Recovery of Things Past
Digital tools of modern anthropology restore a 50-year-old photographic record of a little-documented Nigerian tribe.
EVEN AS HE was developing the negatives more than 50 years ago, Paul Bohannan knew the pictures wouldn’t be great.
When you’re thousands of miles from technological civilization, you do what you can do,” the USC anthropologist explains. “In the heat and humidity of the Nigerian bush, negatives start to molder unless you develop them the same day you take them.”
In the end, nearly half the 1,200 black-and-white images that Bohannan shot during his three years among the Tiv – a rarely documented Nigerian tribe – were so murky that nobody could coax a decent print from them. Until now.
Visual anthropologist Gary Seaman, an expert in the analysis of ethnographic film, has used the latest digital techniques to rescue nearly 600 of the images once dismissed as virtually invisible. Together with Bohannan’s published research on the Tiv, the digitized images comprise a treasury of life among the slash-and-burn farmers in the last days of British colonial rule, and provide the foundation for Bohannan’s forthcoming book, The Tiv: An African People from 1949 to 1953.
Bohannan studied the Tiv, then 800,000 strong, from 1949 to 1953. Fresh out of Oxford University, he lived in a mud hut without plumbing, learned the Tiv language and documented the tribe’s customs and culture.
His photographs preserve a record of many domestic activities that the Tiv (now numbering more than 3 million) have since discontinued – using the indigo plant to dye cloth, making beds from palm fronds and hollowing out tree trunks for canoes, for example.
Since Bohannan left Nigeria in 1953, researchers have looked only at specific aspects of Tiv life – not at their culture as a whole. He remains the world’s leading expert on the culture.

SEAMAN, A PIONEER in adapting digital technology to anthropological research and co-director of USC’s Center for Visual Anthropology, used image enhancement software to heighten contrast in Bohannan’s negatives, which had been compromised by mold, primitive developing techniques and exposure to heat.
“I’m immensely grateful to Gary,” says Bohannan, an emeritus professor since 1987 and a past president of the American Anthropological Association.
“He has brought me out of one era and into another.”

– Meg Sullivan


SCRATCH AND SNIFF

You’ll have to dig a little to find it in the Bill of Rights, but constitutional scholar Erwin Chemerinsky is hot on the scent. “I think dog sniffing without any suspicion violates the Fourth Amendment,” the USC law professor recently told the Los Angeles Times. He was referring to the latest approach to ferreting out school drug use. “The Ninth Circuit says dog sniffs are a search, the Supreme Court says searches of purses and book bags require reasonable suspicion, so unless there is reasonable suspicion, [dog sniffing] is impermissible.” .




Bohannan’s restored photograph of a Tiv youth hollowing out a tree trunk to make a canoe.

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Photograph by Paul Bohannan / Illustration by Mattew Martin

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