Social sciences – On Wisconsin For UW-Madison Alumni and Friends Thu, 27 Jun 2019 17:02:25 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Transforming Research Mon, 27 Aug 2018 17:33:27 +0000 Blue, pink, and white painted rainbow


The Trans Research Lab at UW–Madison is noteworthy for its specialized focus on health outcomes for transgender people. But for founder Stephanie Budge PhD’11, the lab is more than that: it’s an old promise made good.

As a PhD student, Budge interviewed a transgender man for her career-counseling course. After discussing his career path with her at a coffee shop, he told her, “I just spent a couple hours with you. Now you can do something for me — you need to make therapists better for trans people.”

“I took that ask very literally,” says Budge, now an associate professor of counseling psychology at the UW.

Budge’s lab, staffed by students and community members who volunteer their time or receive course credit, aims to fill a substantial gap in research on effective therapy for transgender individuals. The center recently completed a pilot study that documented one-on-one psychotherapy sessions for 20 transgender individuals. The preliminary results are promising: all participants said that they experienced positive change after the sessions.

Mental health outcomes for transgender people are staggeringly negative, underscoring the need for the lab’s work. Nearly 40 percent of respondents to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey reported that they recently experienced serious psychological distress, often related to mistreatment or harassment. Two out of every five respondents also had attempted suicide in their lifetimes — nine times the rate of the general population.

A primary contributor to these outcomes, Budge says, is stress that is uniquely experienced by marginalized groups. It can come both externally — from discrimination, harassment, or rejection — and internally, with how one processes that mistreatment.

While the lab continues to analyze its results, Budge says the research — providing more than 200 hours of free therapy from culturally competent therapists — is already meaningful. “Maybe in a few years, if this is just the norm, it won’t feel like it’s that big of a deal,” she says. “But in this time and in this moment, it feels really poignant.”

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Misdemeanorland Mon, 27 Aug 2018 17:33:10 +0000 Illustrated cover of book, "Misdemeanorland"By the early 1990s, misdemeanor arrests began to outpace felony arrests in New York. Now its most common criminal-justice encounters are for misdemeanors — not more serious felonies — and the most common outcome is not prison, according to Issa Kohler-Hausmann ’00. Kohler-Hausmann, author of Misdemeanorland: Criminal Courts and Social Control in an Age of Broken Windows Policing, an associate professor of law and sociology at Yale University, asserts in her book that this rise in misdemeanor arrests is largely due to the broken windows policing model, which contends that more serious crimes will be avoided if police enforce sanctions for low-level offenses.

Photo of Issa Kohler-Hausmann

Issa Kohler-Hausmann Sam Hollenshead

In Misdemeanorland, Kohler-Hausmann offers a look at the people whose lives are surveilled by New York City’s lower criminal courts, drawing upon fieldwork, interviews, and analysis. She argues that, under broken windows policing, lower courts have mostly adopted a managerial role in which monitoring and control outside of the courtroom dominate. Although media attention often falls on felony convictions and mass incarceration, Kohler-Hausmann points out that a significant number of people are subjected to police hassle and court scrutiny, even though about half of these cases lead to some form of dismissal.

Kohler-Hausmann writes: “I conclude by arguing that the study of mass misdemeanors — like that of mass incarceration — ultimately points out larger political questions about what role we, as a democratic society, will countenance for criminal justice in establishing social order.”

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Jessica Weeks Mon, 27 Aug 2018 17:33:09 +0000 Head shot of Jessica Weeks

Jessica Weeks is fascinated by the “dark side” of international relations: dictatorships. But her award-winning research combats the black-and-white view of authoritarian regimes and democracies. Dictators at War and Peace, published in 2014, classifies regimes to better understand them: bosses/strongmen, with an unchecked personalist leader; juntas, with influential military elites; and machines, with influential political elites. Weeks, a UW associate professor of political science, spoke to members of the U.S. intelligence community in Washington, DC, last year as they grappled with how to contain North Korea.

How do authoritarian regimes differ?

Who is inside the regime really matters. Boss and strongman regimes have the stereotypical dictator, like Saddam Hussein, Mao, Stalin, Hitler. One person has a lot of power and, because of that, can make decisions without too much concern that people within the regime will disagree or try to get rid of him. But when you don’t have people helping you make a decision or [holding you accountable], that often leads to suboptimal outcomes. These leaders tend to fight really risky wars, start more wars, and lose a lot more frequently. … Machines, I argue, are the most peaceful kinds of regimes. These include the Soviet Union after Stalin and China after Mao. They don’t fight as many wars and tend to have much better outcomes when they fight. Juntas are more likely to [engage in war] because the military officers are more likely to see force as a viable option and policy tool. They end up falling in between the machines and the bosses.

