How Lolo Pedro Swatted a Toratora and Died

While browsing the internet, I chanced on a science news article on the genetic susceptibility to schizophrenia among Han Chinese. The Nature article revealed  two independent studies that identified “sections of the human genome that, when deleted, can elevate the risk of developing schizophrenia by up to 15 times compared with the general population.” I won’t go into the details of the article because, aside from my lack of expertise on the subject matter, the popular version of the two articles is good enough for non-technical readers like myself.

This blog article however will share a cultural correlate to the science news article. While mental diseases are biological, these are expressed in specific cultural and historical circumstances. I take the medical anthropologist’s cue therefore of differentiating disease, which is biological, from illnesses, a cultural concept. It is within this light that I share my maternal relatives’ reckoning with pagkabuang (roughly translated as insanity). All behaviors or mental states that deviate from the “normal” is considered buang in Cebuano. Psychological illnesses, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorders, dementia, etc, are all subsumed under this general word category.

The family lore goes that at least one member, usually male, of every generation will succumb to a mental illness. I don’t know if there’s a biological basis to this story or whether a professional diagnosis was availed of (except for one), but as far as my mother is concerned, our “schizophrenia” simply runs in the blood–no need to question it, you just keep the grip on what’s real and what’s not and you won’t lose it. This story has been used as a warning to all my relatives to not overdo things or do drugs, because “we got craziness in our blood,” one slip and off we go to Lalaland.  Like us, my mother’s generation too had been told time and again to fear this supposed “genetic tendency” and thus must learn to negotiate life’s challenges with calm and ease. I believe this is not simply an old wives’ tale that older relatives concocted to keep us in check. Aside from the logical fact that they could’ve just scared us off with the usual monsters and the roasting pits of hell, my maternal relatives saw how a grandfather, an uncle, and two cousins were blighted by this illness.

The origin of the “schizophrenia” myth started with the unusual death of my mother’s maternal grandfather who was shot by Japanese soldiers in the dying days of World War II. When the villagers heard that the soldiers were on patrol, they fled to their mountain hideout except for Lolo Pedro. The soldiers spotted Lolo Pedro on top of a coconut tree cursing at toratora or zero fighter aircrafts flying overhead. He also brought with him a long stick to swat at these flying jetfighters, flaying at them everytime they passed by the coconut tree. He was an easy target for the patrolling soldiers. They trained their rifles towards Lolo Pedro, placed him in their rifles’ crosshairs, squeezed their triggers, and took the crazed man down from the tree.

You see, the tiny island of Po’o at that time was right smack in the middle of the largest naval battle in world history, The Battle of Leyte Gulf. This was the naval war when Allied forces first witnessed Japanese toratora planes diving straight at enemy warships and gunboats. The Allied Forces however routinely defeated the Japanese forces in less than a week. For older island residents, the impact of this war was such that time and history were only divided into three episodes: before the war (wala pay gera), during the war (panahon sa gera), and after the war (pistaym). Personal events, like birthdays, are remembered more along this organizing principle of time than the actual dates.

The war was a shock to many island residents. From a sleepy fishing village, the place had been converted into a battle zone. The villagers were rounded up and their movement monitored and restricted. Many were subjected to abuses. Rumors reached that children were flung to the air and then stabbed with bayonets. Some of those who escaped the encampment were pursued and killed. A relative of mine, who was then a child, escaped a gruesome death when she pretended to be dead after getting stabbed with a bayonet. With her guts spilling out of her abdomen, adult relatives sneaked the child out of the island on a canoe. They traveled a full day to the neighboring island of Leyte where she was nursed back to health.

Coconut Fiber Dress. My grandfather didn’t quite sew something as grandiose as this, but yes you got the point of him sewing clothes from coconut fibers.

Those who escaped the Japanese garrison fled to mountain hideouts. While there, they lived a semblance of a normal life, far from the reach of the occupying forces. My late maternal grandfather, a Chinese immigrant tailor (whose timberland-owning family scampered out of China because of the Nationalist Revolution of Sun Yat Sen–yet another interesting story to pursue!), remembered sewing clothes from coconut fibers for the refugees (see photo on the side to give you an idea). The violence spiraled that whenever there was a chance for retribution, the island residents grabbed every opportunity for revenge–Japanese soldiers, who survived the naval battle and found themselves beached on the island, were routinely attacked and killed.

