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Challenges Publié le 19 août 2019

The Acali experiment: An anthropological laboratory set amid the solitude of the sea

Anthropologist Santiago Genovés studied human behavior using a sailboat as a lab travelling across the ocean. In the seventies, that lab became a milestone in search of the origins of violence.

Human beings have always had the urge to know themselves. That is why, for centuries, they have been studying their origin, variability and ways of behavior, both as individuals and as a community. For some time now, we have known these studies as Anthropology. Their way of approaching human matter has always been diverse. However, very few anthropological experts studied human beings in the way Santiago Genovés did: pushing boundaries in the middle of the sea.

 

The Human Experiment

Genovés was a member of Mexico’s first generation of physical anthropologists, having both a bachelor’s degree and a doctorate in Cambridge. His subject of study was violence. He became world-renowned for the transoceanic project that led five men and six women to embark on an experimental journey. Genovés designed that journey to last 101-days trip so that travelers, confined to a sailing raft named Acali, would have to face situations of conflict and tension. Aggression was not ruled out, and all reactions were amplified by constant and forced isolation. Travellers volunteered as ginea pigs, trapped in a cage that sailed across the ocean.

Most experts in this discipline explain that the anthropological question is, first and foremost, a question about the Other. By this, they mean that it is only in opposition to others that a person shapes his or her behaviour and identity. In order to prove that, Genovés decided to isolate a group of people and subject them to extreme conditions. Circumstances that would allow him to evaluate human behavior and social relationships thoroughly. He hoped that the data obtained during the experiment would provide him with valuable information for other anthropologists, psychologists and sociologists. Not only did he devise the experiment, but also he was part of it as well: the observer was another guinea pig. Genovés took personal notes during the transoceanic voyage, and the crew provided 46 testimonies about onboard relationships, sexual behaviour, religion, aggression and moral issues.

 

In 1973, the raft left Las Palmas (Spain) for Cozumel (Mexico), with a single stopover in Barbados. The raft had a sail as its only source of propulsion, a kitchen, an open-air toilet (visible to all people), a small cabin where everyone slept together and two lifeboats. It was a house on the water, which is actually what the name Acali means in the Nahuatl language. But a house small enough to prevent intimacy, caused discomfort and created conflict. Thus, the crew would be was exposed to situations that Genovés had anticipated, who sought to analyze in depth the relationship of man with his tendency to conflict and the search for power as the main factor of violence.

 

An atypical character

Genoves’s challenging experiment is no coincidence was not by chance. Genovés had previously experienced some hard situations himself. He outlived the Spanish Civil War and, at the age of 15, fleeing his native country, he was arrested in France and held with in a concentration camp with his family. Those extreme experiences probably awakened his passion for studying human behaviour, social relations and violence.

 

His other passion was the sea. In 1969, he embarked on an adventure that many would consider far-fetched, proving the navigation techniques of Egyptian ships were advanced enough to cross the Atlantic and reach American soil. Since there was no better way to prove it than through experience, he joined the team of the Norwegian anthropologist and navigator, Thor Heyerdahlse as part of the crew of two papyrus boats: the Ra I and Ra II, replicas of the ancient Egyptian vessels that would depart from Morocco for America. Unfortunately, the Ra I was shipwrecked after a strong storm, almost two months after its departure. However, the fate of the Ra II was different as it managed to cross the Atlantic and reach Barbados after covering 3,000 miles in 57 days.

 

On that trip, Heyerdahlse proved papyrus ships were strong enough to cross the Atlantic. Genovés, on the other hand, discovered the potential of boats and navigation as the ideal environment for assessing human behaviour. In his words, those conditions provided “the best isolated, inescapable laboratory for studying human behaviour and relationships related to conflict”. And it was then that he began to develop his project: he summoned people of different ethnicities, professions, religions and nationalities and selected eleven of them to be part of the crew of the Acali raft.

 

Creating a climate of constant tension

Creating a group that would be as explosive as possible was the experiment’s aim. Most of the men and women participating were married with children, although they took the trip alone. Apart from Genovés, the crew consisted of a Swedish captain, a Jewish doctor, a Japanese photographer, a Greek cook, an Algerian priest, an American sailor, an African American woman, an Algerian Arab woman, a Uruguayan anthropologist and a French scuba diver.

 

Apart from that, Genovés decided to give the most important roles of the boat to two women. Maria Bjornstan was the only professional navigator on board and the captain of the ship. Edna Jonas was the only doctor. Decisions that would undoubtedly cause discomfort among the crew. In order to refine the analysis, all the members of the group were subjected to clinical tests, and psychiatric and graphological examinations. Thus, Genovés detailed a profile of each member of the crew and elaborated a prognosis about the social relations established during the journey.

 

Once on board, people faced different unusual situations. For instance, they needed to do their needs out in the open, in front of everyone, and also distribute the tasks on board. Interestingly, when each conflict seemed to become more intense, the group managed to solve it. After a month, Genovés wrote in his notes that “On board the group is developing certain ‘sense of fellowship’, liberal and healthy, but quite empty”. There was even a time when the crew concluded that Genovés was their biggest problem, as they had developed strategies to continually unleash the conflict on the ship.

 

A milestone of great interest occurred when one of Acali’s rudder blades came loose. Despite the danger posed by sharks in that part of the ocean, Genovés intervened to inspect the damage. Suddenly, everyone knew exactly what they had to do and so they quickly solved the problem. The anthropologist’s question was then posted in written form: Are life-threatening situations necessary for the crew to develop team spirit?

 

The Acali raft experiment received fierce criticism, but for Genovés it was a highly satisfactory job. He believed he found the “new man”, who was “free from all fateful territorial ambitions and all aggressive or sadistic impulses”. He considered his experiment made an important contribution to human coexistence, since it led to an important conclusion: that the origin of violence is not biological but cultural.

 

The experiment had an enormous repercussion in the media, especially among the yellow press. Acali was nicknamed as “the sex raft”, because people only saw a group of adults sharing a narrow space. Nevertheless, Genovés did not seem to care much about their point of view: this navigation was one step further in the quest of his humanistic vision and in his defense of the human being as a non-violent specie.