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A Time to Explore

Students Dive Into Research in the Amazon Rainforest

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Research in the Making

A team of student researchers, led by Cal State Fullerton anthropology professor John Patton, traveled to Conambo, Ecuador in 2018 to examine life in the remote tribal community. Among their studies are:

  • the effects of chicha on gut microbiome development;
  • the rates of post-traumatic stress disorder in tribal communities;
  • the relationship between extroversion, introversion and issues of contagion;
  • the development of cognitive abilities and social competence among youth;
  • infants’ ability to understand rhythm and emotions through song pitch and melody;
  • what attributes lead to attraction between men and women; and
  • people’s perceptions of social status based on such attributes as body type, generosity, intelligence, age, oratory skills and warriorship.
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There is no life in Conambo, Ecuador without chicha.

The mildly alcoholic beverage — traditionally made by women of the tribal community of Conambo who chew boiled yuca roots and allow them to ferment — is consumed by everyone, explains Cal State Fullerton anthropology graduate student Carolina Jaime.

The enzymes in the saliva break down the starches with a mashed potato-like consistency and the result is a staple beverage that is full of bacterial colonies from the women’s mouths.

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“Children drink chicha from the moment they are weaned up through adulthood,” says Jaime, who recently traveled to the Amazon rainforest to study the effects of chicha on gut microbiome (the bacteria living in the intestine) development.

The study, led by anthropology professor John Patton, was one of several research projects the team worked on during their monthlong trip.

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“Communities close to the equator have exposure to some of the highest loads of bacteria and parasites on the planet,” says Patton.

“The question is: How do these women keep up one of the highest fertility rates in the world living in an environment where there’s no medication? We’re exploring the possibility that chicha may be a factor in this.”

The team collected spit and fecal samples from each woman and child in the community, samples of various batches of chicha, as well as data on the growth rates of the children.

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To fully engage in the research, Jaime and a few of the students even chewed and spit their own batch of chicha.

“Every relationship that was formed, every activity we experienced, every meal that we ate shaped our understanding of the culture and, therefore, allowed us to collect meaningful data,” says Jaime.

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Fellow researcher and CSUF psychology master’s student Cristian Acevedo ’17 (B.A. psychology) echoes the idea that immersing oneself in tribal culture was critical to their work as budding researchers.

“It’s a reciprocity thing,” he explains. “You can’t go into another community and ask to conduct studies, but not live by their norms and lifestyles. You have to get the full experience of how they live and how they think.”

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A self-described “picky eater,” Acevedo says the fear of unknown foods most concerned him when he signed up for the research trip. Indeed, eating meat from monkeys, tapirs, wild pigs, watusas (large rodents), grubs, wasp larvae and worms would be part of their cultural immersion.

But it wasn’t enough to deter him. “When John invited me to be part of this trip, I knew I couldn’t waste this opportunity. How many chances in your lifetime do you get to do something like this?”

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The mental and physical challenges of the trip — spending dawn to dusk gathering data, hiking in heat and humidity, and conducting everyday chores with primitive means — were part of a bold educational program for Acevedo. With dreams of becoming a professor, he is confident the research experience will give him an edge when applying to doctoral programs.

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“Field experience is invaluable in anthropology,” agrees Jaime. “I knew that going on this trip would set the stage for all of the research that is yet to come in my career.” In fact, the research opportunity was a key factor in her decision to pursue a master’s degree at Cal State Fullerton.

“This research trip has provided me with the data I need to write my thesis and the initial experience I need to continue to do research and complete a Ph.D.”

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