If you’ve been to the island of Po’o, you would not imagine that this place had once witnessed so much bloodshed. Your day starts with a rooster’s call and ends with the warmth of bahalina down your throat. Yet World War II was a crazy time. And, apparently, we still feel the insanity of war in our “genes.”


Animal Lores: Myths, Disasters, and Animals

The post on monkeys and hurricanes made me think about myths and calamities. So, here’s the continuation of that blog post:

In rural Philippines where I grew up, animals are one of the central conversation topics in any street corner. We would huddle and strain our necks to hear the stories adults tell each other of fantastic creatures that fly in the night or about the mythical sigbin that stole a squash from a neighbor’s garden. The sigbin is said to be kangaroo-like, about a foot long, and eats with its bottom raised up in the air. These creatures only come out at night and move very fast that the only evidence of its presence is a smashed up squash, bits and pieces of its yellow and orange flesh littered all over the garden floor. The sigbin, they say, also prefers the warmth of the hearth and, at times, eats charcoal to sustain itself. In fact, if these adults were to be believed, the sigbin, when caught and tamed, is faster than anything else in the world because it can transport the owner in a blink of an eye. As a kid, it wasn’t much of a stretch  to think that Aladdin’s magic carpet was hewn from the fleece of the sigbin.

There were other mythic animals that inhabited our imagination. Going on long treks on the hills of my town, I sometimes find myself lost in the thick of the forest. Of course, there was always a ready explanation as to why the once familiar footpaths were leading nowhere and the gigantic trees, signposts to finding the way back home, were not the same or were just not there anymore. Shouting for help was useless because the only answer that one got was an eerie silence, so eerie that even the cicadas were hushed up. Then, I realized that the supernaturals were playing tricks again, putting roads where there was none, confusing me in the middle of a labyrinthine forest. We call this lamat, a condition of being lost, even in once familiar paths.

For the Tagalogs, the tikbalang, a centaur-like creature, is blamed for the lamat. Unlike a similar character in Western mythology, the Filipino tikbalang is an inversion of the centaur. They are represented as having the head and torso of the horse while its lower body is human–a bipedal bronco. According to Reynaldo Ileto in his seminal work, Pasyon and Revolution, the tikbalang is the “king of the San Mateo mountains…and a brother of Marya of Mount Makiling” (a goddess popular in Filipino folklore).

It is not surprising then that disaster events are often interpreted in mythic terms. Harold Olofson, one of the giants of Visayan anthropology, noted how animals have been incorporated in religious rituals of a small island community in Central Visayas. The animals occupy a central place in the fiesta celebration of St. Vincent Ferrer, the island’s patron saint. To avert disasters, the residents dress cats and dogs as humans. The inversion doesn’t stop there: women and men switch clothes and coconut trees are planted on the sea. It was “sacrilegious” that the designated parish priest once banned the celebration on religious grounds. The island residents however blamed him when disaster struck the island once again, forcing the parish priest to retract the sanction and allow the celebration of the binaliw. Olofson believes that this binaliw ritual exhibits a syncretic fusion of a prehispanic principle or belief in a thunder-god and the Spanish-introduced saint, San Vicente Ferrer.

The belief in the supernatural character of animals is widespread in the Visayas area. According to William Henry Scott‘s retelling of 16th century Visayas, the presence of animals, especially birds, was used to divine the success of a hunt or harvest. Until the present, some rural villagers in Eastern Visayas fear the Philippine coucal because it forewarns them of a bad day. A cryptic and nocturnal bird species, kikik, is also believed to be a harbinger of the witch’s coming.

Further north, the Tinguians of Abra Province put birds in a different light. The Tinguians do not start the planting season unless a particular bird appears before the sky. For modernist economists, stories such as these are dismissed as mere superstition, stumbling block in the road towards progress. Closer inspection however reveals that this bird is migratory, signaling the onset of the monsoon season. Anthropologists remarked that the Tinguian‘s agricultural cycle is more attuned to the nuances of their local environment than modern agricultural practices.

