The "Narval" Backstory

In preparing remarks for a panel on Applying the Anthropological Imagination at the 2018 annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association (“the AAAs”), I’m reminded that anthropologists (and other social scientists) are trained to deconstruct culture. In ANYA I was tasked with constructing one. It turns out the skills are much the same.

ANYA began as a thought experiment between the creators (Jacob Okada and me, Carylanna Taylor). The conversation would have fit well in one of my intro to anthropology classes. (talk abstract)

Jacob’s and my weeks-long conversation that went something like this:

We know that multiple species of the genus Homo co-existed in the past. What if multiple species still co-existed today? It's entirely plausible even if gene flow and migration make it unlikely.

Ok, let's say a group survived, how would we find them now? Wouldn't they be like a biological needle in a haystack? Infertility stats, perhaps? A lot of infertility is unexplained.

So... what if such a group drifted apart millennia ago on an isolated island somewhere? Like Papua New Guinea? Sure, but how about the Caribbean since it's easier to film and we know more about it. Ok, maybe pre-Colombian fishers built communities on a small island off the coast of Colombia? (I was doing research there at the time.) That works. If it happened long enough ago, their genes and culture would slowly drift apart from that of people living on the mainland. If the right gene/s got passed around it could make them infertile without those who don't have the gene.

We later worked closely with Harvard geneticists Ting Wu and Ruth McCole to come up with plausible genetic variants based on their research with ultra-conserved elements of DNA.

So we've got a culturally and biologically isolated population living on an island in Caribbean. What happens when the colonizers arrive and try to take over the island? How would the people react to not being able to reproduce with the Spanish? They'd have to have noticed. It's centuries before genetic research. They'd come up with a religious or magical explanation. Maybe a curse about being doomed to never have kids if they leave home? That makes sense. And it would keep them living together in big enough concentrations to ensure some genetic diversity.

Would they be ostracized, persecuted, or just left alone? How would they adapt their culture and language to survive? They don't look any different than the other pre-Colombian inhabitants. Maybe they'd try to keep to themselves and just interact minimally with outsiders, allowing them to "pass."

Their language would probably change into some sort of pigeon. Maybe they'd co-opt Spanish to hide in plain sight.

Jose Moreno-Cortés, a Puerto Rican archeologist/anthropologist with flare for languages, who I knew from graduate school and research in Honduras, would later come on as the Narval language consultant and add more nuance to this backstory. (Read his post on developing the Narval language.)

What about 2018? Would they still be in the Caribbean or would they have emigrated for security and/or economic opportunity like so many others? No doubt some would go to the U.S. Would they be all over? Not likely. They'd follow family members and other Colombians they've met. Like immigrants before them, they'd likely cluster into enclave communities at first. In their case, they'd know their chances of having a family would be low if they left, so they'd stick with their community. To avoid the curse? Exactly. If they'd faced any kind of discrimination back home, they'd likely try to "pass" among the larger Latinx community. Their language would adapt a bit more, pick up some English.

What would be important to their culture? Staying close to home to avoid ostracism. Arranging lifelong couplings early to discourage young Narval from straying and encountering the curse. Perhaps elements of their island home such as seawater and certain sounds, foods, or music.

It must be hard living so close to a major city and not being able to move there. How would they balance pressures to assimilate with reproductive isolation? Genetic research and technology has come a long way. Wouldn't they be found out? How? Wouldn't someone eventually break away and see a doctor? What kind of doctor would even run the right tests to figure it out? Let's say one does and starts to get curious, would they see an outside researcher as friend or foe? Some would, some wouldn't.

What about gene modification? What about it? Technically it could be a "fix" depending on the genetic variation(s). Legally and ethically... it's a whole other matter. Sure, but would they see bridging the biological gap between species as a cultural blessing or a curse?

Having this conversation and building a culture, characters, and love story to go along with it has been an incredibly fun and challenging application of anthropology.

jacob okada