Explorer Moment of the Week: Agustin Fuentes

Picture of Agustin Fuentes
Agustin Fuentes, Primatologist Photograph courtesy Agustin Fuentes


Have you ever wondered what a macaque monkey does all day? Primatologist Agustin Fuentes has too, and his research in Singapore has produced some interesting and unexpected results.


What project are you working on now?


At the moment, I have two main projects: macaque monkeys and a “think tank.” As for the macaques, I’m continuing to study groups in Asia and Gibraltar and trying to figure out why they do so well around humans when so many other primates do not. Recently, I’ve been collaborating with the National Geographic Crittercam team so that we can really get a “monkey’s-eye” view of how the macaques see the world and move around in human landscapes. The think tank is actually a yearlong research seminar that brings together anthropologists, biologists, philosophers, and theologians to think about, and come up with integrated approaches to, evolution and human nature. I really love my job!


What's the biggest surprise you've discovered in your work or in the field?


There are many, but a recurring one is that monkeys never seem to read the textbooks. Every time you think you finally can predict what is going to happen and understand the system, they do something unexpected. Our initial Crittercam work in Singapore revealed something amazing that I still cannot fully explain. This adult male who was wearing the camera (“Kurt”) crossed a six-lane major road using the roof of a pedestrian overpass. But instead of running straight across (to the ripe figs on the other side), he stopped in the middle, went to the edge, and just sat there and watched traffic for a while. The visuals are amazing. Now if I could only get a Vulcan mind-meld going on to know what he was thinking….


Have you ever been lost? How’d you get found?


Yes, more than once. Quite some time ago (before I had access to good, handheld GPS units) I was in the Atlas Mountain of Morocco looking for Barbary macaque monkeys. I had left the village I was based in before dawn to hike up five to seven kilometers into the mountain forests. I thought I’d been on trails, but by 10 a.m. it was clear I was not. I circled back and headed in what I thought was the appropriate compass heading, quickly realizing that I had miscalculated. Just after midday I was exhausted and running low on water. I sat down in a glade of trees to rest, wondering how I was going to get myself out of this one, and promptly fell asleep.


A soft gurgling and bleating—and some really bad breath—awoke me. I was face-to-face with a sheep. I looked around and saw not only about 40 sheep, but also five monkeys and two people. Chatting with the herdsmen I was able to find out more or less where I was, that monkeys were indeed in the area (duh!), and that my assumptions about compass directions were correct, but my ability to judge distances was not. I was about two kilometers from the village. I thanked the herdsman, hung out with the monkeys for another hour or two, and went back down to the village for a much needed glass of orange juice followed by the best mint tea ever.


If you could trade places with one explorer at National Geographic, who would it be and why?


At the moment I’d love to time travel back to 1911 and slip into the persona of the early National Geographic explorer Hiram Bingham III. There are obviously a lot of problems that emerged from the expeditions to Peru he led (and the items he took back to Yale), but I’ve been reading about his journey to Machu Picchu (as I will be visiting there soon) and am fascinated by the sensations, images, and excitement of his adventure. His drive to discover, meticulous descriptions of exploration, and the ability to translate them into popular literature are impressive. I respect the skill involved in putting the public in his shoes as they stepped onto the broad cobblestones at Machu Picchu. Besides, how can one not want to spend a few days in the shoes of the guy who was the inspiration for Indiana Jones?


Picture of Agustin Fuentes
Agustin Fuentes, Primatologist Photograph courtesy Agustin Fuentes


What do you think National Geographic explorers will be exploring in 100 years?


It is hard to say, but my money would be on outer space, inner space, and urban space. I think the technology to put people on nearby asteroids and teams on Mars will be up and running and similar technologies will allow much more intensive, long-term research in the deeper parts of the seas. Microbiology will be an open frontier with genomicists and microbiologists discovering whole worlds on—and in—our bodies. The cities of the next century will be amazingly dense and layered places, excellent locales for urban archeology and exploration of new types of ecosystems.


If you were to meet your eight-year-old self, what would you say?


Even as a child I always had the explorer bug. I spent much of my childhood exploring wherever and whenever I could, either in the urban jungles where we lived; during my travels (I was in Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador as well as the U.S.A. when I was eight); or through books, magazines (as in National Geographic), movies, and TV (especially Star Trek). The main bit of advice I’d give my eight-year-old self is to learn to play music. In my travels I’ve found that music, along with fútbol (soccer) and a smile, are often the best ways to break the ice in a place where you are really different, might not speak the language, and have just arrived. In many of my travels the ability to play an instrument, like the guitar, would have really come in handy. I wish I’d had the focus and discipline to do it at eight, because I just started learning to play the guitar a few months ago, and it does not come easy.


Where is your favorite place that you've traveled?


There are many places that I truly love, but for more than a decade my field research focus centered on the Indonesian island of Bali, a place truly amazing and complexly beautiful. It is on Bali, in the shadow of amazing temples, rice fields, and rivers, that I first came to really realize that monkeys and humans could share more than space. They can live together, they have lived together, and unlike many other places, in Bali they might do so successfully into the future. No matter where my projects take me now, Bali is always at, or near, the top of my list, which, by the way, at the moment includes my current project locations of Gibraltar and Singapore (both incredible in their own rights).


What initially sparked your interest in anthropology?


I’ve always been interested in what makes people tick … in why we do what we do and where it all comes from. Imagine my surprise when I got to college and discovered there is actually a name for that: anthropology. It was an undergraduate course by my eventual graduate mentor, Phyllis Dolhinow (one of the pioneers of primatology), that introduced me to the possibilities of an integrated anthropology. From the first class I took with her I was on the path that shifted a drama and zoology major into an anthropology diehard. The very fact that I could have a career trying to figure out what it means to become, and to be, human pretty much sealed the deal.


What do you think is the most important thing we can learn from studying monkeys?


Sociality and friendships are the glue and the gas for primate existence, and humans are the most socially extreme of the primates. At our very core of our existence is the ability to deal with the world via social means, by collaboration, cooperating, and conflicting. Studying monkeys makes us better acquainted with many of the basal primate processes and systems of sociality. It lets us see where we (as humans) link up with our closest cousins, and where we differ dramatically. Plus, monkeys are really awesome to watch.


Have you had any scary experiences in the field?


There’ve been a few Indiana Jonesian incidents—giant spiders on my head, snakes taller than me about to strike, facing a bowl of curdled sea turtle blood I was expected to drink—but probably the worst was something that, luckily, did not happen directly to me.


I was conducting research in the extremely remote Mentawai Islands off the west coast of Sumatra, Indonesia. (Check out a map. I was on the west coast of North Pagai island, sort of the edge of the world.) To get into a town with goods and access to boats that could get me to Sumatra to get supplies and such, we had to take a dugout canoe with an outboard motor out into the Indian Ocean and slide into the strait between North and South Pagai to reach the trading village of Sikakap on the southeastern edge of the northern island. In good weather, this meant dealing with ten-foot waves and rough seas.


On one occasion the weather was not good, but I was slated to go with five local men on this trip. The rains were so bad that I could not get from my jungle field site to the coastal village on time to make the boat and they left without me. They never made it to Skikakap. A few days went by and I joined the men of the village to search many miles of shoreline looking for any evidence of survivors. We found two of them, or rather, parts of two of them. They must have capsized and encountered the many types of sharks in the area. What was left of their bodies showed obvious signs of shark bites and being in the sea for days. What truly terrified me about this was that, if it were not for the rain and my slow going in the jungle, my last experience on this planet would have been in the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean with sharks and no hope.


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