Photo: Spewing lava

The lava at Mount Nyiragongo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, is made of an alkali-rich volcanic rock; its unusual composition may be a factor in the lava's fluidity.

Photograph by Carsten Peter

Major Fields of Study for GEF Research Grants


By supporting anthropological projects, the National Geographic Society aims to contribute to our understanding of how and why human beings came to be where they are—both physically and culturally. The Society supports field research in social/cultural anthropology, biological/physical anthropology, linguistic anthropology, and archaeology (see "Archaeology" below).

Among the thousands of NGS grantees, some of the best known were anthropologists interested in the physical history of human evolution. This includes Louis and Mary Leakey, whose groundbreaking research on hominid remains in East Africa has been continued by NGS grantees Richard, Meave and Louise Leakey. In 1974, grantee Donald Johanson discovered "Lucy" — one of the most complete upright-walking human ancestors ever found. In 2000, David Lordkipanidze unearthed in the Republic of Georgia what are believed to be the remains of the earliest human ancestors to have left Africa.

Cultural anthropologist Charles Mountford's seminal studies of the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, including the landmark 1948 American-Australian Scientific Expedition into Arnhem Land, were supported by National Geographic. The Society also funded much of the work of Brazilian ethnologist Harald Schultz, whose 1962 book Hombu explored the lives of Brazilian Indians. More recently, we helped make possible Arantza Gonzalez Apraiz's study of Spain's Basque people. Gonzalez used DNA from both European Basques and Americans of Basque descent to determine Spanish Basque origins.

In 2002, Spencer Wells received a grant for his project to ascertain who the ancient Phoenicians were, how they became so advanced and if they might have traveled to the New World as many as 2,000 years before Columbus. His research combining molecular anthropology with archaeological and historical research gradually evolved into the Genographic Project here at National Geographic.

Nearly one third of all Research grants have gone toward archaeological fieldwork across the globe. Our grantees have unearthed evidence of China's earliest rice production, located ancient shipwrecks off Africa, explored Egypt's Giza plateau and much more.

The Society’s first archaeology grant went to Hiram Bingham in 1912 to excavate Machu Picchu — Peru's once-lost Inca city. Four years later, we awarded Neil M. Judd a $3,000 grant to begin his excavation of the ancient Anasazi culture's Pueblo Bonito site in New Mexico. In 1938, after receiving the first of 18 grants, Matthew Stirling ventured into the lowlands of Mexico and uncovered colossal stone heads of the ancient Olmec culture.

More recently, the Society has supported much of the work of pioneer underwater archaeologist George Bass, as well as that of another premier nautical explorer, Robert Ballard. In the 1990s, grantee William Kelso found the lost remains of the early-17th century fort at Jamestown, Virginia — the first permanent English settlement in America. His discoveries, including artifacts and human remains, are helping him and other scholars interpret a long-neglected time in colonial history. In Guatemala, grantees Arthur Demarest and William Saturno have shed new light on ancient Maya culture with their respective excavations of the ancient Maya palace at Cancuen and the murals at San Bartolo.

Ever since it supported Simon Newcomb's lunar eclipse expedition of 1900, the National Geographic Society has been an ally to astronomers. Already an eminent scientist, Newcomb traveled via steamer to Norfolk, Virginia. There, he laid sheets on a dock, using them as a "screen" across which to track the shadow of the moon as it moved across the night sky.

Since then, the Society's astronomy grants have reflected striking advances in technology. We supported the 1950s Palomar Sky Survey, a long-term project to create a comprehensive map of the visible stars in the universe. More recently, we funded Jay Pasachoff's ongoing study of solar eclipses, Tom Gehrels's investigations of Earth-crossing asteroids, Pascal Lee's "Mars on Earth" studies at Canada's Haughton meteorite impact crater, Daniel Durda's search for "vulcanoids" (small asteroids thought to circle the sun) and Leslie Young’s monitoring of the 2011 Pluto occultation.

