By Maria Perez
Whenever “anthropology” and “caves” are mentioned together, it is usually in the context of archaeology. There is good reason for this, since caves have been and continue to be important sites to examine the past, not just of humans and their ancestors, but also of other living beings and even of the earth itself. Yet caves continue to be very active spaces of human cultural activity. We suggest that a focus on caving itself, including speleological research, be examined as a cultural activity, and that this examination be put in the broader context of the study of humans and caves (See Pérez’s Chapter 26 of the 4th edition of Caving Basics for a more thorough exposition on this view).
Cavers explore, they discover. Most cavers survey and map while doing so. They also gather into groups, they tinker with and design their tools, and they establish certain rules (explicitly or implicitly) about who to share their information with and how. On this point, cavers sometimes fight with each other. The many ways cavers deal with territorial politics is a fascinating and complex area that is teeming with insights into how humans establish relationships among each other and with the earth. Caver ideas on conservation and cave modification are intriguing evidence of the complex ways humans behave culturally, shape the environment, and in turn, are shaped by it. In other words, cavers have culture, or, to be more precise, cavers cave culturally. Already in its 4th year, this Culture of Caves Session invites us to think of caving itself from diverse cultural and historical perspectives, and to examine what has changed and what has remained the same when it comes to humans exploring cave passages.
I am an Assistant Professor in the Geography Program at West Virginia University’s Department of Geology and Geography. A cultural anthropologist by training, I study the cultural and historical context of scientific practice. This means that I approach science as a cultural activity. Speleology (cave science and exploration) serves as a case study with which I examine a range of topics such as identity (Who are we? What brings us together?), place and emotion (How do places become meaningful? Why is it that we come to love some places more than others?), and value (How do we come to value, beyond economic considerations, places that are hidden or not part of our everyday livelihoods?). Really, these questions are relevant well beyond caves, karst, and even bunkers, another site of research! I have a family link to the caver world. Both my godfather and father were speleologists in Venezuela, my country of origin. I have done research there, in Cuba, the continental US, and now I am developing a project in Puerto Rico. The Cuba research is actually international in scope: the project examined the history and present activity of collaborations and networking between US and Cuban speleologists. This 3‑year research project was funded by the National Science Foundation. “Caver Villages: Community, Sense of Place, and Conservation of the Underground” is a second ongoing project in collaboration with John Wilson. I am now starting research on caver contributions to Caribbean cave archaeology with my WVU colleague Martina Caretta. In 2019, I became an NSS Research Fellow, and in 2020 received the Speleological Society of Cuba’s 50th Anniversary Gold Medal, both extraordinary honors. I have also been on the Board of the Cave Conservancy of the Virginias since 2014. I live in Morgantown, WV, with my husband, three girls, and our schnauzer, Gunner. You can learn more about my work in my website