For my summer research I have been investigating the precolombian culture of the Baure people of lowland Bolivia. Working with a team of animators (Eli Bogomolny, Spencer Webster-Bass, Effie Li and Seyoung An) and our academic advisors (Norman Badler and Clark Erickson), I provided advice and research based on ethnographies and histories of the area. This work was used to construct a 3D/VR rendition of the Baure lifestyle in the Unreal engine.
Working on a precolombian Native American culture, especially one as remote as Baures, presents a number of challenges. First and foremost, the Baure material culture was an extraordinary one, very different from our own and most other indigenous South American cultures. The seasonal flooding of the Llanos de Mojos (the plain the Baures inhabit) presents an unique challenge to human life, and Baure culture adapted to and used it in fascinating ways. The network of causeways and canals the Baure people made – still visible on the Bolivian landscape – served to limit water flow during the wet season and conserve water during the dry season, allowing for a stable and prosperous way of life. As different from ours as this lifestyle was, representing it on its own terms in the environment was a major focus of my research.
Another challenge was reconstructing Baure life accurately as it was prior to Euro-American contact. The written sources available all come from European or Euro-American sources and therefore are a product of contact. Most everyday material has not been preserved archaeologically. As a result, my research had to compare multiple sources and different cultures to understand even basic questions. Were Baure homes rectangular, as most sources describe them and as they are today, or were they circular? A comparison with other upriver Amazonian cultures, along with the preference for rectangular houses brought by missionaries, suggests they were originally circular – and this is how they appear in our representation.
This work is still ongoing, and I am excited to see how future projects will continue the work our team has contributed to. While we may never fully capture the Baure way of life, I feel we have made great strides toward understanding this fascinating culture on its own terms.