According to your book, machine regimes are just as risk averse as democracies when it comes to initiating force — and are just as successful when they do go to war. Why?

It’s because of the risks that the leader would face if they undertook foolish foreign-policy decisions. A leader in a democracy needs to think about what the electoral consequences would be if they lost a war. You don’t pick wars that you can’t win. You have the same dynamic going on in these machines. The leader knows — they’re not thinking about the public, per se — but they know that if they start a war and it goes badly, then they could be ousted by the other top people in the regime. The accountability is coming from other people within the regime rather than the public at large.

How do nuclear capabilities fit into this discussion?

I have [research] that finds that boss and strongman regimes are more likely to pursue nuclear weapons than machines and juntas. It’s similar dynamics. These leaders face fewer constraints. When a country tries to pursue nuclear weapons, it often faces a lot of costs from the international community. But the leaders don’t really internalize those in the same way. So you end up seeing that the same regimes that fight a lot of wars are often also trying to acquire these weapons.

What did you think of the summit with North Korea?

I think the U.S. [needs] to be extremely cautious about any promises [from] North Korea. … If Kim [Jong-un] made a promise and then went back on it, there are going to be no domestic consequences for that — because there’s no one to criticize him. It’s the quintessential boss regime.

Interview conducted, edited, and condensed by Preston Schmitt ’14

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Audio Philes Wed, 23 May 2018 14:24:42 +0000 People seated in chairs face each and operate audio recording equipment

Sarah Morton

Four years ago, Jeremy Morris launched his podcast class at the UW — and the word podcast wasn’t even in the title of the communication arts course.

Then Serial debuted. The true-crime monster hit was part of a wave of new podcasts that turned the tide, to the point that last year, Nielsen reported a full 40 percent of the U.S. population — or 112 million people — had listened to a podcast.

Now, in the midst of the golden age of podcasts, the course has a new name — Sound Cultures: Podcasting and Music — and increased demand. Morris, an associate professor of media and cultural studies, exposes students to a wide variety of podcasts and gives them hands-on experience with manipulating audio.

“I like to remind them that the software is going to change,” says Morris, who produced a music podcast as a graduate student and recently received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to make podcasts easier for scholars and the public to research. “It’s more about understanding the role sound can play.”

From a first assignment of making a sound “playlist” of their day to the final project creating a pilot episode of a new podcast, Morris hopes students critically analyze how sound constructs their everyday lives and the ways it is linked to issues of age, race, class, gender, history, and culture.

“I want students to think about why they hear what they hear,” he says. “Sounds aren’t as universal as we think they are.”

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Empowering Mothers Wed, 23 May 2018 14:24:06 +0000 Book cover showing closeup of woman's face, title that reads "Infamous Mothers"

Infamous Mothers: Women Who’ve Gone Through the Belly of Hell … and Brought Something Good Back is a coffee-table book that features 20 intergenerational caretakers who have overcome personal hurdles and now make a difference in their communities. Its publication gives stigmatized mothers a way to tell their own stories and demonstrate their intrinsic value, challenging and adding complexity to stereotypes about teen mothers, mothers who abused drugs, mothers who engaged in sex work, and mothers who have survived domestic abuse or sexual trauma.

The book is part of a business called Infamous Mothers, founded by Sagashus Levingston MA’09, PhDx’16, herself a mother of six. Her startup — which also trains businesses and offers workshops, classes, and public speaking — strives to empower mothers.

“I don’t just talk about the importance of more mothers — especially marginalized ones — becoming CEOs, doctors, scientists, business owners, etc. I talk about strategies to make it happen,” Levingston writes on her website. “Equally important, I talk about what’s at stake if we don’t.”

Levingston’s book and business were inspired by her doctoral dissertation, “Infamous Mothers: Bad Moms Doing Extraordinary Things.”

The book, which concludes with a study guide, is marketed for use in university coursework. “For me, that is my way of getting back into academia — for the books to end up there, and for me to do speaking on campuses,” she told the Wisconsin State Journal in October.