The representation of animals in the local belief systems comes in handy in disaster situations. In the place I grew up in, villagers admonish children to be extra watchful for sudden changes in animal behavior, say for example the early roosting of the chicken or the complete silence of the forest, because these forebode a disastrous event. In other cases, like the 2006 Guinsaugon mudslide and the many earthquakes in the Philippines, eyewitnesses remember the unusual behavior exhibited by the animals before the event. Lita C. Malicdem, in a comment on animals and earthquakes in the Philippines, said that, “I had observed my dogs howling at no cause and the fowls in the poultry cackling and making uneasy noises. I would learn later that there was an earthquake. It was so weak that it wasn’t felt by us humans, but the animals did.”

Anthropologists have also documented similar incidents elsewhere. After noticing unusual behavioral changes in the birds, dolphins and lizards, tribes in the Nicobar and Andaman islands headed to higher ground and were saved from the devastation. Similarly in 1975, Chinese officials, using animal cues, “ordered the evacuation of Haicheng, a city with one million people, just days before a 7.3-magnitude quake. Only a small portion of the population was hurt or killed. If the city had not been evacuated, it is estimated that the number of fatalities and injuries could have exceeded 150,000.” The 2004 tsunami that hit India and Sri Lanka is the oft-cited incident of animals fleeing the disaster before it struck. According to a National Geographic report, before the tsunami hit land, “elephants screamed and ran for higher ground, dogs refused to go outdoors, flamingos abandoned their low-lying breeding areas, and zoo animals rushed into their shelters and could not be enticed to come back out.”

The stories here therefore point at the importance of local environmental knowledges. Disaster stories are part of a complex  belief system that elaborates the people’s relationship with their natural world. To end this blogpost, let me quote the World Commission for Environment and Development:

Tribal and indigenous peoples’…lifestyles can offer modern societies many lessons in the management of resources in complex forest, mountain, and dryland ecosystems…These communities are the repositories of vast accumulations of traditional knowledge and experience that link humanity with its ancient origins. Their disappearance is a loss for the larger society, which could learn a great deal from their traditional skills in sustainably managing very complex ecological systems.


Harold Olofson (2002). St. Vincent and the thunder-god: Narratives of play and Apocalypse in relation to a Central Visayan island fiesta Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society

Fikret Berkes (1999). Sacred ecology: traditional ecological knowledge and resource management Nature

William Henry Scott (1994). Barangay: Sixteenth Century Philippine Culture and Society Ateneo de Manila University Press

Reynaldo Clemena Ileto (1982). Pasyon and Revolution: Popular Movements in the Philippines, 1840-1910 Ateneo de Manila University Press

Hugo Chavez and the Skeleton of Bolivar

President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela ordered the exhumation of the remains of Simon Bolivar, Latin America’s liberator, in order to put an end to the speculation surrounding the hero’s death. While historians are generally in agreement that Bolivar died of tuberculosis in 1830, others maintained that the hero died of unintentional arsenic poisoning (since this was the standard medical treatment during his time).

Dr. Paul Auwaerter in a University of Maryland Conference argued that  death due to tuberculosis cannot explain Bolivar’s final six months. Auwaerter said that the hero did not exhibit symptoms of TB and may have had arsenic-induced bacterial infection. Dr. Auwaerter concluded that Bolivar “died of chronic arsenic poisoning that led to a serious respiratory illness…and most of the signs and symptoms point to slow, chronic poisoning, the kind that might result from drinking contaminated water.”

Chavez however is convinced that Bolivar might have been murdered, a suspicion bolstered by the many attempts on the life of the most illustrious Latin American military figure. One of the failed assassination plots was in September 1828, a month after Bolivar installed himself dictator of Gran Colombia (the short-lived republic that encompassed a great part of South and Central America). Bolivar narrowly escaped the attempt through the help of his lover, Manuela Saenz.

“They killed him. Here in my heart for years I’ve had the conviction that Bolivar didn’t die of tuberculosis,” Chavez said. “I don’t know if we’ll be able to prove it, but I think they assassinated Bolivar.”

Death by Arsenic

The examination of chronic arsenic poisoning is a well-established method in paleopathology. The Paleopathology Laboratory of the Virginia Commonwealth University, for example, has studied the long-term exposure to arsenic of a Chilean pre-Columban population. The mummies showed arsenic lesions on their internal organs. The nails, ribs, hairs, and skin also exhibited high concentrations of the compound.

