Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Gorman Foundation

During my time in the Peruvian Amazon, I've done some legitimate exploration work: I collected artifacts for the American Museum of Natural History in New York--several of which are on permanent display in the Hall of South American Peoples. I was the first person to record using the indigenous Matses' medicine sapo--a frog secretion burned into the skin--which has opened an entirely new field of study in Western medicine: The study of the use of amphibian peptides as the basis for new pharmaceutical medicines. I collected plant medicines from the Matses and Yagua for Shaman Pharmaceuticals. With my wife/ex-wife Chepa I discovered--actually, it was the indigenous who discovered it, I was just the first white man they showed it to--the first fossil bed in northwest Amazonia. There were some other things too. And while I understand that it wasn't me who did the discovering here, it was always the indigenous, I was the one who listened to them and took them seriously, and so was the one who gets credit for the work.
Now on one plant collecting trip, while I was out with the headman gathering medicinal plants, Chepa stayed behind and spoke with the man's mother, an elderly woman. She told Chepa the story of how she was born in the city of Iquitos, a non-Indian, and had moved to a remote area of the river with her husband, a fisherman. One day several Matses men came on their hut and killed her husband and children--except for one boy--and they were taken to live with the Matses. She eventually married the headman who had stolen her and bore him more children. Her own son was raised as a Matses man and became the headman of his village.
As Chepa told me the story, and then had the woman repeat it with a tape recorder running I realized two things: the first was that we now had verbal proof that the Matses stole women, including non-Indian women, in years past, which coincided with stories about them but which were difficult to pin down.
More importantly, I realized that what I thought was the most important event of the day--collecting medicinal plants--was not. The story the woman told was much more important.
Which led me to realize that the way many things are studied is inadequate. When a new archaeological site is discovered, archaeologists guard it protectively. But perhaps there is a flower growing at the base of the site, a flower the archaeologists will kill in clearing the site, that might produce a vital new medicine if only anyone took the time to study it.
In other words, to have just one scientist with a single, narrow perspective, studying something limits what we learn about it. So I thought that if I ever did genuine exploring again I'd like to do it with a cross-diciplinary team, so that we might glean the most knowledge from a single site or event as possible--and not go trampling the flower, or ignoring the old woman who might prove to be the most interesting find, in our quest for a particular goal.
So this year, a couple of friends and former clients, realizing that I didn't have the funds to do some of the things the indigenous have urged me to do decided to start a tax-free foundation that would raise the funds to do those explorations.
Among those explorations suggested by the indigenous would be to follow the fossil bed from the mouth of a creek where the fossils appear to the headwaters of that creek where the fossils must have come from. Then there is a series of pyramid shapes in the jungle that several tribes have said are very important for me to explore. They havn't said what I'll find, just that I should explore them.
So far, we havn't even tried to raise funds. But I have begun putting together a great team of scientists for the advisory board. Rick Strassman is one of them. So is Mark Plotkin the great botanist, and Rom Whitaker, the great herpetologist, and Dennis McKenna, a chemist/biologist with strong roots in botany. Robert Carneiro, who is the head of the Department of South American Ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History is on the advisory board as well, as are several other scientists from different disciplines.
Some of those scientists would come and do the explorations with me if we ever raised the funding we need. Others would send their graduate students.
Imagine what information we could collect with the fossil bed, for instance, if we had a paleontologist running the physical dig, a paleontological zoologist categorizing the type of fossils there (the bed has already produced identifiable fossils from two giant sea turtles and a giant crocodilian--along with several other fossil shards that are too small to be identified as yet). Add to that team an anthropologist who would collect local their lore about the fossil bed, a geologist who could study the creek bed back to its headwaters, probably 100 miles to the northeast in the foothills of the Andes, and then me and my small crew to coordinate that information.
Anyway, that's the intended plan of action of the Gorman Foundation. And if we can actually ever get it up and running I believe we'll begin doing a new kind of science because of the diverse interests of the teams doing the field work.
So that's the short-version of what the foundation is.
I would love to be out there exploring again on my own boat with a rich and diverse team of scientists, following the leads of the indigenous, who so far have given me so much but whose knowledge has hardly been tapped.

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