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Bridging Mountains Thu, 22 Feb 2018 19:12:31 +0000 In 2006, musician and music teacher Tara Linhardt ’94 was traveling around Nepal with her partner, Danny Knicely, hoping to renew old ties from a UW study-abroad program some 14 years earlier. While the pair were ambling along a street in Kathmandu, their instruments strapped on their backs, they encountered a young man playing a sarangi, a wooden, bowed string instrument similar to a fiddle.

They stopped to listen, enchanted. In sound and feeling, the tunes reminded them of the “high lonesome” music — songs of love and longing, joy and hardship, begging to be belted from a mountaintop — that they’d grown up with in the Appalachians, half a world away from the Himalayas.

Linhardt, still fluent in Nepali, fell into conversation with the musician and quickly agreed to a jam session with his friends. Like him, they were members of a caste called Gandharba (gan-DAR-bah), “singing messengers” of sorts, who over the centuries, long before mass media, brought stories and news from one village to another in exchange for food or money. Nowadays Gandharbas make their living mostly by playing and teaching music. In recent decades, declining appreciation of folk music among Nepalis — accompanied by an influx of contemporary music from the West — has endangered both preservation of the music and the Gandharbas’ livelihood.

Linhardt and Knicely recorded the food-and-laughter-infused gathering, where the musicians swapped songs and stories. Only later, back at their hotel, did Knicely identify a melody that gave them goosebumps.

“It was ‘Sally Anne’! We both heard it!” says Linhardt, referring to an old-time music standard that they knew from Virginia.

And indeed, parts of a Nepali folk tune, “Resham Firiri,” sound a lot like “Sally Anne,” to the point where, when she and Knicely played “Sally Anne” at the next jam session, their Nepalese friends praised them for so quickly learning their music.

“No, that’s our music,” Linhardt told them with a laugh — and a “Whoa!” of recognition lit the room.

It was their music — something they shared — and it was clear they had to make more of it.

  From that feeling of kinship, a program of musical and cultural exchange was born. Linhardt, Knicely, and their friend Jacob Penchansky soon founded the nonprofit Mountain Music Project to help preserve traditional songs in Nepal and around the world.

They recorded a CD of Nepali and Appalachian folk tunes performed by leading Gandharba musicians, Linhardt, Knicely, and — as a testimonial to the project’s compelling mission — some of American bluegrass music’s most prominent artists, including Grammy winners Tim O’Brien and Abigail Washburn, Tony Trischka, and banjo player (and former NPR newscaster) Paul Brown.

The project also spawned a one-hour documentary about connections between Himalayan and Appalachian mountain music and culture, including interviews with Gandharbas about their way of life. The award-winning film debuted in 2012 and has drawn audiences at film festivals, universities, museums, and other screenings around the United States and Asia.

Nepali and American musicians have performed together at dozens of folk festivals in the United States and abroad — including such major venues as the Smithsonian Folklife Festival — and have offered workshops centered on the music and traditions from both mountain cultures.

Perhaps most important, the project has established programs around Nepal in which Gandharbas teach children about folk music and how to play the sarangi. More than 100 youngsters have participated in these lessons, which are held at orphanages and in other settings where children typically don’t have the opportunity to learn music.

Growing up in tiny Taylorstown, Virginia, Linhardt had always longed for a bigger world.

“It was really small. No one saw anybody,” Linhardt recalls. “We had 20 acres of woods along the side of the mountain. Everything was slanted. It wasn’t the kind of town that people walk through on sidewalks.”

Her first big move was to UW–Madison, where she was hungry to learn about “anything and everything” and eventually majored in international relations. Her second big move was signing up for the College Year in Nepal program, directed by renowned sociology professor emeritus and Asian-cultures expert Joe Elder.

For Linhardt, that year was to prove “life-changing and magical,” she says. She fell in love with Nepal, both with the stunning beauty of the mountains and villages and with the people, whose self-reliant spirit felt surprisingly familiar.

“Coming from rural Virginia, where people often rig things up when they don’t work — they’re like, ‘Let’s put a little duct tape on the radiator, a little WD-40’ — we joke about that, but the Nepalis have a lot of that same thing,” Linhardt says. “I was telling my friends, ‘This place is so much like rural Virginia. These people are so much like some of the people I know at home.’ ”

Living with host families fostered close ties and allowed students to take part in village life. “You could explore and study whatever your interests were,” Linhardt says. “Whatever your passion was, you could learn it with people who were actually doing it.”

