Maoi, Easter Island

Meet the Expert: Annette Kühlem

Zegrahm Expeditions|August 12, 2020|Blog Post

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Annette Kuhlem

Where are you from and where have you lived?

I am from Germany, but I grew up in the Dominican Republic, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast. I lived in Santiago de Chile for 5 years and am currently living between Bonn, Germany and Bozeman, Montana. 

Tell us about yourself—what path led you to becoming a Zegrahm Leader?

It was one of those unexpected turns of fate… I was filming for a BBC documentary at our excavation site on Easter Island with my dear friend and looong-time Zegrahm leader, Edmundo Edwards. While the film crew was getting their best possible shots, we sat to the side staring at the ocean and philosophizing about all the remote places in the Pacific where we would like to do research. For me, one of those places was Pitcairn Island. Not so much for the descendants of the mutineers of the Bounty but for the archaeology. Before the mutineers made it there, the island had been inhabited by Polynesians who at some point abandoned the island. Hardly anything is known about the reasons why and that is mainly due to the fact that Pitcairn is so hard to get to for researchers. Much to my surprise Edmundo told me that he would go there in a couple of months, and that he, in fact, goes all the time…I have to admit that I was a bit incredulous—who goes to Pitcairn “all the time”? This is when I first heard about Zegrahm Expeditions and the amazing trips they do. Edmundo said he would talk to the director of staffing, dear Lisa Wurzrainer, to see if I could join the upcoming trip from Tahiti to Easter Island—via Pitcairn! Three months later I joined my first ever expedition as a lecturer. And my world has become so much richer for it.

What other jobs, positions or credentials do you have?

I am a research archaeologist for the Institute for Ecosystem Research at the Kiel University, Germany and the deputy project director for the German Expedition to Easter Island of the German Archaeological Institute. I have a Masters in archaeology, ethnology, and political sciences and a Ph.D. in archaeology. And on the side, whenever my travels allow it, I’m a horse trainer and a dressage teacher.

What other fields are you passionate about ?

Archaeology has become such an interdisciplinary subject that includes many fields of the natural sciences like geology, geomorphology, and ecology to name a few. All these have become disciplines that I include in my research and into the interpretation of the results. They have added immense possibilities and insights. 

Without a doubt, anthropology is deeply entangled with archaeology, so I am very passionate about including the aspects of ethnology into my work. The areas I work in are still home to indigenous communities that are very much alive and dynamic and that have their place in modernity. It is important to take their realities and points of view into account and not only focus on the archeological data. Archaeology and anthropology really cannot be teased apart in the areas in which I do research.

One thing I am particularly passionate about is sharing research results with the people who live in the areas in which I work. Very often in the past, scientists have done their scientific investigations and then left, while the people of the research area never found out anything about the results. To me it is a question of respect to make our data accessible to the public in the respective countries where we work. Not only is it the right thing to do when investigating cultural heritage, but it also has a big contribution to capacity building. Our excavation projects are always field schools for local archaeology students, and I have done many site visits and workshops with local school kids and young adults, as well as lectures for the public, and interviews on local radio and tv channels. There is nothing better to safeguard cultural heritage than to get the local population excited about it.

Do you have any awards, publications, appearances, documentaries, etc.?

I held a research scholarship from the German Archaeological Institute for three years for my research on the Marquesas Islands, I have published a number of papers in scientific journals, conferences volumes, and edited volumes. I am the co-editor of two books and published my first monography about archaeology in the Bolivian Amazon in 2017.

I have a couple of interviews in popular scientific journals like Sciences et Avenir, Rapa Nui Journal, Archäologie Weltweit, and Hi’roa. I’ve been interviewed in the BBC documentary Mysteries of a Lost World about new research on Easter Island and the France 5 documentary Île de Pâques—L’Heure des Vérités, and some local productions on Easter Island.          

What excites you (or what do you enjoy) about working for Zegrahm?

The wonderful people you get to work and travel with and the amazing places you get to see and experience. It’s such a privilege to be able to travel to so many remote destinations and at the same time share my enthusiasm for the local cultures and history and contribute to the understanding of human/ecosystem interrelations. The guests and my fellow staff members are just wonderful. It really is an atmosphere of working with friends. What could be better than sharing all the amazing things this world has to offer with your friends? Operations-wise it doesn’t get better than Zegrahm. I don’t even want to imagine what we would all miss out on if it weren’t for the highly professional planning and leadership, the small groups, the excellent Zodiac drivers, and all the knowledgeable staff and superb local guides.

What is your favorite Zegrahm memory?

There are so many things that come to mind. Two are from my very first trip. At Hiva Oa, in the Marquesas Islands, we were woken by an announcement at 6:00 am. There were more than a hundred manta rays feeding in the bay where we were anchored. We all got into the Zodiacs with our snorkel gear and spent an hour in the water with those magnificent animals. They didn’t seem bothered by us at all and peacefully glided through the water, disappearing in the depth, doing barrel rolls, and cutting the water surface. By the time breakfast was served we had already had an absolutely breathtaking experience.