Nearly half of all Research grants go to projects within the biology discipline, including fields such as behavioral ecology, botany, genetics, marine biology and primatology. Among our better known biology grantees are such respected names as Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey. In addition to primate research, the Society has supported Eugenie Clark's deep-sea investigations, Jared Diamond's work with Pacific island birds, John Terborgh's ecological studies of the tropics of Central and South America and Alwyn Gentry's study of plant life in the Amazon.

More recently, grantee Philip DeVries's work in Ecuador's rain forest has revealed the symbiotic relationship between ants and nymphalid caterpillars. Joydeep Bose is studying the ability of India's endangered Phayre's leaf monkey to adapt to its increasingly fragmented habitat. Scott Mori's work in French Guiana has revealed the crucial role of bats in regenerating rain forests — and thereby maintaining plant and animal diversity.

In 1998, Oliver Phillips's NGS-supported study showed that mature rain forests in the Amazon have become more massive over the past 20 years. Today, Phillips's work continues, as he investigates the long-term global-warming implications of this finding.

While geography is in some way represented in every National Geographic Research grant, geography as a distinct discipline has been supported throughout the Society’s century-plus history. In fact, geographical expeditions received the majority of our earliest grants.

Most of the Society’s first grants were for geographical exploration, including Israel C. Russell's 1890 mapping expedition of the area of Mt. St. Elias, Robert E. Peary's 1909 expedition to the North Pole and Roald Amundsen's 1914-15 explorations of the South Pole. Such expeditions helped shape what the National Geographic Society would become.

Later NGS-supported expeditions — such as Richard E. Byrd's unprecedented 1929 flight over the South Pole and Albert W. Stevens and Orvil A. Anderson's 1935 balloon flights to explore the upper atmosphere — further solidified the Society's identity as an organization seeking to better understand our world.

More recently, we have funded Michael J. Watts's study of the impact of oil exploration in Africa and Sally P. Horn's climate studies of ice age glaciers in the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica. Using space-based radar systems, GIS (geographical information systems) and remote sensing, grantee Barry Haack is studying the effect of urban expansion on Kathmandu's infrastructure and the area's natural environment. Likewise, CRE grantee Qihao Weng is using satellite data and field surveys to investigate the impact of rapid urbanization on China's Zhu River (Pearl River) Delta.

In 1902, National Geographic made it possible for Robert T. Hill of the U.S. Geological Survey to travel to the Caribbean island of Martinique to investigate the effects of Mont Pelée's eruption (one of the deadliest of the 20th century). Since then the Society has supported investigations into many earth-based phenomena, such as volcanoes, earthquakes and glaciers.

Serendipitous discoveries and the interweaving of disciplines were especially evident with a geology grant given in 1975 to Walter Alvarez, son of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Luis Alvarez. While exploring sediments in southern Italy and Corsica, Walter Alvarez made observations that led him and his father to a breakthrough theory. Alvarez pioneered the now widely held view that dinosaurs became extinct as a result of a collision of a large asteroid or meteorite with the Earth.

National Geographic also helped fund Harald Sigurdsson's studies of Earth's volcanoes, Robert Palmquist's history of landslides in Wyoming and Stuart Hurlbert's investigation into the cause of ancient Andean ice islands. Through such projects, the Society attempts to shed light on global environmental change — past and present.

With names such as Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Robert Ballard, National Geographic Society’s Research grantees have made vital contributions to our understanding of the oceans — and continue to do so. Among oceanography's best known NGS grantees is William Beebe, who in 1934 completed a record-breaking descent inside a heavy steel ball called a bathysphere. Even more famous are the exploits of Cousteau, who received 38 grants from National Geographic between 1952 and 1967. On a number of occasions, Cousteau collaborated with another NGS grantee, Harold "Doc" Edgerton, who pioneered high-speed flash photography, making possible his famous photos of the crown-like splash of a milk drop and a bullet passing through an apple, among others. Edgerton worked with Cousteau in developing techniques for underwater photography, including the groundbreaking use of sonar to decipher the depths.