Her love of music was long-standing; she’d dabbled in guitar, banjo, mandolin, and tabla, an Indian drum. But in Nepal, she began exploring Tibetan Buddhism. These two interests came together when she discovered that playing music was, to her, a form of meditation. That recognition inspired her to commit to becoming a serious musician, with the mandolin as her instrument of choice. She went on to make a living as a performer and teacher (teaching guitar and ukulele as well as mandolin), and along the way she earned a master’s degree in education from Shenandoah University.

All of these experiences, Linhardt says, ultimately found expression in the Mountain Music Project, an effort that Elder believes serves as a reflection of the study-abroad program. “Tara is identifying similarities and differences in the field of mountain folk music,” he says. “Identifying cross-cultural similarities and differences is part of what a liberal education is all about.”

Jim Leary, a UW professor emeritus of folklore and Scandinavian studies, says that the Mountain Music Project exemplifies a phenomenon he has long observed: folk musicians from vastly different regions and cultures finding unlikely common ground.

“I’ve seen many instances of musicians who couldn’t even speak one another’s language jamming together,” Leary says. “When you find people who are artists in some kind of roots tradition, they recognize a kinship with other artists,” even from across the globe. The Mountain Music Project takes that kinship and runs with it, going beyond jamming to performance, recording, and education.

This leads to another phenomenon the Mountain Music Project illuminates, Leary says: the power of music to spark cultural revitalization.

“It’s been profoundly important in many parts of the world where folk music may be endangered or seen as low,” Leary says. “If there are steadfast practitioners and people with sufficient vision to rally around the music as a vital force and culture, it can elevate things that go beyond music.”

Appalachians have long felt the stigma associated with “hillbilly” music and culture. Gandharbas have had to cope with a caste system, fading but still influential, that classifies them as “untouchables,” the lowest of the low.

Efforts to further erode that designation are increasingly successful, and music is part of the charge. The Mountain Music Project’s documentary features an interview with the late Hum Bahadur Gandharba, a revered musician whom Linhardt calls “the Woody Guthrie of Nepal.” Hum Bahadur Gandharba traveled all over Nepal, singing about the injustice of the caste system and sharing his vision for cultural change.

“People used to hate me in the villages. I was constantly harassed. Caste discrimination was everywhere,” he says in the film. “Over the last 12 years or so, the situation has changed. People don’t hate us; in fact, they respect us now. That’s good for us.”

The Mountain Music Project is part of that push for respect, participants say. Noted sarangi player Shyam Nepali has performed at numerous festivals around Nepal and the United States as part of the project. He is tremendously heartened, he says, by the enthusiasm for Nepali folk music from audiences of all backgrounds, many of whom are hearing it for the first time.

Nepali points to more performance and teaching opportunities stemming from the project. “The music has inspired a new generation in Nepal,” he says.

That new generation includes the very youngest players. Beverly Bronson runs House with Heart, a residence for abandoned children in the Kathmandu Valley. For some 10 years, she has participated in the Mountain Music Project’s education program, in which Gandharbas give music lessons to orphans and other disadvantaged children.

  “The sarangi is a difficult instrument, but the children enjoy it,” Bronson says. “Some have learned that if they stick with it, they will learn how to play.”

The Mountain Music Project has established seven such programs in various parts of the country, with the goal of having them become self-sustaining. Bronson, for example, values the program highly and has found continued funding at House with Heart. The project has also received support from the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation, along with private donations.

Meanwhile, in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York — the place she has called home for the past three years — Linhardt pursues a life that includes teaching and playing at music camps and conventions all over the country, as well as giving private lessons both in person and online. She’s received awards for her songwriting and performances and won first place for mandolin playing in a number of festival contests. In 2012, she led a successful effort to set a Guinness World Record for the largest mandolin ensemble in history when she fronted a band of 389 mandolinists in a one-time performance at a national music convention in Galax, Virginia. Three years later, in an attempt to win back the title from a Greek band, she led a group of 491 players. That attempt did not receive approval from Guinness, Linhardt says, but she describes it as a “beautiful and momentous event” nevertheless.

But the Mountain Music Project remains very much on her front burner. She’s making plans with her partners in Nepal for more performances, workshops, talks, and screenings, both there and in the United States. And she continues to pursue the project’s mission to preserve traditional music and strengthen cultural ties.

“It’s something I can do to try to make the world a better place — bring that peace and happiness and understanding of cultures,” Linhardt says. “It’s amazing how much of that can really be accomplished through things like art and music.”

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Give What You Get Fri, 03 Nov 2017 23:03:12 +0000 Package wrapped in yellow paper and yellow bow.


