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Ana Londono on the Terraces of Southern Peru

Doctoral student Ana Londono came to the United States from Colombia just to study geology at UC. So what's she doing in Peru?

Date: 10/14/2006
By: Wendy Beckman
Phone: (513) 556-1826
UC ingot Ana came to United States just for UC's geology program after receiving her bachelor’s degree from Universidad Nacional de Colombia.

“Everyone wants to come here to work with this faculty!” says Ana. “They are in high demand.” Although Ana is studying geomorphology specifically, she is part of a graduate program that also has the 7th-ranked paleontology program in the nation.

These agricultural terraces are about 600 years old.
These agricultural terraces are about 600 years old.

Ana was born in Medellin-Colombia. "All of my family is still there except for my younger brother, who lives in Atlanta," says Ana. "I graduated college in 1995 with a BS in Engineering Geology from Universidad Nacional de Colombia. After that, I worked for seven years with INGEOMINAS, the Colombian Geological Survey. During that period I was involved in geologic mapping and thin section analysis of metamorphic rocks.

"I was always interested in slope stability problems and human-environment interaction. In 2002, I enrolled in the MS program in Geology at UC and worked with David Nash and Mark Bowers (from the College of Engineering) in a project on Riverbank instability along the Licking River, Kentucky."

In 2005, Ana submitted a grant proposal to a section of GSA devoted specifically to engineering geology. She was then astounded to be honored with the Shlemon Award. The Shlemon Award, sponsored by an engineering geologist, is given to four grad students to support their summer graduate research. A special luncheon was held at GSA 2005 in Salt Lake City where two master’s students and two doctoral students were named "Shlemon Scholars."

“I didn’t know they would have a special lunch for us!” says Ana.

“I'm very proud of Ana indeed! We were entirely unaware that there was going to be a special presentation of the Shlemon award at GSA ," says David Nash, Ana’s advisor.

She received the award in the apring of 2005 to pay for her research that summer. She returned again in the summer of 2006 and will be presenting her findings at GSA 2006.

Ana taking field measurements on Wari terraces.
Ana taking field measurements on 1,000-year-old Wari terraces.

“I went to Moquegua in southern Peru, in the northern part of the desert,” Ana explains. “I studied the erosion processes in a desert environment, looking at erosion rates and landforms of known morphology to see how they’ve been eroded.” The landforms that Ana studied include Inca terraces from 500 years ago, as well as 1,000-year-old terraces built by the Wari, another indigenous culture that lived in southern Peru.

“The whole focus is looking at landscape evolution models,” Ana says. “How landforms evolve along geologic time in arid lands. This also helps in analyzing erosion rates that are useful in the geomophologic, environmental and engineering geology fields. It’s interesting to see how much soil will erode over time.”

"Ana’s dissertation research investigates the rate and pattern of landform erosion with time. It seems counter-intuitive but the best place to study erosion by water is in an extremely arid environment where the erosion-inhibiting effects of vegetation are absent. In a study such as hers, it also is a great help if the shape of the landform prior to erosion is known," says Nash. "Not only is the area extremely dry (one of the driest spots on the planet), but there are several different sets of pre-Colonial agricultural terraces of varying age going back nearly 2,000 years. For the last two summers, Ana spent months in Moquegua, Peru, making detailed surveys of the morphology of Inca and Wari agricultural terraces. She coordinated her work with ongoing archeological investigations by the University of Florida, the Field Museum of the University of Illinois, Boston University and a geological investigation by the U.S. Geological Survey."

Ana Londono on agricultural terraces.

Ana says that one of the cool things about the agricultural terraces is the archaeological evidence, knowing how they were built and then looking at the existing architecture and morphology of them. It’s similar to construction professionals looking at the difference between design and as-built drawings – with the addition of “as-eroded” physical evidence.

“We can do topographic surveys and calculate how much soil has been lost. A lot of soil is available to be removed, so it doesn’t take much rain to remove it,” Ana says. “Those areas that I looked at have not been disturbed since they were abandoned."

"It’s interesting that Ana had never been south of Colombia in South America so her experience in Peru was quite a culture shock," says Nash. Ana worked in harsh conditions, with intense sunlight and bare soil. “Nothing grows there but soil and rocks,” she says, laughing. “I came out of there with my hands totally dark from the sun.”

Her initial idea was to study northern Peru’s Indian water systems. Michael Moseley, distinguished professor of anthropology at the University of Florida, pointed out that an archaeological project was underway in southern Peru that might offer her additional opportunities. So Ana switched her plans – and was glad she did.

“The grad students working on that project were extremely nice,” she says. “I had two weeks to select my sites and they took me around. One student even told me ‘I have the day off.’ I said, ‘Cool — help me carry my rod!’”

Ana and Mario, a local from the Highlands.
Ana and Mario, a local from the Highlands.

Other than enthusiastic grad students, Ana also hired local people to help her get around and point out important things to see. One, a young woman named “Rosanna,” was working on a degree in geology, herself. She also got recommendations for three or four men who helped with the excavation. “People you would trust to put a girl with,” says Ana.

Besides UC's fine geology faculty, Mark Bowers of UC's Civil and Environmental Engineering Department has assisted Ana in her research. David Keefer, of the U.S. Geological Survey, is on Ana’s doctoral committee. He, himself, is studying the effects of El Niño events using archaeology as a proxy. “He is trying to date the artifacts and then [use them] to construct the record of floods in southern Peru. Ryan Williams, at the Field Museum of Chicago, and Antonio Oquiche and all the staff from Museo Contisuyo-Moquegua, Peru, were also of great help."

Ana worked closely with the Contisuyo museum, where they put together a lab space and a computer for her. The museum director even jumped to her rescue one day by taking Ana to the doctor when she got sick. Chris Dayton, a doctoral student in archaeology from Boston University, even offered to take her to the sites she needed to visit. He told her “I can take you there, then run around and do my own work.”

“I spent most of the time walking around the hills and slopes. It takes weeks — every set of terraces takes a week to do,” Ana says. “I take geological samples. I then use labs over here [in the United States] to determine erosion rates using cosmogenic radionuclides.” Then she tries to corroborate currently developed models of landscape evolution with her actual data for studying hill erosion or to build a new model for landscape erosion.

“That model would then be available for public use,” Ana says. When she is through with her research, she hopes to give a copy of her findings to the Contisuyo museum. “You cross your fingers and hope that no one else comes up with your findings.”

After Ana earns her doctoral degree from UC, she is not sure what she wants to do. “I’ve been debating whether to teach in a research institution in Colombia or to work for a consulting firm.

Doctoral student and Shlemon recipient Ana Londono will be again presenting at the Geological Society of America (GSA) conference. This year’s conference takes place in Philadelphia, Oct. 22-25. As such, she is continuing a long tradition: UC geologists at GSA.

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