Thursday, 12 November 2015

A scientist in the making

In the foothills of the central Andean highlands to the east of Lima is the province of Huarochirí. The ravines here are studded through with mineral and precious metal deposits, and patchwork smallholdings cling to the valley walls. 

Photo: Mylene D'Auriol ©PromPeru
This is the land of the Huarochirí manuscript, a sixteenth century Quechua language document which was forgotten for centuries in the royal library of Madrid. Nowadays its detailed description of the myths, beliefs and traditions of the Huarochirí Indians makes the manuscript a go to text for Andean scholars.

These mountains were also the birthplace and childhood home of Julio C. Tello.  At the small local school in Huarochirí town, Tello’s nickname was Sharuko (Quechua for powerful and irresistible) because of his impulsive and vivacious nature. 

Later in life he served as elected Representative of Parliament for Huarochirí for a decade, during which time he campaigned for the improved education and infrastructure in rural areas needed to reduce the economic and cultural isolation of indigenous communities.

In December 1941 Tello, who was by this time a renowned and distinguished archeologist in his sixties, travelled once again back to his home town. This time to be honoured by induction into the Académia de Ciencias Fisicas.  

In this story, Hernan remembers him telling the tale of his first scientific experiment.

A scientist in the making
In which a young Tello loses his hat

In the evenings at the Huiñay Huayna camp after a hard ten hour day of labour clearing the site, we would sit back and rest under the makeshift shelter which formed our canteen. To one side was the dense tropical Andean forest, on the other a sheer drop to the river below. There, in this beautiful place, in spite of our fatigue, the gentle warmth of the sunset was incentive enough for us to linger a while chatting about the days discoveries.

We exchanged opinions, planned the next day’s projects, shared reminiscences and told jokes. We even set up a little impromptu music ensemble, of which I was laughingly appointed ‘Director’, and we sang songs accompanied robustly on the guitar, and the charango and a set of quena pipes.

It was on one such night that Tello started to reminisce about his remote Andean home town. Mejía Xesspe asked him if at any time during his childhood there had been any sign to predict that he would become the revered scientific man of letters that he now undoubtedly was.

“Not from what I remember,” he answered.

But it was an interesting question and he fell to thinking, pondering the tips of his boots. We watched the elderly archaeologist as he searched through the farthest corners of his mind, sifting through long forgotten memories. There was an ancestral air to the scene; our expectant attitudes, the aged bronze face, his straw hat and llama poncho. His walking stick was laid across his chest and there in the pinkish light of a setting sun, he was the very personification of an ancient Inca amauta.

“Well, it’s not much,” he continued after a short silence, “but maybe there was something.”

And he told us this story.

“It was a fifteenth of August, the day when Huarochirí celebrates its patron saints. I must have been more or less eight years old, and it was the first time I had ever seen a firework rocket, you know one of those that they use for the fiestas in the small mountain towns. They had strung a rope between two poles across the main square, and a kind of halter. Then while we all watched, they actually shot a carnival dummy across the square. It stopped at the other end, and then flew back.

Naturally for any of you listening now, maybe this is nothing to write home about, but imagine for a small boy, in those times, in a remote country town like Huarochirí, it was something fantastic. I was so mesmerised that there and then on the spot, without a second thought, I decided that using this same scientific system I too could propel anything and make it fly. I was so excited. I couldn’t wait to carry out my first experiment”.

He paused and smiled.

“The first person I asked about the miracle of the moving figure was my father. He told me it was all done with gun powder and ipso facto, don’t ask me how, I went off and got my hands on some gun powder. I suppose it must have been from the carnival men. The thing now was - how to make it work?”

Photo: Mylene D'Auriol ©PromPeru

He continued. “When you are young, you get an idea in your head and there’s no time to stop and think about the consequences. So I rushed off to the garden of my house and set about experimenting with my hat.

Now I should tell you at this point that it was a new straw hat, which until that moment, I had taken care of meticulously. In fact I had put it on precisely that day for the fiesta. Well, that didn’t matter now. I put the hat on the floor and sprinkled some gunpowder around the crown. I took some matches, or more probably it was a burning torch … that would explain how it went up …. and boouf! It was, you might say, a total scientific success.

Of course my poor hat was a disaster; scorched to bits and the rim blown completely off.

I had to run off and hide it away so that no one would notice. Because in those days, in a small town with not much money to spare, a new hat was something. Anything new was as precious as gold dust. You had to guard it with your life, not set fire to it and blow it to bits.”

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