If it’s the thought that makes a gift count, here’s a thought that can make your gesture count extra: get a little something for yourself.

Research by Evan Polman of the Wisconsin School of Business shows that recipients are happier with presents when givers get themselves the same thing — a phenomenon he calls companionizing. “The fact that a gift is shared with the giver makes it a better gift in the eyes of the receiver,” he says. “They like a companionized gift more, and they even feel closer to the giver.”

Polman’s subjects rated the likability of various gifts — and how likable the offerings would be if an attached card said, “I hope you like the gift. I got myself the same one, too!” Scores went up for presents that also found a home with the giver.

“When you receive a gift that someone has also bought for themselves, you feel more like them,” Polman says. “That leads you to like your gift more.”

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3 Kinds of Smiles Fri, 03 Nov 2017 23:02:36 +0000 The smile may be the most common and flexible expression, used to reveal some emotions and cover others. But how do we know what a smile means? UW psychology professor Paula Niedenthal ’81 studied smiles and found that they fall into three broad categories, each of which uses the facial muscles differently to communicate different things.

Reward Smile

Three side-by-side photos of two men and a woman smiling.

Photos by Paula Niedenthal

“Probably the most intuitive,” Niedenthal says, this is “the kind of smile you would use with a baby, so he will smile back or do things you like.” It’s a symmetrical hoist of facial muscles plus a dash of eyebrow lift and some sharp lip pulling.

Affiliative Smile

Side-by-side photos of two men and a woman smiling.

Used to communicate tolerance, acknowledgment, or a bond, this smile shows that you’re not a threat — it comes with a similar symmetrical upturn to the mouth, but spread wider and thinner with pressed lips and no exposed teeth.

Dominance Smile

Three side-by-side photos of two men and a woman smiling.

Used to signify status and manage social hierarchies, this smile dispenses with symmetry, pairing a bit of lopsided sneer with the raised brows and lifted cheeks typically associated with expressing enjoyment.

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7 Objects of Affection Fri, 03 Nov 2017 23:02:36 +0000


Professor: Daniel Young, entomology

Object: Beetle-mania

Overhead shot of pinned beetle specimens each with detailed label.

Doug Erickson

“Most everything in my office probably would be considered creepy or gross to many people, but not to me,” says Young, whose officemates are thousands of dead insects. His research collection of fire- colored beetles — his specialty — is estimated to be the third-largest in the world.


Professor: Harry Brighouse, philosophy

Object: Doctor Who art

Doug Erickson

Forty-four years ago, Brighouse, age 10 and living north of London, ran to a newsstand and bought three copies of Radio Times, a TV Guide-like publication with Doctor Who on its cover. Today, he’s known for an office full of objects related to the British television series, including a reproduction of that 1973 cover. “The show influenced my values and views on society, even teasing me into abstract thinking, which is what I ended up doing for life,” he says.


Professor: Carrie Sperling, law

Object: Needlepoint house

Doug Erickson

Soon after Sperling successfully helped a client through the Wisconsin Innocence Project, the man thanked her with this needlepoint house made in prison. Students who take the time to look it over are rewarded: Sperling stocks its numerous secret compartments with candy.


Professor: John Valley, geoscience

Object: Rock that contained the oldest known piece of Earth

A piece of sandstone mounted on a wood board with label that reads, "Jack Hills sandstone. Contains zircons from 4.4 to 3.1 billion years old. Source of the oldest known piece of Earth."

Doug Erickson

Valley extracted the rock from an outcrop in Australia. In 2014, he and a team of researchers reported that it contained a speck of zircon — a tiny, hardy crystal — that is 4.4 billion years old. That’s the oldest known bit of Earth’s crust. Alas, the priceless zircon is stored elsewhere on campus under lock and key. But Valley keeps in his office the rock it came from, itself one of the oldest objects on campus at three billion years old.


Professor: Emily Stanley, integrative biology

Aged glass bottle filled with lake sediment.

Doug Erickson

Object: Lake sediment

As pioneers of freshwater science, UW lake ecologists Edward Birge and Chancey Juday analyzed hundreds of Wisconsin lakes. Stanley cherishes one of their sediment samples, passed down to her from a predecessor and marked “Aug. 7, 1907, Lake Manitowish.” It’s now just dried mud in a discolored bottle, but it’s also a point of pride.


Professor: Bill Tracy, agronomy

Object: John Steuart Curry reproduction

Framed painting of five men, one in foreground and four in background, standing in cornfield.

