• Real-World Geography: Dr. Daniel Torres Etayo
    Daniel Torres Etayo is an archaeologist who has uncovered Latin America's rich history from the mountains of Peru to the underwater caves of Cuba.

    Photograph by Yamila Lomba

    By Alyssa Samson

    Tuesday, July 10, 2012

    Daniel Torres Etayo is an archaeologist and a 2012 Emerging Explorer. He travels throughout his homeland, Cuba, to discover ancient artifacts left by pre-Columbian cultures that were mostly diminished by the arrival of European explorers hundreds of years ago.


    Daniel’s father is a philosopher and historian. He began telling Daniel stories of Cuba’s native people when Daniel was just six years old. Daniel grew up with tales of Spanish and other European colonialism in Latin America.

    “The role of my father is important for me in becoming an archaeologist because those talks marked my life,” he says.

    Ten years later, Daniel was already exploring the mysterious depths of Cuba’s largest cave system, mapping out hollow paths with a designated team.

    “Every population that lived there before the Europeans used the caves for everything: to live, to make a grave, to build sacred places, and to paint the walls with art.”

    Today, Daniel travels across Cuba, diving into even more caves, discovering shipwrecks and ancient burial sites, all to uncover missing links to native populations.

    “In my experience, the most interesting thing to kids is telling the history of the ancient people and to show how you get that history from the soil,” he says.


    “You have a fun time in this position. Despite all the work you have to do and all the hard times you pass with the noisy animals, you have fun. I really enjoy not just the scientific part, but traveling across my country and interacting with the local population. It’s a very valued experience and I enjoy it.”


    “In Cuba there is a lack of the resources to support the archaeology investigation. This is the most difficult part. I work with very passionate people and sometimes I have all the support of the institutions, but the budgetary issues are very cutting,” he says. 

    Daniel also adds that although most of the time his archaeology team has to use their own money towards exploration, they do it without hesitation because it’s what they love. 


    “Geography is not just the study of landscape, but the idea behind it needs to be the people of the world. Not just the beautiful mountains and rivers, because without people, the concept doesn’t have meaning.”


    Imagine discovering a shipwreck that is more than a hundred years old. How about an ancient burial site that no one has touched for almost 500 years?

    One of Daniel’s most memorable quests was traveling to the Central Andes in Peru. During his time, Daniel unearthed a small city and discovered an entirely new site, complete with both features (large, unmovable material) and artifacts.

    “I found a wall with an arrangement of stones that looked very suspicious,” Daniel says. “When I took a stone off and shined a flashlight through, I found all the mummies of the people who lived in that city during that time. It was an amazing feeling because nobody before me had seen it before me.”

    “For an archaeologist, that’s the best feeling,” he says.

    While he continues to use remote sensing technology, geographic information systems (GIS) and other sophisticated devices to hunt for the past, Daniel says that the artifacts he discovers are the voices of the people who no longer live there.


    Daniel says that the first thing to possess if interested in becoming an archaeologist is passion—passion for not just science, but also the ancient world.

     “The wonderful thing about archaeology is you can reach it in different ways. You go there by biology, geography, or chemistry. Archaeology is a very rare career because it’s social on one side and technical on the other side. You can go there by different ways,” Daniel says.


    “Supporting National Geographic is the most important thing because the resources for National Geographic and other projects can help support all of these great things.”

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    ancient Adjective

    very old.

    archaeologist Noun

    person who studies artifacts and lifestyles of ancient cultures.

    artifact Noun

    material remains of a culture, such as tools, clothing, or food.

    biology Noun

    study of living things.

    budget Noun

    money, goods, and services set aside for a specific purpose.

    cave Noun

    underground chamber that opens to the surface. Cave entrances can be on land or in water.

    chemistry Noun

    study of the atoms and molecules that make up different substances.

    colonialism Noun

    type of government where a geographic area is ruled by a foreign power.

    concept Noun


    culture Noun

    learned behavior of people, including their languages, belief systems, social structures, institutions, and material goods.

    diminish Verb

    to become smaller or less important.

    Emerging Explorer Noun

    an adventurer, scientist, innovator, or storyteller recognized by National Geographic for their visionary work while still early in their careers.

    feature Noun

    non-portable archaeological remains, such as pyramids or post-holes.

    geographic information system (GIS) Noun

    any system for capturing, storing, checking, and displaying data related to positions on the Earth's surface.

    Encyclopedic Entry: GIS (geographic information system)
    geography Noun

    study of places and the relationships between people and their environments.

    Encyclopedic Entry: geography
    grave Noun

    specific place where a body is buried.

    hesitation Noun

    pause or delay.

    historian Noun

    person who studies events and ideas of the past.

    institution Noun

    established organization or set of organizing principles.

    landscape Noun

    the geographic features of a region.

    Encyclopedic Entry: landscape
    Latin America Noun

    South America, Central America, the Caribbean, and Mexico.

    mapping Noun

    making and using maps.

    mummy Noun

    corpse of a person or animal that has been preserved by natural environmental conditions or human techniques.

    philosopher Noun

    person who studies knowledge and the way people use it.

    population Noun

    total number of people or organisms in a particular area.

    pre-Columbian Adjective

    having to do with the Americas before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492.

    quest noun, verb

    adventure or search for a goal.

    remote sensing Noun

    methods of information-gathering about the Earth's surface from a distance.

    sacred Adjective

    greatly respected aspect or material of a religion.

    shipwreck Noun

    remains of a sunken marine vessel.

    soil Noun

    top layer of the Earth's surface where plants can grow.

    sophisticated Adjective

    knowledgeable or complex.

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