Southeastern Psychologist links Andes crash and survival story to human evolution in new book

Tuesday, September 10, 2013 Matt Rossano
by: Rene Abadie

HAMMOND – The story of the Uruguayan rugby team, whose airplane crashed in the Andes Mountains in 1972 and had to resort to cannibalism to survive until their rescue, has strong roots in the history of human evolution, according to a Southeastern Louisiana University psychology professor.

The 16 young men – who endured 72 days of bitter cold, a lack of food and other resources – saw their lives suddenly reduced to the basics of daily survival. The men, most of whom were members of the Old Christians Rugby Club from Montevideo, Uruguay and alumni of Stella Maris College, were on their way to play a rugby match in Chile, were the only survivors of the crash that carried 45 people, including the crew and family members. The others either died during or right after the crash or in a major avalanche that occurred several days later.

"They survived by accessing the resources of their own human legacy, which was enhanced because they were already a team," said Matt J. Rossano, author of the just published book "Mortal Rituals: What the Story of the Andes Survivors Tells Us about Human Evolution."

Rugby was introduced at Stella Maris College by the Irish priests who taught there and favored the game over the Latin American-preferred game of soccer. For this team, Rossano said, rugby was similar to a more ancestral way of thinking and prepared them for the rigors of survival. Rugby, he said, requires a smothering of the ego and complete submission into a team effort.

"Our human ancestors, Homo erectus, were odd-ball primates whose fate depended on their smarts, tools and the ability to work together," he explained. "Left on his own, Homo Erectus didn't have a chance. The group was life, while separation was a death sentence. The same applied to the Andes survivors."

He said the group was saved through teamwork, faith and a well-organized social system that was reinforced by ritual.

Rossano discusses how a hierarchy of leaders and workers was established among the group, which included two natural leaders; several lieutenants, mostly young boys who did the odd jobs assigned by the leaders; the medical crew who took care of the injured; a group he describes as "workers and parasites," the complainers who drifted into complacency and a state of constant complaining; and the expeditionaries, who would be seeking a way through the mountains for rescue.

All of them together formed a hierarchical community with the primary focus of survival, a trait likely inherited from a common ancestor to early man and all the great apes, he explained.

Rossano – who writes frequently on religion, science, evolution and human behavior – relied heavily on first-person accounts of the survival story mainly taken from the books "Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors" by Piers Paul Read and "Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek Home" by Nando Parrado, one of the survivors.

As the meager supplies in the plane dwindled, the group was forced by the circumstances to decide to break a long-standing taboo, the consumption of deceased fellow passengers.

"Then days into their survival, they confronted what had previously only been private thoughts of just cautious whispers," he said. "That was eating the dead. It eventually was suggested by one of the medical students on the team."

"Certainly this was taboo, but they had to push aside revulsions and their own deep conflicts," Rossano added. "They saw it as the only way to survive. For some of the more devoutly religious ones, it was seen as a moral duty to try to survive. That became the only relevant issue."

As all of the team members were from a Catholic tradition, they employed ritual to keep their spirits up in the face of worsening conditions. Nightly discussions and debate followed by rosary recited in unison in the fuselage of the plane helped maintain a unity of purpose, explained Rossano, author of the "Supernatural Selection: How Religion Evolved."

"This ritual meant different things to different people," he said. "For the devout, it was a heartfelt petition to their God for strength, mercy and even a miracle. For the skeptical, it was a means of mental relaxation, something that helped preserve their sanity and help them sleep. No one put himself above the ritual. The solidarity of the group was more important than any single person's doubts or misgivings about the supernatural. They used these rituals and routines to recognize their fates were interlocked. They were family."

Ritual was employed by the expeditionaries whose job it was to trek from the crash site, over the mountains in order to find help. Eight times they left the wreckage in attempt to climb the mountain peak and find the valleys of Chile. As each attempt failed, they knew they had to continue.

'Ritual can harness the mind's power to endure," said Rossano. "Their ally was their minds."

Using the ritual of focusing on one step at a time, frequently accompanied by a prayer used as a mantra, the expeditionaries pushed on. Rossano said they learned what Tibetan monks had known for centuries – which ritual can be used as a strategy for overcoming pain and as a way of increasing endurance.

"It's using the mind as a way of coping with suffering," he added. "Studies have shown that meditation can have strong positive health benefits, including lower blood pressure, reduced heart rate, and overall mental health."

Rossano said the community of survivors demonstrated a sense of self that was also known to man's ancient ancestors. "It was a sense of self, not as a separate individual agent, but as someone embedded within a tight-knit community. It was a sense of self cultivated in the game of rugby and essential to the ultimate survival," he said.

"Mortal Rituals" is heavily footnoted, referencing numerous academic sources Rossano uses in his presentation. The book was published by Columbia University Press.

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