Chazen Museum of Art

Curry, one of the great painters of American Regionalism, served as the first artist- in-residence at the agricultural college. In 1941, he painted Dean Chris Christensen in a field of sweet corn. The original hangs at the Chazen Museum of Art, but a 72-by-48-inch reproduction that once graced the dean’s residence ended up in a warehouse, where Tracy, agronomy department chairman, rescued it. “I’m very proud that it’s in a place of honor again,” he says.


Professor: Sandra Adell, Afro-American studies

Object: Painted mannequin legs

Upside-down pair of black mannequin legs streaked with colorful paint and wearing high healed shoes.

Doug Erickson

While jogging years ago, Adell rescued the discarded legs from a curb. They languished, unpainted, in a corner of her office until 2004, when student Brody Rose ’99, MFA’05 stopped by. “You have to paint my legs,” Adell told him. They now rise prominently from her desk, capped with high heels from her closet. “What I hope the legs convey,” she says, “is that this professor is a bit unconventional and a lot of fun.”

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Map Quest Wed, 23 Aug 2017 19:28:36 +0000 This is not an adventure story.

It would be easy to make it one. The discovery of the City of the Jaguar is a tale rife with adventure: a site lost to human knowledge for five centuries, a jungle that is impenetrable (or nearly so), mysterious legends, brushes with death, deified monkeys, temples, idols, helicopters, and poisonous snakes.

But this is not an adventure story because it’s the story of Chris Fisher MA’95, PhD’00. “Adventuring doesn’t interest me at all,” he says. “People going off in the jungle and trying to find this place and coming back with tales of cities with monkey-god statues and all kinds of crazy stuff — that side of it just bores me to tears, honestly.”

Fisher, an archaeologist with Colorado State University, was the lead researcher on the expedition to the rain forest of the Mosquitia region in Honduras. He found, documented, and named the City of the Jaguar in 2015. He then returned and excavated a small portion of the site in 2016.

The city was built by a poorly documented culture that existed on the frontier between the better-known Mesoamerican cultures (such as Maya and Aztec) and the Isthmo-Colombian civilizations of Panama and the north end of South America. The city supported tens of thousands of residents with a complex system of irrigation and agriculture. Then the Spanish arrived, and with them European diseases. In the early 1500s, the City of the Jaguar suffered a population collapse. The area was abandoned, and the jungle reclaimed the ruins. Few humans, if any, visited the site for nearly 500 years.

But the story of the City of the Jaguar is about more than history. It’s also a story of a new technology called LiDAR and its increasing role in archaeology. An acronym for light detection and ranging, LiDAR uses lasers much in the same way that sonar uses sound: by reflecting many thousands of light beams off a surface, it can create a highly accurate, three-dimensional topographic map. Using airborne lasers, an archaeologist can survey many square kilometers of territory to see signs of human habitation. Though not all archaeologists accept the results of LiDAR surveys, Fisher has become an advocate.

“LiDAR has been transformative to my career in ways that I couldn’t possibly have imagined,” he says. “This is a paradise for archaeology. I can’t help but pursue that line of inquiry for the remainder of my career.” • • •

LiDAR is a recent passion for Fisher. When he was a graduate student at UW–Madison, he trained in boots-on-the-ground methods of digging and classifying artifacts and evidence. He specialized in studying the Tarascan people, Mesoamerican neighbors of the Aztecs before the arrival of the conquistadores. At the UW, Fisher studied with anthropology professor Gary Feinman and wrote his dissertation about work in western Mexico around Lake Pátzcuaro, in the state of Michoacán de Ocampo. He’s returned there regularly ever since to excavate the ruins of a city that he helped to discover, a city he calls Angamuco. It’s his true passion, and his connection there is much stronger than at the City of the Jaguar.

For his dissertation, “Landscapes of the Lake Pátzcuaro Basin,” Fisher challenged orthodox thinking. The standard view on early urban populations was that cities grew until they became too great a strain on their local environment; when that happened, it caused an ecological crisis, and then the cities fell. Many archaeologists believed that the cities of Mesoamerica were on the verge of environmental collapse before the arrival of Columbus. The influential archaeologist Sylvanus Morley, for example, wrote that “the Maya collapsed because they overshot their carrying capacity. They exhausted their resource base, began to die of starvation and thirst, and fled their cities en masse.”

Fisher suggested that this was backward: that more people meant more labor to maintain environmental stability, and that it was rapid population loss that led to environmental disaster.

