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“When gibbons sing, I know it will rain”

CarolynThompson13 May 2019

I started writing this blog post whilst sat in a half-deserted village high up in the Gaoligong mountains in China. Occupied by only 10 remaining elders who refused to leave their traditional lives behind, I had the privilege of staying here and immersing myself into daily life.

Gaoligong mountain village, Yunnan Province, China. © Carolyn Thompson

I am seated by myself as the morning sun blinds me as it peeps out from over the moss-covered tiled roofs. Two chickens are currently sneaking past me into the kitchen to morbidly watch their duck cousin be prepared for breakfast. They scream as my host shoos them away flapping her arms wildly.

The houses date back 50+ years and are made from old wood and bamboo harvested from the forest in the days before the nearby reserve was established. Mules are found on the ground floor of these dwellings with humans roosting above. As a result, night-time can be a very noisy affair!

I also experienced a huge storm at 3 am. I’ve slept through many tropical storms when I lived and worked in Indonesian Borneo, but this was something else. The walls rattled as the rain beat against it and droplets started to seep through and trickle down. I thought the storm would snatch the flimsy roof right off, but I am glad to report that all houses — and mules — were still standing when I woke up.

Typical village dwelling. © Carolyn Thompson

My PhD is all about understanding local nature and wildlife values, comparing gibbon (small ape) knowledge, and investigating patterns of natural resource use. I have spent the past few months collecting social data in the form of structured interviews and small group discussions with local communities in both Hainan and Yunnan provinces. To get the most candid answers, it is important to immerse yourself into local life.

I have drunk countless cups of green tea and bottles of “bai jiu” (lethal Chinese wine) as a result, been dressed up as a local Hei Lisu person, braved eating the 100-year old egg, and scoffed so many sunflower seeds that I am ready to sprout!

Adult female Skywalker Hoolock gibbon (Hoolock tianxing). © Fan Peng-Fei.

Before embarking on my PhD journey, I was given an antique book by Robert Van Gulik, a Dutchman fascinated by gibbons and their significance in Chinese culture. Published in 1967, “The Gibbon in China” is a magical collection of poems, stories and paintings dating back to 200 BC. Rich in its content, I was overwhelmed with the stories about “lonely”, “sad-looking” yet “magical” apes who sing haunting and melancholy songs in the Chinese mountains.

Taoists (those that believe in ancient nature-worship regarding the flow of “ch’i” energy in all living things) talked about gibbons being superior to humans. Gibbons were often referred to as “gentlemen” as discussed in my previous blog. Everyone loves good manners — bring a gibbon to meet the parents and they won’t be disappointed due to their impeccable “table manners” (unlike their mischievous macaque monkey cousins), according to an 8th-Century poet, Liu Tsung-Yuan. Their intelligence, supposedly similar to humans, is also regularly mentioned, especially when needing to drink water from a nearby river. Forming a chain by holding hands, gibbons would lower themselves down to the river. One should therefore never “…place a gibbon (Yuan-yu) in a barred cage [as] how could he then show his clever skills?” (4th Century statesman, Ch’u-tz’u).

Forming a “Gibbon Chain”. Nineteenth Century. Sourced from Van Gulik’s 1967 essay on “Gibbons in China”.

Having read this book from cover to cover, I was pumped to record rich gibbon stories during my field season. I was therefore incredibly shocked and disappointed to learn that many traditional stories have not been passed down through the generations.

China is made up of 56 different ethnic groups, all of which used to be rich in culture and history with traditional dress and sigils (both of which are now rarely seen). I interviewed participants from six of these ethnic groups and asked them questions regarding  the importance of gibbons and forests in their local culture. Participants either didn’t understand the question or they would say there is no connection.

I was relieved to hear that a few elders still have a tale or two to tell, especially when it comes to gibbons being able to predict the weather:

“When gibbons sing, I know it will rain tomorrow.” (Anonymous).

An elder in Hainan province told me about how gibbons came to be which involved a naughty, lazy boy who was scolded with an iron on his butt. He then sprouted hair and turned into a gibbon.

I also had a surprisingly funny interview with a 70-something year old man who used to work in Burma harvesting wood to sell back to the Chinese. He spoke about his love of gibbons…to eat! We spent most of our interview crying with laughter as his opinion was so far from my own. He kept insisting that gibbons were incredibly ugly and thought I was crazy because I felt they had aesthetic value.

An on-looker listening in to an interview whilst looking at gibbon photographs. © Yu Yue Jiang.

“Look at their ugly faces!” He would yell. “Ah, they taste so good! Such a shame the government won’t let me hunt them anymore.”

It is important when I conduct these interviews that I remain impartial. At the end of the day, my PhD is all about finding sustainable solutions for both humans and gibbons alike.

My favourite moment was with an 87-year old woman who heard that a “laowai” (foreigner) was staying in the village. Having never left her village or seen a Caucasian woman before, we had a very special, informal moment bonding over gibbons and discussing what life was like during her youth — and what life was like now.

https://www.instagram.com/p/Bu6JKNjAWA8/

Although I am still at the start of my PhD journey, I have teamed up with a local non-governmental organisation called Cloud Mountain, who carry out conservation education activities. We hope to work together to reintroduce some of these traditional gibbon stories back into these villages. With only 28 Hainan gibbons, 150 Skywalker Hoolock gibbons and 110 Cao Vit gibbons remaining (my three study species), hopefully we can remind people of their magical, shared history and raise the profile of these forgotten apes before it is too late.