NGS grantee Robert Ballard would further develop the use of sonar technology camera-equipped, remotely operated vehicles. Such machines made possible stunning real-time video, which Ballard used to make deep-sea discoveries — including his discovery of the wreck of Titanic.

Gilbert Voss, the recipient of more than a dozen grants during the 1960s, was one of the first scientists to discover the damage being done to many of the world's coral reefs.

More recently, grantee Craig Smith has investigated "communities" of whale skeletons in the North Pacific that offer habitats to more than 40 animal species. Barbara Block's satellite tagging of Atlantic bluefin tuna has shed light on this animal's behavior — as well as on the causes of its decline.

Research grants for paleontology have helped shed light on the very beginnings of life on our planet and how it has evolved over time.

Our grants have brought to light everything from Madagascar's giant lemur to the earliest grasses found in what is now Nebraska and Kansas. In 1982, grantees Patricia Vickers Rich and Tom Rich received their first grant to excavate remains of dinosaurs that had lived under polar conditions in early cretaceous Australia. In 2001, grantee Xu Xing discovered in China the oldest fossil of an oviraptor yet found — a strange bucktoothed dinosaur he named Incisivosaurus.

Working in Niger in 2000, Paul Sereno unearthed "SuperCroc," one of the most complete specimens of Sarcosuchus imperator (one of the largest crocodilian species to have ever lived). In 2006-2007, Louis Jacobs unearthed important fossils in Angola that speak to the chronology of, and effect on, living creatures during the separation of the African and South American plates.

Major Fields of Adventure for GEF Exploration Grants

In 2000 a National Geographic grant made possible Jean-François Pernette's exploration of the unknown caves and karst formations of Chile's Ultima Esperanza region. Pernette and his multinational team confirmed the extraordinary speleological potential of this region by mapping 30 technically challenging caves. You can't ask for more adventure than chasing a tornado, as electronics engineer Tim Samaras and a team including photographer Carsten Peter did over the course of two summers. It was all part of their attempt to place "turtles" (probes that can measure a tornado's wind speed, direction, barometric pressure, humidity and temperature) directly in the path of a funnel. Surviving violent storms and bridging treacherous crevasses, Børge Ousland and Thomas Ulrich traversed Southern Patagonia's Ice Field, one of the largest expanses of ice on Earth. Grantee Jon Bowermaster's adventures have taken him sea kayaking to such diverse locations as the heart of Alaska's Aleutian Islands, the coast of Vietnam, the Tuamotu Archipelago in French Polynesia and South America's Altiplano — a massive, elevated flatland spanning portions of Chile, Argentina and Bolivia.
National Geographic grants have also supported:

  • Jenny Daltry's survey of Siamese crocodiles in the Cardamom Mountains;
  • Roman Dial's rain forest canopy treks in Australia and Borneo;
  • Mark Synnott's arduous month-long jungle adventure collecting plants and animals from the sheer rock face of the Guyana tepuis;
  • Lance Milbrand's sojourn as the only human on Clipperton atoll, among thousands of bright orange crabs and millions of seabirds.

Nilda Callanaupa, master weaver and director of the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco, headed a project highlighting the use of traditional Andean textiles in the festivities and rituals in remote communities of the Cusco region of Peru. The goal of this project was to document the production, use and significance of textiles created for indigenous Quechua Indian festivals before these Inca-based traditions become lost or corrupted. A National Geographic grant also funded the work of adventure photographer Nevada Wier, who led a team of six people hiking and rafting the length of the Blue Nile River in Ethiopia, from the headwaters at Lake Tana to the Sudanese border — a journey of some 500 miles (800 kilometers). During the month-long journey, the team encountered many people who live along the banks of the river and were offered unparalleled insight into their way of life. Karin Muller's 3,000-mile (4,800-kilometer) journey along South America's Royal Inca Highway included a wild ride in a traditional reed boat she made herself. For Muller, a frequent and popular guide on National Geographic-sponsored trips, traveling is all about making meaningful connections with the local communities she passes through.