My first landing at Pitcairn Island is another favorite Zegrahm memory. Only after talking to the islanders did I realize how fortunate we were because so very few vessels actually manage to bring their passengers ashore. A conversation about Pitcairn had been how I heard about Zegrahm in the first place. Three months later I was setting foot on that island that is best-known for the mutineers of the Bounty, whose descendants still live there today. I am very interested in the archaeological remains of Pitcairn. Unlike Easter Island for example, where Polynesians have constantly adapted to new ecological challenges and came up with new technologies to cope with environmental strain, Pitcairn at some point in prehistory was abandoned by its first Polynesian settlers. Most likely the scarcity of drinking water made it impossible for people to survive here. The first time I climbed down the cliff at Down Rope to see the Polynesian petroglyphs was an unforgettable memory. I was able to take beautiful photos of these reminders of the ancient inhabitants of Pitcairn.

Another one was on Tufi Island in Papua New Guinea where we were taken up the winding rivers by local outrigger canoes to a clearing in the dense forest. It was raining and the foliage was dripping all around us as we huddled under huge banana leaves. The dances, the drums, the singing, the beautiful costumes, all of it contributed to a magical atmosphere where I really felt like we had delved into another world. It felt like we were a part of the adventure novels I loved to read as a kid.

Pitcairn Island

Can you tell us about a time that you were on an expedition that ended up taking an unexpected turn or made an unexpected discovery that took you off the planned trail?

What’s so great about Zegrahm, is that every trip has something unexpected! And the Expedition Leaders always do their very best to make sure that everyone can experience that. If there are whales, we stop and take the time to watch them; if there are mantas feedings around the ship at 6:00 am, the Zodiac drivers are ready to take the snorkelers out to get in the water with them; if there is a band playing at a market, there will be time to enjoy it and to interact with the local people.

Though one particular thing that comes to mind happened on my first Zegrahm trip from Tahiti to Easter Island. We were sailing from Puka Puka to Puka Rua in the Tuamotus. During recap, the Expedition Leader announced that there will be a lunar eclipse at 3:00 am. With crystal clear skies and no light-pollution whatsoever it was the best setting to see the moon slowly disappear behind the shadow of the earth. It was absolutely beautiful and an unforgettable experience.

And—feeding a pet cassowary (Kris) in Kopar village at the mouth of the Sepik river was definitely a unique experience that I hadn’t planned on when getting out of bed that morning!

What are your top three countries or regions in the world to explore?

West Africa! I grew up there and as a family we traveled a lot, but there is so much more to see. Not only the diverse history and culture but also the natural wonders like the dense rainforests, sacred islands, their unique fauna, and beautiful beaches. The cities and small towns are bustling and vibrant and a fascinating amalgamation of different cultures, religions, and traditions. The modern art scene is truly innovative and creative and an expression of the pride especially of the young people and their African heritage. You will have a hard time finding friendlier and more positive people than in West Africa.

Antarctica. I am fascinated by the fact that we have an entire continent on our planet where the human footprint is still so minimal. Nowhere have I seen whiter snow and clearer water than here. Nowhere else are the animals so unused to the concept that humans could mean harm to them. The amount of wildlife is astonishing, and the scenery is just breathtaking. With the daylight hours being so long during the southern summer, there is something truly wonderful to see nearly 24/7.

Polynesia. There are so many reasons why Polynesia is one of the best places in the world to explore. Settling the Polynesian islands was the last big wave of the human colonization of this planet. It was only possible because the Polynesians were the most skilled seafarers of their time. When sailing the huge distances between all those remote and diverse islands we are constantly reminded of the amazing accomplishments and the courage of those master navigators. Even though we can find common denominators that are typically Polynesian on all the islands, the cultural diversity and the many forms of adaptation to the different island environments make it such a fascinating place to explore. Apart from the cultural aspects, it is one of the most interesting regions from an ecological point of view. The remoteness of the islands led to a high degree of endemism, a fact that especially birders will thoroughly enjoy. At the same time, the unparalleled degree of Polynesian introduction of plants have altered the biodiversity and changed the ecosystems significantly.

Local Children in Polynesia

What's left on your explorer's bucket list/where do you still want to go that you haven't been yet? Why there?

Considering that I have been to so many remote places, it is almost a bit embarrassing that I haven’t seen so much of what’s really close to home. In Europe that’s pretty much everything. For example, I haven’t been to Greece or Turkey. Both are absolute must-sees for every archaeologist. But apart from archaeological remains, the Greek islands must be absolutely beautiful, the food to-die-for, and the people just lovely.

In Turkey apart from famous sites like Göbeklitepe, Pergamon, and Troy, I would love to spend some time in Istanbul for its rich history and its fascinating tapestry of tradition and modernity, different religions, cultures, foods, music, and arts.

Also, I haven’t been to the High Arctic. I would love to see the amazing landscapes and the unique fauna—especially polar bears.

 What does being a part of the Zegrahm family mean to you?

Working for Zegrahm means working with friends. Incredibly talented, professional, and knowledgeable friends who enjoy what they are doing. The fact that everyone is so good at their job means that everyone gets the best experience. The enthusiasm and dedication of the Zegrahm family is felt every step of the way and is infectious, making every trip not only an amazing journey but also a really fun time.

Who is the Zegrahm Explorer/Traveler?

Whether we are talking about guests or staff, everyone on a Zegrahm trip shares a deep enthusiasm for adventure, for exploration, and for the wonders of the world. We all seize every opportunity to expand our horizons, deepen our understandings and knowledge, and make the most out of every situation. The Zegrahm explorer is defined by an open mind and an open heart.