Sleeping in a tent in the Bolivian Amazon to conduct research is all part of Christopher von Rueden’s life as an anthropologist and leadership studies professor.
He is spending two months there this summer to conduct research as part of a team of anthropologists, physicians and clinicians with the Tsimane Health and Life History Project. The group is studying how the environment and social lives of the Tsimane people affect their health and aging. The Project combines research with medical care for approximately 90 different villages.
“This is my fifth trip there,” says von Rueden. “This year has been especially difficult for the Tsimane because of flooding during the winter. Entire villages were inundated, crops were lost and people were forced to evacuate.”
His work is not just about data collection. “It’s about building collaborative, caring relationships. Over time, you really get to know the people in the villages and they get to know you. I’m nervous to see how the flooding affected people I know.”
In addition to conducting research, he is assisting ongoing efforts by the Tsimane Health and Life History Project to provide supplies to those communities most affected by the flooding.
“In the wake of the flooding, I am looking at how people organized to coordinate evacuation and aid, what kind of leadership was operating and evaluating how leader-follower dynamics contributed to collective action,” he says.
The biggest challenge he faces when embedding in villages to conduct research and provide assistance is not the language barrier or camping out in the extreme heat and humidity. “I’ve always been an outdoors kind of person," he says. "The biggest challenge was more just being the odd person in a village trying to navigate friendships and relationships as an outsider. It’s group dynamics.”
von Rueden was drawn to anthropology and leadership studies because some of the “most interesting questions are why have we been so successful on the planet, why we help each other out, and how leadership emerges in the absence of government and formal institutions. For most of our history as a species, we have lived in small-scale societies.”
Before going to Bolivia, he stopped in Peruvian Amazon to join geography professor David Salisbury and a group of Richmond students. Among other projects, the students are collaborating with students from the National University of Ucayali in Peru to study perceptions within indigenous communities of land tenure and a proposed road to their territory.
In the fall, von Rueden will bring what he has learned to the classroom.
“I’m excited to teach Leadership in Cultural and Historical Contexts again and Leadership and the Social Sciences, which will be a Spinning Your Web course," says von Rueden, who will be starting his second year as an assistant professor in the Jepson School of Leadership Studies. “We’re going to talk about how men and women in different kinds of societies have been able to achieve leadership, how ecology and demography shapes leadership and barriers women have faced in becoming leaders. I’m excited to share what I’m learning this summer.”
Photo: David Salisbury, Jairo, a Cashinahua man, and Christopher von Rueden
Above: Christopher von Rueden and Bacilio Tayo, a Tsimane man