2017-2018 Annual Report

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Biological & Cultural Diversity of South Indian Landscapes

The Ombetta Vayal. Photography by Kathleen D. Morrison.

VEGETATION OF THE MUDUDMALAI VAYALS. This long-term research project examines human land use, landscape, and environmental transformations in Mudumalai, southern India.

Most visitors to the Mudumalai National Park in southern India imagine themselves entering a domain of nature, an impression reinforced by the strict control exercised by the Forest Department over this protected area. Visitors ride in Forest Department jeeps through a small corner of the park, bumping along dirt roads, looking for wild animals. Even during the torrential summer monsoons, tourists gather, hoping to spot a tiger. Indeed, Mudumalai, part of a larger set of interconnected protected areas in the Western Ghat Mountains, is one of the best places in India to find tigers, elephants, and other charismatic wildlife. But this “megadiverse” region is also a place with a long human history. Although much conservation thinking places humans in opposition to biodiversity, humans can preserve, and even create biodiverse landscapes. Thus, conservation policies that exclude all human activities from protected areas often backfire, creating unintended ecological consequences as well as economic hardship for the mostly impoverished local residents.

In the summer of 2018, Morrison and Lycett traveled to Mudumalai to begin a long-term research project on human land use, landscape, and environmental transformations in this important ecosystem. Over the next several years, a collaborative Penn-India team will carry out archaeological survey, excavation, and archival research in order to better understand this history. Often seen as remote and inaccessible, the Ghat uplands were the source of many of the most valuable commodities of premodern and early modern trade: forest-derived gums, resins, dyes, and spices—especially black pepper, the “king of the spices.” Mountain farmers and foragers grew and gathered forest products, attracting international traders and, eventually, colonizers. By the 19th century, however, this region came to be seen as purely “natural,” its human residents reimagined as isolated and “primitive,” close to nature and yet also, paradoxically, a threat to it.

person looking at leaves in a box on the ground a tree in the water closeup of grass, mud, and water group of people looking at the forest ground lunch cooking under a tent as it rains Dr. Kathleen Morrison leaning on a banded tree H.S. Suresh in the forest view of water through a car windshield wild gaur in the forest

Better understanding of the past may help address the present and future of this environmentally-rich region. With the help of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, and the Forest department, Morrison and Lycett visited several swamps or vayals, scouting out sampling locations for a study of long-term vegetation history. In the dry season, they will revisit these vayals with boats and coring equipment to take samples for the analysis of pollen grains, phytoliths, stable isotopes, and other biomarkers. Coupled with archaeological and historical research, these sediment cores will help decipher the entangled human-nonhuman histories of this biodiversity hotspot.