I’m in a Holiday Inn around the corner from the New Orleans Superdome – which was in a state of absolute chaos during Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of parts of New Orleans in August 2005. Upwards of about 30,000 people took shelter in the ‘Dome, which, like the rest of the city, was grossly underprepared when Katrina hit:

…government officials at the local, state and federal level came under criticism for poor planning and preparation. On August 28, the Louisiana National Guard delivered three truckloads of water and seven truckloads of MREs (meals ready to eat), enough to supply 15,000 people for three days. There was no water purification equipment on site, no chemical toilets, no antibiotics and no anti-diarrheals stored for a crisis. There were no designated medical staff at work in the evacuation center. There was no established sick bay within the Superdome, and there were very few cots available that hadn’t been brought in by evacuees. The mayor of New Orleans had, in fact, stated that as a “refuge of last resort,” only limited food, water, and supplies would be provided. Residents who evacuated to the Superdome were warned to bring their own supplies.

I got into New Orleans late last night after a long series of flights disrupted by industrial action at Sydney airport on Monday morning and, by night at least, there was very little visible sign left here of the chaos caused by Katrina – now the real cause of chaos in the US is it’s faltering economy…but that is another story entirely.

I’m here to attend at and present at the 32nd Society of Ethnobiology conference at Tulane University in New Orleans. This year’s conference theme is “Food: Crops and Noncrops” and while, in keeping with the conference theme most papers to be presented are related to food, the subject of my paper will be the Bird-man cult of Rapa Nui (Easter Island).

I will examine the re-discovery, in western eyes at least, of the Bird-Man Cult of Easter Island –
familiar to contemporary Chileans as “
El Ritual del Hombre-Pajaro.”
I will briefly discuss the history of this cult and associated ceremonies, the ‘re-discovery’ of the cult by the
English gentlewoman explorer Katherine Routledge and the debates and discussions that have followed from
her work, including various re-interpretations of her original findings and research. I shall also examine the
contemporary role of the Hombre-Pajaro in in Chilean and Rapa-Nui culture and briefly discuss similar ‘bird-
man’ cults and ceremonies celebrated elsewhere in the Pacific and Polynesia.

I’m looking forward to quite a few of the presentations – the abstracts are available here. I’m particularly interested in the paper from Jami Wright from Western Washington University on the reintroduction of the Wolf Canis lupus in Idaho. There the local Nez Perce first nations group were actively involved in the reintroduction of the Wolf – a move fiercely opposed by the Idaho state government, which sided with the powerful interests of local ranchers and hunters.

Another interesting presentation comes from Dana Lepofsky, Felice Wyndham and Sara Tiffany and they look at the roles and relationships between the two international ethnobiology societies (the Society of Ethnobiology and the International Society of Ethnobiology) and report on a 2008 survey of the members of both societies.

Though we share a surprising number of members, the two societies fulfill different roles in ethnobiology-the SoE has an academic emphasis and draws most members from North America and anthropological traditions while the ISE strives to be a meeting ground for all stake- holders internationally and draws more biologists. Both societies need to increase efforts at reaching young/ student ethnobiologists. 61% of SoE and 87% of ISE respondents favor collaboration between our societies. We present possibilities and invite discussion on how to build synergies between these societies to leverage the insights and applications of ethnobiology to contemporary ecological and social issues.

Gregory Forth’s observations on ‘crypto-species’ from Flores in eastern Indonesia will also be on my list of must-see presentations – not just because it is research conducted close to home but also because some of the same considerations arise in an Australian Aboriginal context:

Despite the occurrence of zoological crypto-species in folk biological classifications, rarely have ethnobiologists
considered these in any detail. ‘Crypto-species’ refers to animal categories recognized by local peoples which
are not attested by scientific zoology and are not readily explicable (or easily explained away) as spiritual
beings or purely or largely imaginary entities.

Following the conference I’m looking forward to spending a week driving up to Cleveland in Mississippi to spend some time with my friend Mark Bonta from the Delta State University in Cleveland and spending some time learning how to love grits, chitlins and other culinary delights (?) of the south.

I’ll try my best to keep my posts regular and interesting – lots more to come!