In a similar vein, Boston and Ariaza (2009) examined the human remains of the Chinchorro Culture (5000 BP) in the Atacama desert coast of Chile, they suggested that the endemic presence of arsenic may have had a role in the mummification practice of the Chinchorros. To ascertain this, they examined teratogenic arsenic lesions (i.e., cleft palate, polydactyly, syndactyly, spina bifida, club foot, eye malformations, and hip joint dislocation), which are indicative of arsenic poisoning when found together. Although they only found spina bifida, they reported that the “presence of spina bifida in the three valleys suggests a genetic-environmental interplay within the populations.”

I imagine Auwaeter et al conducted a similar assessment to forward the arsenic poisoning hypothesis. Next step is the Hugo Chavez-commissioned DNA testing on Bolivar’s exhumed remains. This is the same procedure that put an end to the controversy surrounding Napoleon Bonaparte’s death. Bonaparte, once thought to have been poisoned by his prison guards, was found to have died of other causes (still up in debate) and not from arsenic poisoning.

Bolivar’s Skeleton

That the exhumation is ideologically-driven is not a secret. Chavez refers to his ideology as Bolivarianismo which advocates for participatory democracy, socialism, and Latin American unity. This is also a homage to the military figure who attempted to unite the entire Latin America against Spanish colonization. It comes as no surprise therefore to see Chavez beaming with pride when Simon Bolivar’s remains were exposed. He exclaimed, “Viva Bolivar! It’s not a skeleton. It’s the Great Bolivar, who has returned…Our father who is in the earth, the water and the air … You awake every hundred years when the people awaken. I confess that we have cried, we have sworn allegiance.”

This was not the first time however that leaders used the past to serve the political purposes of the present. Anthropology, archaeology in particular, is rife with examples that exploit the past for a nationalist project. The eminent archaeologist, Bruce Trigger, noted that “Political unrest, national crises, and rapid economic and social change frequently stimulate interests in a nation’s past, which often is romantically represented as having been more stable than the present and therefore as having more valuable lessons to teach the modern times.”

This is especially true in many places with strong nationalist movements. Archaeologists in Nazi Germany, for example, conducted excavations to prove that Germany was the origin of all civilizations. In the years of Mao Zedong’s rule in China, archaeology was encouraged as long as it supports the government’s theory of a linear evolutionary progression from “primitive promiscuous bands via matrilinearity to patrilinearity; from Savagery, Barbarism, Feudal Society to Civilization and so on–stages first proposed by Lewis Henry Morgan, borrowed by Engels, and systematized in the Soviet Union” (Glover, 2006).

The case of Bolivar’s exhumation is thus not an exemption. The team of Spanish and Venezuelan scientists’ study results might be scientifically neutral and valid in the end. They might even contradict Chavez. But that is not the point. Bolivar’s bones are not just a bunch of arsenic-drenched tissues. This is not just about Bolivar anymore.

On Island Tourists and Science

Today, a boatload of curious tourists went into Cayo Santiago, a government-run primate research island off the east coast of Puerto Rico. They surreptitiously entered right under the glaring NO ENTRY sign posted near the shore. With camera on hand and shouts of “Are there monkeys in here?!”, they disembarked from their speedboat and waded through waist-deep water. Probably thinking that the island was deserted because the CPRC lancha had left (i.e., it ferries the employees back to Punta for the lunchbreak), their guide let them through the mangroves and smack into a crowd of free-ranging monkeys.

I was partially hidden by the foliage while recording behavioral data on a sleeping monkey when I heard them coming. It is customary to have visitors snorkeling around the island, so hearing voices was not that surprising. Tourists usually come in rented boats and kayaks anchored about 20 meters from the shore. The sea around Cayo Santiago has beautiful sea grass beds and reefs festooned with all sorts of Caribbean marine life. Just a couple of days ago, a juvenile black tip reef shark swam along the cay, its dorsal fin jutting out of the glassy sea. I also saw three manatees a while back, bobbing their snouts in the air to catch breath while foraging on the lush sea grasses. The place does beckon nature lovers. And some of the riskier bent are just too reckless to ignore the danger signage posted everywhere on the island.

