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A Time to Teach

Anthropologist Shifts Focus to Next Generation of Researchers

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Though decades of trekking through the Amazon rainforest as an evolutionary anthropologist and tribal warfare specialist have ripped through the cartilage in John Patton’s knees, he’s not stopping his research anytime soon.

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Since launching a field site in Conambo, Ecuador in 1992 — believed to be one of the longest ongoing field sites in evolutionary anthropology — the Cal State Fullerton professor of anthropology has conducted 12 research trips to examine life among the remote Achuar and Sapara tribal community.

The rare window into the community of fewer than 200 people continues to draw the researcher back.

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“There are very few places in the world where we can study social trajectories and life histories of tribal communities within a bounded complex,” Patton explains. “Many anthropologists, including myself, like to teach. But we go into this field because we’re fascinated by the research.”

For the past three decades, Patton and his wife Brenda Bowser, also a faculty member and researcher in CSUF’s Division of Anthropology, have committed themselves to building relationships within the tribal community.

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“We’re well-known and trusted,” says Patton. “They’re used to us coming down and they even take it upon themselves to teach our students what it’s like to live in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

“The older I get, the more I realize that my time is limited, so I’ve been trying to give field experiences to as many of my students as possible,” he shares. “This kind of field experience is transformative on a personal level, as well as for students who plan to pursue Ph.D. programs.”

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Recalling his own doctoral experience, Patton says much has evolved in terms of training students for field research. “When we went to the field for the first time, we basically got dropped off in a plane and the plane left,” he chuckles. “That was all the preparation we received.”

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Over the years, Patton has established guidelines to keep students healthy and safe, including improvements to the physical infrastructure of the field site. Students now have access to a residential building with a tin roof, solar panels to generate some electricity, a toilet, a basic shower and a water purification system.

Still, Patton says, “it’s not easy field work,” noting that he has contracted malaria twice, cholera, and had an insect lay eggs in his ear. “People don’t appreciate that in order to get coffee in the morning, it takes 20 minutes to build a fire first, and that you’re hiking everywhere, you’re constantly sweating and dehydrated, and it’s often rainy and muddy.”

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With his sights now set on training a new generation of researchers, Patton led his most ambitious field trip to date in summer 2018. A team of eight students — five from Cal State Fullerton, two from Arizona State University and one from the University of Arizona — spent a month collecting data for several research projects, ranging in topic from post-traumatic stress disorder, gut microbiome health, personality traits, social status and infant communication.

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“Other disciplines are much better than anthropology at bringing teams to conduct research,” admits Patton. “It was a really eye-opening experience for me that we were able to collect so much data in one trip. I could never do that by myself.”

To accomplish this, the team set up data collection stations where Conambo residents could stop by each week and participate in a variety of studies.

“We have a lot of analysis to do now that we’re back,” says Patton. “It was an amazingly successful field season.”

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