Anthropologist killed in crash left NY for jungle adventures

AP News
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Posted: Jul 25, 2015 8:57 AM

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — During her nearly quarter-century living in one of the most remote places on earth, Nancy Sullivan explored crocodile-infested rivers, endured numerous bouts of malaria and advocated for tribal societies threatened by encroaching development.

Her 24 years as an anthropologist in Papua New Guinea was a big change for the Westchester-born, Ivy League-educated former artist who ditched the galleries of Manhattan for the dugout canoes and jungle trails of a southwest Pacific island nation where tribes still adhere to customs thousands of years old.

"We always joked about it: Scarsdale girl ends up at end of the earth, in the jungle," brother Jeffrey Sullivan, told The Associated Press on Friday.

His 57-year-old sister was killed the night of July 16 when her rental SUV slammed into a rock embankment along the Taconic State Parkway about 70 miles north of New York City. Nancy Sullivan's three adoptive grandsons — ages 5, 8 and 10 — and the boys' 43-year-old nanny were injured.

Jeffrey Sullivan said the group was heading to his family's summer cottage on Lake Champlain in Vermont when the crash occurred. He said investigators told him they're looking into whether driver fatigue or a deer or another animal in the road led to the accident, but state police have only said the cause of the crash remains under investigation.

The crash ended the life of a woman who rose to prominence working to preserve Papua New Guinea's tribal cultures and protect its environment from logging and mining operations.

"She realized early on she couldn't be an observer," said her brother, 59, a managing partner of a Westchester-based financial services firm.

Nancy was the middle of three children born to a Wall Street executive and his wife and was raised in Scarsdale, the tony suburb north of New York City. Sullivan received an undergraduate degree in politics from Princeton in 1980, then earned a masters in arts from Hunter College in Manhattan. After a few years working as an artist in the city, she resumed her education at New York University, where she earned a doctorate in anthropology.

Her brother said Sullivan's mentors at NYU urged her to head to Papua New Guinea, where she started her own anthropological consulting firm, a job that took her into the island's mountainous, jungle interior.

Sullivan spent much of the past decade working to document and preserve an extensive cave art system in the island nation's Karawari region, where the images drawn on walls date back thousands of years. She was a Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundation fellow, and she received $70,000 in grants from the National Geographic Society for her cave art work, according to the Washington, D.C.-organization.

Paul Barker, executive director of the Papua New Guinea's Institute of National Affairs, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.'s Radio Australia that Sullivan was "an incredibly energetic, vivacious, enthusiastic person" who was "a force to be reckoned with by those who faced her."

"She'll be remembered by many Papua New Guineans for her drive, her zeal, her big heart, her warmth," he said, "and as a sort of almost an iconic figure who swept in 30 years ago and then embraced a lot of people's lives across all spectrums of the community."

John Douglas, an environmental services consultant from New Zealand who knew Sullivan, said she was a "high-energy, competent, hard-working" anthropologist who leaves behind "many, many friends."

"She was clearly intelligent and very passionate about social issues, especially when she saw looming exploitation of the local indigenous people," Douglas said in an email to the AP.

Jeffrey Sullivan said his sister had no biological children but adopted nine children she met in villages in Papua New Guinea over the years. He said the boys injured in the crash are the sons of one of her adopted sons. All three boys were hospitalized at a Westchester hospital. The boys' nanny was released from a hospital Thursday.

As per her wishes, Nancy Sullivan's body will be cremated, with her ashes to be spread both at her family's summer cottage and in Papua New Guinea.