Digging Hawaii Mike Field ----------------- Staff Writer This is a story about a Russian scientist at Johns Hopkins University digging up prehistoric temple artifacts on the island of Maui. Call it, How did a nice lady from the Soviet Academy of Sciences end up on familiar terms with the Hawaiian shark god, Ku? The answer, of course, was that now long-ago event known as perestroika, wherein the vast edifice of Soviet society cracked, enabling--or forcing--thousands of ordinary Soviet citizens from all walks of life to take a more entrepreneurial approach to their jobs. A prime example of this phenomenon can be found in one Elena Ermolaeva, a Hopkins doctoral candidate in sociology studying with professor Christopher Chase-Dunn. Prior to 1989, Ermolaeva was a member of the Institute of Sociology within the prestigious U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences--about as choice a job as a Soviet citizen could wish for. She had her own place in Moscow, and for 13 years got to travel throughout the many republics of the Soviet Union doing all kinds of interesting work. "The institute was huge, and we worked all over and were always well treated wherever we went," Ermolaeva recalls fondly. "I worked for a time on the Iranian border and have been other places the average Russian has not." As a member of the Academy of Sciences, Ermolaeva enjoyed the privilege of pursuing research in her field without associated teaching duties. "My special field of interest was the linguistic equivalents of survey instruments," she said. "How do you make questionnaires understandable to different cultures so your results can be accurately compared? In the Soviet Union this was an important topic." When perestroika came and the formerly closed society began to open up, one of the first opportunities available was the chance for the best scientists to travel to peer institutions in the West. "In 1990 I was one of 60 members of the institute selected to study abroad," Ermolaeva said. After a month spent studying in Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan, she came to Hopkins and began to work closely with Professor Chase-Dunn, whose work in world systems theory seeks to understand universal issues by studying isolated cultures that become, in effect, a whole world unto themselves. Hawaii, which was cut off from outside contact until Captain Cook landed at Waimea on the island of Kauai in 1778, is the perfect case study for such theories. So it seemed only natural when Ermolaeva decided to augment her Soviet doctorate with an American degree from Johns Hopkins that she should turn to America's "paradise in the Pacific" to pursue her research. "I am particularly interested in border areas and buffer zones between cultures," said Ermolaeva of her work, which she believes has considerable relevance to the current developments in Eastern Europe. "Hawaii had minimal outside contact for hundreds of years, so we can look at the Hawaiian archipelago as a small world system. I am researching communities bounded by exchanges within that system." Although a Russian by birth of Polish/Slavic heritage, Ermolaeva's dark hair and mysterious eyes bespeak the melting pot culture of her former Soviet homeland. "Me? I am from nowhere," she said in characteristic self-deflating style with a lugubrious Slavic accent. Her little joke is not tinged without a certain irony, however. In a sense, since the breakup of the Soviet Union, she is a woman from nowhere, as the multicultural "worker's paradise" of 15 autonomous republics has devolved into many separate--and oftentimes squabbling--nation-states. "Now Russia is so small," she said in complete earnestness. It's hard to imagine a country that stretches 6,250 miles from east to west as small, exactly, but what Ermolaeva refers to is the diminished scope of cultures and nationalities, not the sheer physical size of the place. Russia shorn of her world power and separated from the other republics is indeed a Russia made smaller--at least from a sociologist's point of view. "In the past, you could work anywhere. Now, we are no longer welcome in many of the republics," said Ermolaeva with a sigh. Russia's loss however, soon became Hawaii's gain as Ermolaeva turned her talents to investigating the preliterate, highly stratified society that Captain Cook discovered when he arrived there more than 200 years ago. In order to better understand the complex interplay of culture, climate and geography that shaped the social development of ancient Hawaii, she has visited the islands on three separate occasions over the past six years, staying about 20 days each time. Not bad for a former Soviet sociologist whose prior knowledge of Hawaii consisted of a general sense of its location in the Pacific and the history imparted from a popular--though inaccurate--Russian folk song. "The title of the song translates to Why the Aboriginals Ate Captain Cook," said Ermolaeva with a laugh. Now the woman "from nowhere" has become an expert in certain aspects of Hawaiian history, and her rootlessness has proved helpful in her research. Archaeology in Hawaii can often be a contentious undertaking. Many