High Altitude Archaeologist Constanza Ceruti Recounts Her Journey Since Becoming a WINGS Fellow

Photo courtesy Constanza Ceruti

Photo courtesy Constanza Ceruti

Constanza Ceruti is a high-altitude archaeologist and anthropologist who specializes in studying sacred mountains. A Scientific Investigator at the National Council for the Scientific Research in Argentina and a professor at the Catholic University of Salta, she is also the founder and ad-honorarium director of the Institute of High Mountain Research at UCASAL.

Her list of accomplishments is prodigious: she has ascended more than 100 mountains above 17,000 feet and summited peaks on every continent other than Antarctica. In 1999, she co-directed the scientific expedition to the highest archaeological site in the world. On the summit of mount Llullaillaco, at 22,200 feet, she and her team discovered the frozen bodies of three Inca children, who had been sacrificed to the gods and are considered the best-preserved mummies in existence.

Her contributions to these fields have significantly impacted many different disciplines, including Inca archaeology, Andean studies, Ethnohistory, Landscape Archaeology, Conservation of Cultural and Natural Heritage, Religious Studies, Tourism, and the recently developed field of Glacial Archaeology. She has authored more than 100 scientific publications and 25 books.

She became a National Geographic Emerging Explorer in 2005 and a laureate at the Prince of Asturius Award Ceremony in 2006. In 2007, she was inducted into the WINGS WorldQuest family of extraordinary women scientists and explorers. We recently caught up with Constanza in between expeditions to find out more about her work and perspective on women in STEM fields.

WINGS WORLDQUEST: You won the WINGS WorldQuest Courage Award in 2007. Can tell us about some of the highlights of your life and career since that time?

CONSTANZA CERUTI: Since joining the WINGS community in 2007, I have been focused on my research, writing and passion for education in the fields of high-altitude archaeology and the anthropology of sacred mountains. In 2008, I received a National Award for Academic Vocation in Argentina. In 2009 I was an invited speaker at the Women´s Forum for the Economy and Society in Deauville, France and was the first Argentinean speaker at the TED global meeting in Oxford. In 2011 I received a distinction from the authorities of the Basque Country in Spain. In 2014 I was awarded an Honorary Doctorate at the Moravian College in Pennsylvania. In 2017 I received the Gold Medal of the International Society of Woman Geographers. I have recently been elected a Member of the National Academy of Sciences in Argentina.

WWQ: Have you gone on any expedtions that you can share with us?

CC: I have gone on numerous expeditions. Virtually all my time is spent in the field. My fieldwork is not limited to the Andes, but I have been living in northern Argentina for more than 20 years.

I travel constantly as a result of speaking opportunities and invitations from international universities, and other academic reasons, and take these opportunities to ascend and study the local mountains of the places where I go. For example, in the European summer of 2019 I ascended a half-dozen peaks above 3,000 meters in the French Pyrenees and the Austrian Alps, in addition to mountains in the Dolomites, Picos de Europa, Croatia and the Basque Country.

In Corsica, I climbed the highest peak and walked with pilgrims to the nearby mountain shrine of Our Lady of Snow. I also explored the mountain chapels on the island of Elba and the baroque hilltop chapels of Portugal and Galicia – about 30 mountain ascents completed successfully in the span of a few weeks. In connection with these field activities, I coordinated a symposium on Sacred Mountains at the University of Bern, where I was invited to lecture, and participated in an International Conference of Mountains at the University of Innsbruck. I also coordinated a symposium about the pioneers of archaeology in Argentina and an interdisciplinary scientific meeting to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the discoveries on the summit of volcano Llullaillaco.

WWQ: What advice do you have for women who want to be explorers?

CC: Know yourself, be yourself, and follow your heart.

WWQ: How do you think the landscape for women working in the sciences has changed since you first became a Fellow? Do you feel women are still encountering the same obstacles?

CC: When WINGS was first conceived about two decades ago by Milbry Polk and Leila Hadley Luce, virtually no attention was being paid to women in exploration. The concept was pioneering. Today the world is very diverse, so there are areas in which considerable improvement has been made in the appreciation of women’s input to science and exploration (let’s think of the many books currently out there covering these topics). But there are places in which, sadly, there is still a lot of invisibility, indifference, lack of opportunity and even abuse.

One thing that has surely changed for good is the attitude of young women towards science and exploration. I am always very happy when I ask a young student what future career she would like to pursue, and the answer is about becoming a scientist or an explorer. This is common these days, but it was very rare at the time when I joined the WINGS WorldQuest community. I believe that institutions like WINGS, which was ahead of its time in its support and advocacy for scientists like me, are making a substantial difference in this crucial aspect of how we construct a better future.

WWQ: Has becoming a WINGS Fellow benefitted you in your career?

CC: Becoming a WINGS Fellow has allowed me to have a community of belonging. When you pursue a unique vocation and you end up becoming a trailblazer, you may temporarily find yourself in a solitary place, since no other people are doing what you do, and most people are not yet able to understand its importance. WINGS is a home for extraordinary women following unique vocations.

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