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Students document unknown ‘writing’ system during Costa Rica trip

by Public Relations and Marketing | Published Dec 16, 2019

College of Lake County anthropology students who participated in a research project in Costa Rica last summer are among the first to document the existence of knotted string recording devices, a previously unknown “writing” system in the Americas.

Students Rebecca Rivera and Julia Marinescu accompanied Scott Palumbo, Ph.D., CLC anthropology professor, to southern Costa Rica last summer on a field study trip for anPhoto of CLC students in front of a research pickup truck in Costa Rica anthropology class. They conducted interviews in Spanish with elderly residents who recalled using these knotted cords in their youth. The knotted cords, typically made from plant fibers, were used by indigenous cultures as calendars and for many other tasks, ranging from conducting a census to counting cattle. They suspect people still actively use these items in remote areas.

Photo (from left): CLC anthropology students Julia Marinescu and Rebecca Rivera traveled to Costa Rica last summer to conduct research on a knotted cord “writing” device used by indigenous populations.

Palumbo’s work picks up where other researchers left off. Among them was William More Gabb, a naturalist who visited Costa Rica in 1873, gathered a collection of knotted cords and later deposited them in the Smithsonian Institution. He intended to learn more about the cords, but his life was cut short by malaria and tuberculosis, Palumbo said.

“We set off to determine if living people could still interpret the meaning of these items,” Palumbo explained. “I wanted my anthropology students to learn first-hand some of the practices we studied in class.”

Having led several anthropological field study tours at CLC, Palumbo said the college stands out from its peers by offering students a greater variety of anthropology courses and providing field-research experience abroad. CLC’s affordable cost for the venture creates learning opportunities for a much wider range of students compared to four-year schools. “A similar trip would often cost much more in program fees and travel expenses on top of tuition at a four-year public university,” he said. This cost is a significant barrier to working-class students and contributes to their underrepresentation in the social sciences. Rivera and Marinescu paid only the cost of tuition, a plane ticket and passport fees. The remainder of their in-country costs were subsidized.

Beyond cost savings, the practical field research yields many other benefits, Palumbo said. “It provides firsthand exposure to a field, provides relevant, accredited training, offers a chance to work closely with mentors and builds professional networks,” he said.

The students found the venture as enriching as it was economical. Rivera reflected on her interview with a village shaman about the knotted cords: “He thanked us for coming and said we were the first group of non-residents to come to learn about their culture, as opposed to other visitors who wanted to take their land, develop it or change their culture in some way.”

The trip gave Rivera self-confidence in doing anthropological work. “You can only learn so much in classroom,” she said. “Shadowing an anthropologist at work equipped me with confidence in being an ethnographer, practicing cultural anthropology, conducting oral interviews, observation and research. The trip further affirmed my passion in the field.” Rivera wants to work as an ethnographer serving the underprivileged.

Palumbo presented their research paper, "The Historic and Ethnographic Use of Knotted String Records in the Isthmo-Colombian Area” at an anthropology conference in Vienna, Austria this fall. It will soon be published in 2020.

Find out more information on CLC's Spring Semester courses in anthropology and much more.  Experience learning abroad and develop leadership skills and cultural competence as you study and volunteer in beautiful Costa Rica. Sign up for this spring’s Field Study Trip to Costa Rica to study education and legal issues.


About College of Lake County:

College of Lake County is an innovative community college in Lake County, Ill. that transforms lives with its variety of accessible, quality education options. Offered at three campuses in Grayslake, Vernon Hills and Waukegan or online, College of Lake County provides affordable options in a state-of-the-art setting close to home. A large student network, with small class sizes, provides advantages to our students on a career-related program or a path toward a transfer degree. We’re proud to serve the diverse needs of our community and student body. Connect to your future today at College of Lake County.