A genetic adventure with Robinson Crusoe

Dianne and her colleague Pia Villanueva from the University of Chile

Dianne and her colleague Pia Villanueva from the University of Chile

In January Dianne Newbury visited Robinson Crusoe Island in Chile, whose inhabitants have been the subject of her research on Specific Language Impairment. Here are some extracts from her diary of the trip. A week to go In 2013 I entered a competition organised by the MRC to produce a poster describing international collaborative projects. Our poster describes a project that we’ve been doing with the University of Chile to look at the population of the Robinson Crusoe Island. Robinson Crusoe Island is a small island off the coast of Chile, named after Alexander Selkirk, the Scottish sailor who was marooned there for four years in the 1700s and was reportedly the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s famous novel. We’re particularly interested in this population because they have a very high incidence of speech and language problems. We won the competition and the prize was £3000 towards collaborative travel, and we thought it would be a great idea to use this money for me and my colleague Pia Villanueva from Chile to travel to the island as an outreach project. We’re going to take some T shirts, we’ll meet the mayor, and we’re going to explain to people what we’ve done so far in the project, what we hope to achieve and what we’ve done with the data so far. I’ve never visited the Island before and it’s about a week until I go, I’m very excited. While I am there, I will produce a video blog diary of my time on the island. Day 1 We’ve bought lots of T shirts with the project logo, which we thought would be a nice idea to give out to people who helped with the project, but I’ve realised that there’s a baggage allowance and now I’m trying to work out how to fit 150 T shirts, and my own clothes, into my baggage allowance…. The T shirts weigh 22.6 kg, which leaves me about .6 kg for my luggage. Good job it’s a subtropical island! Day 3 We took off from London on a cold but sunny day in January, changed planes in New York and Atlanta, and two days later we’re sat in the summer sun in Santiago,Chile. After we have caught up on some sleep, we will catch the small propeller plane to the Robinson Crusoe island. The weight of the T shirts was fine (23.1kg!) but when we got to customs in Chile we put the luggage through the security system, and they asked us to open the bag with all the T shirts. Because we had so many of the same T shirt, they thought we were going to sell them and kept saying ‘have you got an invoice?’ Of course, the invoice was at home on the kitchen table! I was trying to tell them in my pigeon Spanish that they were T shirts for a research project. Eventually someone came over who saw the University of Chile logo and said ‘This is fine, it’s propaganda’. I just said ‘Si, si, propaganda!’ And they let us go. Day 4 island mapSo after all that travelling Pia and I are here on the island. The plane lands on the Southern tip of the island and we had to get the boat to the town. This meant that we got to see a lot of the more inaccessible parts of the Island from the coast as we travelled. We saw a sheer rock face and the captain told us that it was called ‘see you again’. In the early 19th century, the Island was a prison Island and if the prisoners did not behave, they used to drop them off in the ocean and say that if they could get back up the cliff face and make it back to the prison camp then they would be welcomed back! Nowadays there are just lobos finos (sea lions) living there. We offloaded in the harbour by the main town and got a lift on a flat bed trailer to the hotel. And it’s amazing because I’ve seen all the places that I’ve only ever seen in photographs, that I’ve been talking about for the three years, saying ‘here’s Cumberland Bay’ and ‘here’s San Juan Baptista’ – and now I’m actually here and I’m seeing them for real.

Local children proudly display their project T shirts

Local children proudly display their project T shirts

Day 5 Today we get to explore the Island a little. We walk around the harbor to the town where we see the work to replace buildings lost in the 2010 tsunami. Everyone is super friendly and recognizes us as outsiders. They stop to say hello and ask how long we will be staying on the Island. The majority of the 600 people living on the Island are descended from a colonising party that landed in the late 19th century, which is why we’re interested in their genetics – it’s an isolated founder population so genetic variation is reduced. The colonising party was led by a Swiss baron called Alfredo von Rodt who was travelling in Chile looking for adventure. He saw that the Chilean government had advertised the island of Robinson Crusoe for lease. He advertised for people to come with him, and brought 60 or 70 individuals to colonise the island. He had a boat, and the idea of catching the lobsters to trade with the mainland. It was a dangerous but adventurous life and one that continues to this day. The community the people have created is incredible. Everyone knows each other and all Islanders take their part in helping to sustain their community. We’ve seen people building roads with a cement mixer, weeding the grass verges, building picnic areas and maintaining the cemetery. Everyday there are gym classes in a big tent by the harbour. If you want to join the gym, it is free, but you have to agree to go every day. It is a real community event: you see everyone heading down to the harbor with their mats and towels. Day 6 The island is full of stories about pirates and today we got to meet a treasure hunter (Bernard Keiser) who has lived on the Island since 1998. He is working in Puerto Ingles (English Port) looking for treasure left by the George Anson, and has followed a trail of clues including letters, rock formations, view points and cave paintings to lead him to this site where he has been digging for the last few years. The work-team leave the town in boats at 8.00 every morning and spend the day digging the site by hand. At the end of each season they have to return the site to the way they found it and put all the soil back. So far, they have found Spanish cannons, Chinese pottery and British buttons but no treasure. Whilst in Puerto Ingles, we see the cave that Alexander Selkirk is reported to have lived in during his time on the island. But Bernard tells us, if he was Robinson Crusoe he would live in Cumberland bay as it is more protected and provides better viewpoints for spotting passing ships. It’s not just Alexander Selkirk who was marooned here. After the Spanish Civil War the sympathisers were marooned here and lived in caves that now sit above the town hall in Cumberland Bay.

RC photos (70)

Dianne and Pia meet the Mayor of Robinson Crusoe Island

Day 7 Today we got to meet the mayor and the health workers who worked on the project. The sample collection and data analyses have all been done so today was about reporting back our findings to the mayor and the people. We handed out the T shirts, and discussed how we might extend the project, and what we’re going to do with the information that we’ve collected. They were all really interested to hear about the genetic variant we have identified and are especially fascinated about how genetics might help to inform them about their ethnic heritage. We agreed that when we get back to Oxford, we will look at the genetic data to see what it can tell us about the origins of Alfredo von Rodt and the other founders. We are supposed to be flying back off the Island tomorrow but the weather has turned and the harbor and airport are shut. The Islanders take it all in their stride, catching up on jobs around the town. We take our passports to the post office which is in a shipping container by the harbor where the post master stamps them with a special Robinson Crusoe Island stamp. Day 8 The wind has died down and the airport is back open. We decide to take the scenic route to the airport and horse-ride across the length of the Island. This means we can stop off at Selkirk’s viewpoint which gives a magnificent vista of the whole Island. We also get to see a rock formation that has been suggested to be a Mayan Totem by the History Channel documentary Apocalypse Island. According to the documentary, the rock formation depicts a Mayan Sun God Checking in at the airport consists of leaving your luggage on the tarmac and hopping onto the plane so we are soon on our way home. Day 14 After a brief stop in Chile to catch up with collaborators and work on some data, I am home again. The trip was worth all the travelling. I got to meet so many people and talk to them about life on the island. And now when I give a talk on the project it will be from first-hand experience. It’s been fantastic, and I’d like to thank the MRC for making the trip and the research possible and all of our collaborators in Chile and the UK and, of course, on the Island who have worked on the project.

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