residents of native descent take a dim view of outsiders digging graves or religious sites, and a vocal but influential minority that advocates Hawaiian independence will occasionally confront archaeological expeditions they feel are intruding onto sacred sites. Mainlanders--that is, Americans from outside Hawaii--are especially liable to find a less-than-cordial welcome for their work. Yet in Hawaii, Ermolaeva has found herself welcomed as one of their own. Her exotic looks and unusual accent have made her something of a celebrity among local island intellectuals, more than one of whom, she said, wondered how on earth a woman from Russia could end up interested in ancient Hawaiian history. On her first trip this acceptance enabled her to participate in a dig at an ancient temple site in the Hana area of Maui. The temple was originally thought to be dedicated to the harvest god, Lono. Captain Cook is believed to have arrived in Hawaii during a festival honoring Lono, and some have suggested the Hawaiians' initial enthusiastic welcome was brought about, in part, because the priests of Lono found considerable advantage in proclaiming Cook a direct emissary from the god. Work on the dig, however, suggested that the temple site may in fact have been dedicated to the shark god, Ku, primarily because the rituals associated with each god were different, and the evidence discovered more closely matched Ku than Lono. "You cannot consider the results of an excavation as 100 percent accurate," said Ermolaeva with a scientist's innate skepticism. "The data has to be contrasted and confirmed by other disciplines before we can reach a definite conclusion." Ermolaeva's real specialty lies not in Maui, but on the nearby "big island" of Hawaii, where, along the east coast, a series of five deep mountain valleys lead to the sea. Pololu--the fifth, and northernmost of these valleys--occupied a sort of no man's land between two hostile chiefdoms. This "buffer state" area was, over a period of several hundred years, settled, depopulated and settled again in response to the changing political relations between the two states. Ermolaeva has become expert on the history and development of this remote valley, collecting what is probably the world's most extensive library of surveys, historical literature, maps, photographs and even song lyrics about Pololu. "Not much research has been done on border areas, and the great advantage to Pololu is that it is still undeveloped today," she said. The valley is accessible only by all-terrain vehicle or on foot and is largely uninhabited. Archaeological evidence suggests periods of intensive agricultural development alternating with little or no activity, which would seem to correspond with known political developments in Hawaiian pre-literate history. "There is the history of Umi, the partly legendary king who came from nearby Waipio Valley, and there are several known periods when power was consolidated on the island," Ermolaeva said. "My effort is to establish similarities and differences in the way the valley was exploited during different historical periods, based on the theory that the way two cultures--in this case, two different chiefdoms--contact each other can be illuminating." One day, she hopes, such isolated world models might provide an insight into similar conditions in places such as Eastern Europe. "No one is saying the conclusions we come to in Hawaii will become immediately applicable elsewhere, but I believe they can help to point to both theoretical and empirical probabilities in existing situations," she said. "I believe that, more or less, things go in cycles. It makes sense if we are to understand, and sometimes to interfere, in current world affairs, that we have an understanding of how these things work." In the near future, however, Ermolaeva must contend with the realities of an academic life. Her American doctorate, which she hopes to complete soon, will nicely augment her Soviet degree, and she retains her position in the Institute of Sociology in Moscow. It remains doubtful, though, that once back in Russia she will be able to raise funds to continue her research in Hawaii. "I am a committed academic," she said hopefully of her future plans. "I will continue my research." One serendipitous discovery has been that she especially enjoys teaching what she knows. Recently, she returned to Russia for the first time in six years. "I went to the Lenin Library [in Moscow] to investigate what primary source materials might be available from the Russian explorers and traders who visited Hawaii in the early 19th century," she said. Unfortunately, the only information was a series of Soviet books and articles with titles like Aggressive Intervention in Hawaiian History, all published at the height of the Cold War in the 1950s and '60s. If there is ever to be an original Russian contribution to understanding Hawaiian history, it looks like Elena Ermolaeva will have to do it herself. Nor does that seem an unlikely possibility. After all, a woman from nowhere is really a woman from everywhere. She might as well be from Hawaii too.
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