A bit like Robert Langdon, a bit like Gabriele d’Annunzio. A University Professor and a researcher at the Higher Institute for Environmental Research and Protection, physicist, anthropologist and a prehistoric archaeologist, he has coded a new subject that pushes his students to go beyond the boundaries of the books, to embark on researching human race, oceanographic anthropology. He is an expert in several martial arts, scuba diver, and a collector, besides being very passionate about arts. A raider in the past, he is currently a businessman in the field of nanodrones production. Rodolfo Lama is all this, more similar to the protagonist of a novel than to a person in the flesh. Yet, he is real, heart, brain, and passion. For his work, for thirst for knowledge.
His expeditions to Cape Horn have become legendary, yet, they are still little known in Italy. South American newspapers have dedicated him more than just one cover, the Maggiorino Borgatello Museum of Punta Arenas (the “paradise” of the oceanography researchers) has named a room after Lama, describing him as “the last explorers” of Southern Patagonia.
Since 2003 he has been investigating the genesis of Americas peopling and soon he will embark on yet another expedition: “You cannot do a serious anthropological study- he says – without making return, over and over again, to the place you want to know and which you want to investigate. Not even six months in a row will suffice. You need to go back over and over, so as to notice details and traces”.
His life as a scholar oscillates between the retrieval of apparently insignificant splinters and the search of intelligent ways of using nature without fighting it. Then, he crosses in canoe seas that nobody sails, where the continental plates meet, where waves are 5-meters tall and 200 meters long when the sea is calm.
He is continuously in search of testimonials. “There has been not only the passage through the Bering Strait; certainly it has been crossed, we know that. But it is a fact that American people do not know their origins, and I travel back in time to discover them. A life is not enough for this operation; a serious anthropologist chooses a place and investigates it for ever, going back to it over and over. He does not go hunting for treasures, fame, nor glory, but for signs left by the passage of the Man. What gives satisfaction is to find a tiny piece of the huge puzzle called evolution”.
Lama studies oceans and his interest has focused on the peopling of the Pacific, with special attention to the ancestors of the current Polynesians who – according to his theory – have arrived to the Wollastone Islands thousands of years ago, colonizing South America and giving origin, with successive migrations, to four peoples, two canoeros and two pedestri.
His stories fascinate with their mystery and spectacle: those men were able to cross thousands of kilometres on small kayaks. They faced days of navigation and stormy oceans. And he, a professor, is not less worthy.
He is not a salon intellectual, but the kind of anthropologist who works in trenches.
Literally. On the Herschel Island, just before Cape Horn, winds blow at hundreds of knots, in a climate that is cold, humid, and inhospitable. To stand up there can mean being swept away as a leaf. This is why he digs holes in Tundra in which he finds shelter when nature becomes really cruel… and, truth to be told, nature is hostile in those places 24 hours a day.
To get there is an achievement itself. First a flight from Rome to Madrid, then another one to Santiago. One more touristic flight to reach Punta Arenas. Then, aboard a boat, to Puerto Williams, a small town in southern Chile, situated on the Navarino Island that is on the Beagle Canal. Then further southwards, alone on a kayak, to re-enact the movements of the ancient Polynesians… but also because nobody wants to travel so far.
“To understand preparation is needed, but also tools and instinct – tells Prof. Lama – yet, those alone are not enough. You must experience what our predecessors lived, in order to be able, at least, to understand their history”.
After years of field work, the time has come to transfer this knowledge onto a new course of studies, oceanographic anthropology, i.e. the study of Man’s behaviour at sea. If it is difficult to find specimens on the mainland, imagine how hard it is to re-emerge from water a past that is distant thousands of years. What do you do, then? We analyse songs, and stories handed down; but also drawings and engravings. We study their navigation and migration routes, the way they navigated and constructed boats. And we go at sea…
What kind of student is going to be the one who will embrace this new subject? The identikit is sketched by Lama himself: “(S)he must have a great desire to learn, because it is not an easy, convenient, and simple subject. One needs mathematics bases in order to understand the movement of the planets, an extraordinary mental strength because all of the places (s)he will investigate will not be secure, but extreme and dangerous locations. (S)he must be particularly curious, able to infer huge past movements from tiny and seemingly irrelevant things. (S)he must be familiar with the sea and capable of staying at high depth. Finally, (s)he will have to be prone to loneliness which, I have to say, is a characteristic common to all anthropologists”.
And – we would add to it – a “survivor” preparation. “In 2003 – he says – I passed a whole week without eating because there was nothing to eat. The cold and humidity are crazy there and cause condensation capable of altering food immediately. There are kinds of water that affect blood pressure and can make you collapse on the spot, and of course there is no one to rescue you. It is difficult even to ingest food. If you happen to fall into water, every stroke gives problems to the joints, to the point of completely blocking them. On one of the expeditions, I had brought a solar oven I invented myself… But there was no sun!”
Years of studies and research sponsored by the University of Rome La Sapienza, by De Magellanes athenaeum from Punta Arenas, and by the University of Santiago de Chile. In his possess, among the many artifacts, remains an ancient star map engraved on a stone of conical shape and a fragment of Lapita ceramics. In his heart there is desire to depart again. A journey that has lasted for almost three decades now, under the Strait of Magellan, beyond the Land of Fire. A flame that, today, as six thousand years ago, burns in the heart of an explorer and compels him to never stop.
Translated by Ecaterina Severin