Journal Article

How science transformed Venezuela's Guacharo Cave: A case of speleology at the periphery

Perez, M.A.

Record Number:
2475
Year:
2011
Journal:
2011 Goeological Society of America Annual Meeting in Minneaplois
Short Title:
How science transformed Venezuela's Guacharo Cave: A case of speleology at the periphery
Abstract:
HOW SCIENCE TRANSFORMED VENEZUELA'S GUáCHARO CAVE: A CASE OF SPELEOLOGY AT THE PERIPHERY PEREZ, Maria Alejandra, Anthropology, University of Michigan, 101 West Hall, 1085 S. University Ave, Ann Arbor, MI 48109, mperez@umich.edu As sites of refuge, ritual, art, and exploration, caves hold a special place in human history and culture. Their uses and meanings have been and remain multiple, their mystery rarely failing to instill wonder, fear, or both. More recently, cave scientists, or speleologists, have transformed caves into objects and places of scientific study. How does the appreciation and understanding of caves change when viewed through the lens of cave science? This paper examines this question at Venezuela’s Guácharo Cave. In 1949, the Venezuelan government inaugurated the Alexander von Humboldt Natural Monument, the nation’s first, at Guácharo Cave, located near the northeastern mountain town of Caripe. Guácharo Cave is the country's most famous cavern, and the only one with substantial tourist infrastructure. Its descriptions always state two claims to fame. First, Alexander von Humboldt visited the cave in 1799 and produced what is regarded as the first scientific study of any cave in the Americas. He also scientifically named and described its notoriously raucous inhabitant, the nocturnal oilbird, or “guácharo” (Steatornis caripensis). The presence of guácharo colonies is thus the second claim typically sited for the cave’s recognition. This paper focuses on the activities of three groups of actors that have contributed to the appreciation and understanding of Guácharo Cave as an object and place of science: (1) European naturalists, who raised the international awareness and value of Guácharo Cave as a unique geological and ecological site; (2) Venezuelan speleologists, who thoroughly explored, surveyed, and mapped the cavern, eventually adding it to a growing national cave registry; and (3) local cave guides, who, by the early 1980s, embraced a script that emphasized the scientific knowledge of the cave and its ecology. Based on archival research, interviews, and fieldwork, this study shows that even in the name of science, the views and understandings of Guácharo Cave remain multiple and even contested. It argues that a critical understanding of these contested views requires acknowledging the importance of place, culture, and history in the practice of science. In particular, it requires placing the cavern, along with the efforts to reveal it and represent it, in the context of speleology at the periphery.
Times Cited:
1
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