Seeing barefooted tourists on the island is unnerving, considering the risk of disease transmission between humans and rhesus macaques. CPRC sets a series of health and safety protocols to prevent the risk of zoonotic diseases. Failure to take even one test (of a host of other tests) means being denied from entering the island, even if your last name is Obama. Aside from this, researchers, students, and all those who come into contact with the primates have to pass a lengthy IACUC certification exam detailing the appropriate handling of the animals.

The safety measures are put in place precisely because of the real danger of zoonoses. Consider this excerpt from Jensen et al on the herpes B virus found in these free-ranging colony:

Whereas the effects of the virus are mild in macaque hosts, it causes a serious and frequently fatal disease in other primates, including humans. Once transmitted to a human, B virus infection has a nearly 80% case-fatality rate.

Tuberculosis, Shigella, and other pathogens, which might not be as lethal to humans, are very deadly to the macaques. Primate Info Net has an excellent list of zoonotic diseases recorded in the medical and primate literature. Primate Info Net:

Mycobacteria are responsible for tuberculosis, the scourge of the primate owner and veterinarian. Tuberculosis has been recognized as a common disease of captive primates for many years. Early outbreaks were devastating, causing the loss of hundreds of primates of many species.

So, there. For potential tourists who are reading this blog, the health risks are


The cultural anthropologist in me is amazed at the constant overlap of interests on the island.  It seems to me that there is a continuing tug-of-war with regards to the meaning of Cayo Santiago. For the scientists, the island is home to the free-ranging macaques, a repository of biological and behavioral knowledge for the past 70 years. For the tourist industry, Cayo Santiago is part of the Puerto Rico ecotourism package, the island of enchantment as they say. Tourism is what keeps the Puerto Rican economy afloat and Cayo Santiago does appear in tourist brochure as the enchanted monkey island. For the local fishers, the island is a crabbers’ paradise where they trap mantou crabs under the cover of darkness. They would catch the crabs, keep them for months to get the crabs “clean,” and sometimes sell them to roadside customers (who are mostly tourists too).

Before I got involved in a primatological research (of the biological bent), my original intention was to conduct an ethnoprimatological project as my dissertation. I wanted to investigate the social history of primates in Puerto Rico, with the purpose of understanding the axis of science, colonial politics, and primates in the island. There is a substantial glut about this in ethnoprimatological and anthropology literature and I thought this would be a nice dissertation topic. But I am on the verge of abandoning this project as I became more enamored by the biological side of primatology–a training that is almost absent in the Philippines (I got a few via a short Fulbright exchange program with New Mexico State University,  my involvement with the Philippine Tarsier Foundation, and with University of San Carlos, my home university).

Seeing the opportunity to learn more about anthropology and primates in general, I applied for the research job and got accepted. I believe, after this, I will be your typical Swiss knife anthropologist–not quite a specialist but got enough knowledge to teach anthropology students back home. I am hoping that once the research project is over I’ll get back to my home university and inspire students once again to get more interested in anthropology. Perhaps through this, the Philippines will have its own Jane Goodall or Louis Leakey in the future. Who knows really, right?


Before I leave, let me share these youtube videos of tourists in Cayo Santiago. I chanced on them while cybersurfing about the island.

Tourist hitting a male macaque after presumably feeding it

Tourists on the island (p.s. listen closely to the audio).

Iguana catching on the island. Puerto Rican iguanas are not scared of humans. You can actually pick them up without any hassle because the feral pet iguanas in Puerto Rico got no natural predators.

Jensen K, Alvarado-Ramy F, González-Martínez J, Kraiselburd E, & Rullán J (2004). B-virus and free-ranging macaques, Puerto Rico. Emerging infectious diseases, 10 (3), 494-6 PMID: 15109420

The Simpsons on PhDs and Grad Students


‘The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (“I found it!”) but rather “hmm….that’s funny…”‘ — Isaac Asimov

Contrary to what Asimov says, the most exciting phrase in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ or ‘That’s funny…,’ it’s ‘Your research grant has been approved.’
– John Alejandro King, a.k.a. The Covert Comic (

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