Carsten Peter led a team of volcanologists and alpinists in exploring and photographing the explosive peaks and steam-pocked glaciers of Kamchatka, a Russian land of more than a hundred volcanoes. One project yielding impressive finds was Johan Reinhard's expedition to excavate Inca ruins on the summits of three Andean volcanoes above 18,000 feet (5,500 meters). He discovered three remarkably preserved mummies on Argentina's Mount Llullaillaco, the world's highest archaeological site. In 2001, Peter Frost led a team of archaeologists high atop Cerro Victoria in the Vilcabamba region of the Peruvian Andes to map and study the ruins of a large settlement that shows evidence of Inca occupation. German adventure photographer Carsten Peter and his team of explorers and scientists made a difficult journey through the dense jungle of Vanuatu, an island in the South Pacific to study and document two active volcanoes. The team spent two weeks surrounded by turbulent magma lakes, poisonous gases and violent storms. Luckily their treacherous, 1,000-foot (300-meter) rappels into the active volcano craters resulted in an interesting study and unique photographic coverage. Exploration-related grants also helped fund:

  • Todd Skinner's free climb of the main face of the 3,600-foot (1,100-meter)granite tower of Ulamertorsuaq in Greenland;
  • Brad Washburn's Mount Everest snow-depth expeditions;
  • Ed Viesturs's quest to climb 14 of the world's 8,000-meter (26,000-foot) peaks.

Natural History and Conservation
Wildlife Conservation Society biologist J. Michael Fay's 15-month walk through more than 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometers) of pristine central African forest — called the African Megatransect — was directly supported by a National Geographic grant. The primary goals of the expedition were to study the correlation between large-mammal abundance and human influence across the central African rain forests of Congo and Gabon as well as to evaluate other environmental and conservation issues. As a direct result of the powerful media coverage of the Megatransect, 13 national parks have been created in Gabon — an unprecedented achievement in conservation on the African continent. Another National Geographic-supported expedition located the remote birthing ground of the endangered chiru, also known as the Tibetan antelope. During a demanding 30-day trek, mountaineer and team leader Rick Ridgeway, climber Conrad Anker, wilderness photographer Galen Rowell and videographer Jimmy Chin followed a herd of female chiru through Tibet's northern Chang Tang Plateau. Photographs and footage of the never-before-documented site were used to help wildlife biologists persuade authorities to expand protected areas to include the chiru birthing ground. In 2001, British explorer John Hare followed the path of Hanns Vischer, an early explorer whose epic 1906 camel journey across the then unmapped Sahara made him one of the foremost explorers of his day. Using camels and armed with Vischer's maps and notes, Hare traveled nearly 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers) and recorded the changes that have taken place in the last hundred years to the people in northern Nigeria, Niger and Libya. As founder of the Wild Camel Protection Foundation, Hare also sought to raise international awareness of the critically endangered wild Bactrian camel. A 1999 grant given to Hare took him to Nanhu, an unexplored area of China's Gashun Gobi, to investigate and survey the Bactrian camels in that remote desert valley.

Underwater Exploration
George Bass — recipient of the U.S. National Medal of Science in 2002 in recognition of his research in the field of underwater archaeology — received two grants from National Geographic. In 2000, Bass and his team from the Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA) initiated a long-term survey of important ancient shipwrecks along the Turkish coast. One discovery — the only sixth-century B.C. wreck known in the eastern Mediterranean — is now under excavation. More recently, Bass appointed classical archaeologist Faith Hentschel to continue his underwater survey work off the coast of Turkey using the INA submersible Carolyn. Other notable grantees include:

  • Wesley "Rocky" Strong's white shark behavior study off the coast of South Africa;
  • Mike Heithaus's investigation of tiger sharks in Western Australia's Shark Bay;
  • Marine biologist Nancy Black's killer whale research off the coast of California.


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