Sports, Science, and Territorial Knowledge in Venezuelan Speleology

Saturday, January 8, 2011: 10:00 AM
Parliament Room (The Westin Copley Place)
María A. Pérez , University of Michigan
Since its European origins in the late 1800s, speleology, the scientific study of caves, was conceived of as a sporting science. While the sporting aspect of speleology gives the activity its distinct field-based and exploratory character, it has and continues to be a source of tension for those who hope to see speleology more solidly grounded as a scientific pursuit. This paper explores this tension in the context of Venezuelan speleological history, dating back, even prior to the coining of the term 'speleology,' to 1799, when Alexander Humboldt produced the first scientific description of a cave in the Americas at Guácharo Cave. In Venezuela, institutionalized speleology began in 1952, with the founding of the Speleological Section of the Venezuelan Society of Natural Sciences, making it one of the pioneering organizations of its kind in Latin America. In 1967, it morphed into the independent, non-profit, and volunteer-based Venezuelan Speleological Society, which has spearheaded the country's cave exploration and mapping since then. In the 1970s, this organization's activity enjoyed an enormous boost with the incorporation of modern rock climbing techniques, mostly embraced by those Society members with the physical skill to put them to use in the field. This paper argues that the sporting aspect of speleology cannot be considered separate from its scientific goals, nor the practitioners' tacit ideology regarding their desire to traverse and experience nature in particularly intense ways. Moreover, in the context of Venezuelan cartographic history, sports-driven speleological pursuits broadened and deepened the knowledge of the national landscape, in effect challenging the notion of the state as the main producer or even manager of such knowledge, or the idea that such activities are primarily driven by state-sponsored territorial politics and practices.
<< Previous Presentation | Next Presentation