“People need the labor from that population to be invested in the landscape so that it’s more productive, more stable,” he says. “When you pull the population out, then that created landscape, which is dependent on human labor, ends up falling apart. It ends up being an environmental catastrophe. And that’s exactly what happens at the time of European contact. You see decimated Native American populations. People weren’t able to maintain this landscape, and it eroded away and melted away.”

Fisher returns to Lake Pátzcuaro virtually every academic season, excavating with a team of a dozen students. That group can work through about a square kilometer each year that they work there, but Angamuco covers some 26 square kilometers.

“You’re looking at a career, just to map and understand one place,” Fisher says. “If I were still in grad school, or if this was a decade ago, that might be acceptable. But I’m pretty impatient.”

It was impatience — and the influence of Stephen Leisz MS’96 — that connected Fisher with a new way to map the lost city.

• • •

Though Leisz, too, is a member of Colorado State’s anthropology department, he’s not an archaeologist, nor a specialist in pre-Columbian America. He’s a geographer. A product of the UW’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, he focuses on modern land use, particularly in Southeast Asia, and how this affects global warming.

“My interest is really not just in changing patterns of land use and land cover, but what are the drivers of that change?” he says. “And that ties in to climate change, because when you look at land cover, you’re looking at the level of carbon sequestration on the landscape.”

Leisz’s work requires him to look at large swathes of land all at once, and so much of what he does is dependent on remote viewing: satellite and aerial photos. This led him to discover LiDAR — a tool that wasn’t of great use in his work, as the data it generates are too finely detailed, but which he realized could be a great boon to an archaeologist.

A LiDAR scan, Leisz notes, can create three-dimensional images — not merely a view of the ground, but the height of every surface. Further, it can generate thousands of laser returns per square meter of ground, coverage so dense that it can see through thick vegetation and produce maps as clear as if there were no plants. By filtering out the returns from tree and bush height, LiDAR technicians could get 20 to 25 returns per square meter of ground.

“We could see through forest canopy,” Leisz says. “We could make a high-resolution map of the ground.”

Leisz told Fisher about the technology, and the two convinced the Denver engineering firm Merrick to make a scan of Angamuco. They were able to map nine square kilometers in a single flight. They documented terraces, pyramids, and the foundations of buildings — nearly a decade’s worth of work on the ground.

From that effort, Leisz authored a chapter (“An Overview of the Application of Remote Sensing to Archaeology during the Twentieth Century”) for the textbook Mapping Archaeological Landscapes from Space.

In the meantime, documentary filmmaker Steve Elkins, who was preparing for an expedition to Honduras, was also thinking about LiDAR, and he was intrigued by the work Fisher had been doing. • • •

The Elkins connection begins with an adventurer — one of Fisher’s least favorite opportunists.

Theodore Morde was a radio reporter, sometime diplomat, and occasional explorer when he went off to the Mosquitia jungle in Honduras in 1940. When he emerged four months later, he fired off a story for the New York Times. “ ‘City of the Monkey God’ is believed located,” read the headline on July 12.

Morde offered artifacts and rumors of gold, silver, oil, and platinum. To spice the story further, he added lurid stories of human sacrifice, monkey-human hybrids, and a temple that could easily have graced King Kong’s hometown.

“The lost City of the Monkey God thing is crazy,” Fisher says. “It’s fraudulent. I hate dealing with it.”

But Elkins was interested in Morde’s story, or at least in how it connected with Honduran legends of a place called Ciudad Blanca — a “white city” lost in the jungle.

Ciudad Blanca is the Mosquitia’s version of El Dorado — a place of vast wealth that the conquistadores had heard accounts of but had never quite been able to locate. Explorers had speculated about it for centuries, and occasional reports kept the legend alive. Charles Lindbergh x’24 was one of the rumor mongers — in 1927, he claimed to have seen its ruins while flying over Honduras. Morde happily wrapped those rumors into his claims about the City of the Monkey God.

Elkins and his partner Bill Benenson wanted to find out if Ciudad Blanca existed, so they funded a flight over the Mosquitia to create a LiDAR map. They then approached Fisher and Leisz to interpret their data.

“He came out here to Colorado, and my team could instantly look at the data and say, yeah, there’s a city here, and there’s another city,” Fisher says. “You’ve got hundreds of other features here, terraces and landscaping.”

