Photograph courtesy Agustín Fuentes
Birthplace: Santa Barbara, CA, USA
Home: Mishawaka, Indiana, USA and Los Angeles, California, USA
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
As a kid I wanted to be a novelist, a biologist, a secret agent, a leader in global change, an athlete, a musician, and more ... and as an anthropologist I actually get to be at least a few of those things. Today I write articles, books, and even blogs and travel the world looking at the behavior and biology of monkeys and humans. Hopefully, I will also contribute, even if just a bit, to a better future for the other primates that share human spaces and places.
How did you get started in your field of work?
My love for studying monkeys—and humans—emerged when I took an amazing set of classes in anthropology and zoology as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley. There was one particular class, with Prof. Phyllis Dolhinow, my eventual graduate advisor, in primate behavior that opened my eyes to the world of primates and the fact that the study of our behavior and evolution is extremely complicated and amazingly interesting. I luckily had the opportunity to participate in research projects as an undergraduate, and once I got a taste of data collection and fieldwork, I knew I was hooked.
What inspires you to dedicate your life to anthropology?
Humans are changing the planet faster than we can study it—or ourselves. If we are to continue to coexist successfully with each other and with other life-forms on this planet, we need to figure out how to get along in a sustainable and mutually beneficial fashion. Working at the interface of humans and other animals is one place where I can make a positive contribution to our shared futures.
What's a normal day like for you?
During the school term I spend the day in the classroom lecturing or in the lab working with students and analyzing data. If I'm in the field I get up early and head out to the forest, or an urban jungle, and spend the day watching monkeys and people do their thing. Some days you can find me working alongside my partner developing and creating horror films. Regardless of where I am I almost always spend at least a few hours reading and writing.
What's been your favorite experience in the field? Most challenging?
I love watching monkeys. It is like being in another world, seeing life through the eyes of another species. Spending the day up on the Rock of Gibraltar, in the urban-forest interface in Singapore, or watching a group of macaques forage, groom, fight, and play together is incredible. Immersing myself, via observation and data collection, into their lives is always an amazing experience.
While there have been many challenging experiences in the field, my dissertation research on the extremely remote Mentawai Islands was the most difficult. Spending months and months clambering through dense, and frequently spiny, forests avoiding poisonous snakes and acid-spitting ants while trying to watch a small group of monkeys that spend nearly all of their time more than 70 feet up in the trees was daunting to say the least.
What are your other passions?
I love to read, and learn, whenever and whatever I can. I also truly enjoy cooking, wine, movies, art museums, and travelling.
What do you do in your free time?
I'm lucky enough to make a living doing what I love to do. Whether I am following monkeys in the field, lecturing in the classroom, writing an article, reading a book, cooking a meal, watching a movie, or enjoying a leisurely afternoon walk, I try to make all of my time "time well spent."
If you could have people do one thing to help create a more sustainable future for other primates, what would it be?
Educate themselves about the global realities of human exploitation of the planet and try to find a local way that they can make the human presence in the world a little bit more sustainable.
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Read Fuentes's blog for Psychology Today.
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In Their Words
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National Geographic Weekend
Listen to Agustin Fuentes
Hear an interview with Fuentes on National Geographic Weekend.
00:09:00 Agustín Fuentes
Sometimes Agustín Fuentes’ work literally is a barrel full of monkeys. Fuentes, a biological anthropologist at the University of Notre Dame, studies the interactions of humans and primates in places where they live in close contact with one another, such as in Bali, Gibraltar, and Singapore.
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