down my curiosities felt like a condemning of their intelligence. To overthink my every interaction was to imagine these people wrapped in cotton wool and yet did I ever even have a chance of my brain doing otherwise.

Ultimately, my group did seem to achieve a natural and healthy relationship over the day. That day did not contain the colourful traditional dress, the endless to and fro of a translator or the ancient farming techniques of a documentary. The stereotypes which I had unsuccessfully tried to quash for so long were happily disproved for the Gauraní and Kaingang. When it comes to the complex species that we call Homo sapiens, even a bookworm like me has to admit that written research can only take us so far. I do not claim to have made any steps in solving the issues of interacting with marginalised ethnic groups, nor have I completely abandoned my prejudice. What I do hope is that I can keep clear a consciousness of my prejudice, and should I still chose to go into anthropology, I can hopefully use my knowledge to help others do the same. I still cherish that book and documentary, but this visit allowed me to stop watching others having those conversations, and start having them myself.

In many people’s’ eyes I had made it. I was sat in the interview room for archaeology and anthropology at St Hugh’s College, Oxford University. And finally the question came.
“I see you’ve chosen to take a gap year. If we offered you a place this year without deferral, would you take it?”
This time, without overthinking, I simply replied: “I would have to consider it very carefully. I think it is arrogant to study other people’s cultures when the only one you have experienced is your own.”
I can’t say for certain, (because who knows how the Oxford admissions system works), but I think that this was a major reason for my rejection, for this is when the mood of the interview turned. “Yes” was the answer I think they were looking for. Looking back now, I don’t regret speaking my mind to this point. Maybe I will not have the prestige of studying at Oxford University, but perhaps I do not want to follow in the footsteps of the colonial anthropologists who would have preceded me there.

I woke up as the bus turned off the tarmac road and started bumping through the dry golden-green grasses. The colours, languages and landscapes swirled back into my subconscious and Sintra looked up from her book. I think we all knew it was time to look up, and truly learn.

Sintra and I in the indigenous community’s classroom (how far did you really expect me to get from the books…) Photo credits to Daniel, a little boy almost as excited to jump in the river as we were.