Elkins and Benenson then helped to outfit Fisher for an expedition to do what Fisher calls ground-truthing: to go to the site and manually document what the scans showed — to prove that the lost Honduran city existed. The knock on LiDAR, among traditional archaeologists, is that the technicians who look at scans are imagining order out of random returns, like seeing shapes in clouds. Until an expedition confirms the facts on the ground, a scan holds little sway.

“So out of Morde’s fraud,” Fisher notes, “we actually got some real archaeology done.” • • •

Then began Fisher’s experience with adventuring. He and his colleagues had to penetrate a trackless forest: this region of the Mosquitia has no roads or paths or settlements. Flown in by Honduran military helicopters that are U.S. Army surplus from the Vietnam War, Fisher and his team had to cut their way to the site that the LiDAR scans had shown them.

“We were dropped into this place, and it’s the only place I’ve ever been in my life where there was no evidence of people having been there,” he says. “There’s no plastic. There’s no garbage. There’s no trails. The animals aren’t afraid of people.”

But the people were afraid of the animals. The Mosquitia is home to several species of poisonous snakes, as well as jaguars, crocodiles, and bullet ants. The nonanimal threats, Fisher would learn, were even worse. During the expedition, he and most of his teammates were bitten by sand flies and contracted a parasitic protozoan — one carrying a form of the disease leishmaniasis. This, too, was a discovery of a sort, as this particular species of Leishmania protozoan had never been documented. Leishmaniasis causes open sores and decaying flesh. For treatment, Fisher had to undergo a process similar to chemotherapy over several weeks at the National Institutes of Health in Washington, DC.

“They actually cultured the variety that we got from my lesion,” says Fisher. “I’m trying to get them to name it after me, to call it Leishmaniasis fisherensis. Because I would kill for that.”

But the ground-truthing effort proved to be a success. The team found every feature that the scans had indicated: walls, foundations, terraces, platforms, and even individual artifacts. In the city’s center, it found a cache of objects lying on the surface that appeared to have been undisturbed since the 16th century. There were apparent ceremonial pieces, including a carving of what Fisher calls a werejaguar — a half-human, half-jaguar sculpture that may represent “a shaman figure leaping into a spirit animal.” Fisher, reluctant to validate the legends of Ciudad Blanca or Morde’s City of the Monkey God, named the site in honor of the werejaguar instead.

Some of the objects resemble the Mesoamerican cultures to the north; others suggest Isthmo-Colombian ties. “It’s something else, something different,” Fisher says, and he classifies the City of the Jaguar as “Mosquitia culture,” though that’s not an official designation.

“The objects were pretty fabulous,” Fisher says, but more fabulous was the performance of the aerial scans. “Everything that I had marked on the LiDAR was there in the field.”

Further, the site seems to suggest that Fisher’s graduate dissertation is correct: the city appears to have collapsed due to rapid population loss. “It all evaporated away in exactly the point where my dissertation research suggested,” he says. “Today most people think of this region of tropical rain forest as pristine, but it’s actually more like an abandoned garden.” • • •

The 10 kilometers of jungle that separate the City of the Jaguar from the nearest deforestation are so difficult to pass that it “might as well be on the moon,” Fisher says, but he knows that the jungle won’t be a barrier forever. The team worked quickly to document, stabilize, and curate the site before leaving it in the hands of Honduran authorities. He won’t return — it’s too remote and too dangerous.

“I’m going to stick with working in Mexico for a while,” Fisher says. “I love archaeology, but I’m not going to die for it.”

But the expeditions to the Mosquitia did more than establish the location of a new archaeological site.

The attention moved the Honduran government to protect the archaeological site and to protect the forest that surrounds it. “We think that without these protections, it would be deforested in a decade or less,” says Fisher. “Maybe for just a few years, we actually are responsible for helping to save parts of the remaining Mosquitia tropical forest.”

Second, and perhaps more important, it confirmed the potential of LiDAR. Fisher is increasingly concerned about the rapidity with which the world is losing its archaeological heritage. There may be many sites like the City of the Jaguar that are currently unknown, and which could easily be destroyed by the spread of agriculture and urbanization. These scans offer an opportunity to document the remains of the ancient world before they’re lost forever.

“I came up doing fieldwork. I love fieldwork. It’s the life blood of an archaeologist,” he says. “But we’re losing so much archaeology — really cultural and ecological patrimony is the way that I usually phrase it. The world is endangered in a way that it never has been. There’s an argument that we should leave our boots in the closet and just scan, scan, scan. Create baseline data of what we’re losing before it’s too late.”

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