If you would like to follow my PhD journey, you can do so here: Personal blog, Twitter, Instagram. Or come and meet me in the UCL Grant or Petrie museums next month!

Introducing the new Student Engagers!

Arendse ILund1 May 2018

We have a new cohort of Student Engagers joining the team! We are incredibly pleased to welcome eight new PhD students working on everything from George Orwell to gibbon decline. Starting this month, you can look for them in the UCL Art Museum, Grant Museum of Zoology, and Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology. You can also read a little about them and their research in their own words below.

Alexandra Bridarolli:

I am a 2nd year PhD student at Eastman Dental Institute at UCL in London. I am also part of SEAHA, the centre for doctoral training in Science and Engineering in Arts, Heritage and Archaeology, a research centre also based at UCL bringing together other PhD students promoting heritage science in research. My background is in chemistry and I have a strong interest in material science. I have always been fascinated by the detective work carried out by scientists working on art objects, studying the materials they are made of, their stability, their properties.

My current research explores the use of innovative nanoparticles of cellulose for the consolidation of the canvas of modern paintings. These treatments could offer an alternative to current practices and materials in use in conservation which are known to put paintings at risks. This research greatly benefits from a close collaboration with painting conservators across Europe.

Mark Kearney:

I am a 2nd year PhD student based at the SEAHA CDT in the Institute of Sustainable Heritage. My research is concerned with the decay of plastic objects of art and design. Contrary to popular belief, many plastics do not last forever, with some suffering rapid and often catastrophic decay patterns within the first 20 – 50 years of acquisition. As plastics have been one of the most important materials of the modern era, they now form central parts of museum’s collections.

My project will exploit the information gained from the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are naturally emitted from plastics objects with the aim to detect and monitor their decay museum environments. I will work with Tate museums to study their sculpture collection, looking at cellulose acetate works of art, a polymer known to be problematic within museums.

Anna Pokorska:

I am a second year PhD student at the Institute for Sustainable Heritage and SEAHA-CDT (Science and Engineering in Arts, Heritage and Archaeology Centre for Doctoral Training). My research project is focused on the stability of modern synthetic and semi-synthetic materials to visible light and is carried out at in association with the V&A museum and Philips.

“Modern” materials such as plastics are a very important part of modern and contemporary art and design as well as social history collections from the 20th century. From high-profile artworks destined for a life in a gallery to everyday objects meant to be disposed of, more and more of plastic objects can be found in heritage institutions. However, our knowledge of their light sensitivity from a heritage perspective as well as the guidelines for their display and preservation are still limited. The project will, therefore, investigate the light stability of plastics to understand whether and how their light degradation is spectrally dependent. This will be done using visible radiation only as it would normally be in a museum or gallery environment.

Hannah Page:

I am a fourth year part-time PhD student in the Archaeology department. My thesis focuses on sociocultural and political organisation and change in the early 2nd millennium AD in Uganda. My research aims to reconstruct key aspects of life at the site of Ntuusi through the detailed archaeometric (scientific) analysis of pottery. This type of ceramic analysis can be used to understand scale and organisation of production practices, identify cultural groups and understand networks of local and long-distance trade and exchange. I am also active in running excavations and coordinating field schools and outreach events in the UK and sub-saharan Africa.

Sarah Gibbs:

I completed an MA in English at Queen’s University and a Master of Library and Information Studies (MLIS) degree at McGill University in Canada. My doctoral dissertation at UCL focuses on George Orwell’s epistemology. My research combines concepts and methodologies from literary scholarship, philosophy, and library and information studies to discern how the ‘Tory-Anarchist-Turned-Socialist’ author of Nineteen Eighty-Four conceived of the relationship between knowledge and power, and what tools his epistemology offers to address current political realities.

Cerys Jones:

Multispectral imaging involves capturing images of an object illuminated in ultraviolet, visible and infrared light, in order to reveal features, such as faded text and underdrawings, that cannot be seen by the naked eye. My PhD research will optimise the workflow of multispectral imaging of heritage artefacts to enable heritage practitioners to capture and process images of their own collections without the need for a specialist imaging scientist.

 

Caz Thompson:

I am a PhD student studying the patterns and drivers of gibbon decline in China and Myanmar. Gibbons are the smallest of the apes known for their ability to sing and move gracefully through the trees. Nineteen of the twenty known species are on the brink of extinction, yet in the shadow of their great ape cousins, gibbons receive less funding and research attention. By adopting an interdisciplinary approach, involving both biological and social sciences, I aim to understand the relationship between co-existing humans and gibbons. I currently focus on two species threatened by habitat loss and hunting: the Hainan gibbon, which is the rarest primate in the world with only 26 individuals, and the newly discovered Skywalker Hoolock gibbon with only 200 individuals remaining.

Jen Datiles:

I am a PhD student at the UCL School of Pharmacy studying food and medicinal plants that were exchanged between Asia and the Americas via the Spanish Galleon Trade (1565-1815). Using selected plant species as case studies, my research aims to link historical documentation with modern use-knowledge of traditional food-medicines through fieldwork and work in various archives and herbaria.

 

Welcome to the team!