Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff

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Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff (March 6, 1912 – May 16, 1994) was an autodidact anthropologist and archaeologist known for his in-depth fieldwork among tropical rainforest cultures (e.g. Tucano) in Amazonia and also among dozens of other indigenous groups in Colombia in the Caribbean Coast (the Kogi Amerindians of the Sierra Nevada), as well as amon Pacific Coast, Llanos savannahs, and in the Andean and inter-Andean regions as well as in other areas of Colombia. For nearly six decades he realized ethnographic and anthropological studies, as well as archeological research, and as a scholar was a prolific writer and public figure renowned as a staunch defender of indigenous peoples. He died in 1994 in Colombia.

Early life[edit]

He was born in 1912 in Salzburg, Austria, son of the artist Carl Anton Reichel and of Hilde Constance Dolmatoff. Oriented in the classics (Latin and Greek) he did most of his high school at the Benedictine school of Kremsmunster in Austria. From 1926 until 1935, was a Member of SA, the NSDAP and SS (1926-1935). He attended classes at the Faculté des Lettres of the Sorbonne and at the University of Paris from late 1937 to 1938. Gerardo emigrated to Colombia in 1939, where the rest of his life would be spent in research and participant observation in the fields of Anthropology, Archaeology, and also in Ethnoecology.


Reichel-Dolmatoff gradually developed a keen interest for conducting fieldwork which would take him and his studies throughout the country, from the jungles of the Amazon to the mountains of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.

Some of Reichel-Dolmatoff's archeological research was essential in creating the basic chronological framework for most of the Colombian area, and is still used today.[citation needed] In a trip to the upper Meta River in the Orinoco plains in 1940, he conducted research and later published the earliest studies ever done on the Guahibo Indians. In 1943 Gerardo wrote his first article on the Muisca settlement of Soacha. That same year, together with his wife Alicia Dussan, he conducted an analysis on pre-Columbian burial urns of the Magdalena River. Working in the Tolima region inhabited by Amerindians and the renowned indigenous leader Quintin Lame, they also published a study indicating the indigenous culture of the local populations and also indicated the blood type variations among the indigenous groups of the Pijao in the Department of Tolima as further proof of their Amerindian identity as these tribes were arguing over rights to their ancestral territories.

Switching residency to the city of Santa Marta in 1946, the Reichel-Dolmatoffs created and headed the Instituto Etnologico del Magdalena and created also a small museum about the anthropology and archeology of the Sierra Nevada region. Reichel-Dolmatoff wrote a two volume monography of the Kogi Indians in the 1940s which to this day is considered a classic reference. For the next five years, Gerardo and his colleague and wife conducted research throughout the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta region, focusing particularly on the Tairona’s descendants, the Koguis, also known as the Kogi or Kaggaba, and also to the Arhuaco and Wiwa, as well as the people of Aritama (Kankuamo), and they carried out a regional study of the area covering archeology, ethnohistory and anthropology. They also did research in the Pacific coast and studied amongst others the Kuna Indians of the Caiman Nuevo River, west of the Gulf of Uraba. Several years later, Reichel also published an ethnohistorical studies and anthropological research related to the Kogi, demonstrating their connections to ancestral Tairona chiefdoms.

In the late 1950s, Gerardo and his family moved to the coastal city of Cartagena. Reichel taught classes in medical anthropology at the university there and engaged in programs of public health with an anthropological perspective. Actively involved in archeological excavations in the Caribbean region around Cartagena, on 1954, the Reichel-Dolmatoffs located and excavated, amongst others, the Barlovento site, which was the first early Formative shell-midden site found in Colombia. At Momil they conducted the first study of societies engaged in a subsistence change from shifting cultivation (manioc) to corn agriculturalists. After returning to live in Bogotá in 1960 Reichel was the founder, professor and Chair the first Department of Anthropology in Colombia, Gerardo began fieldwork at the site of Puerto Hormiga where they discovered the earliest dated pottery in all of the New World (at that time), at over 5 thousand years old- which indicated that pottery had been first developed in the Caribbean coast of Colombia and then spread elsewhere to the rest of the Americas and hence was not brought through diffusion from the Old World (Reichel see biblio). Reichel also excavated in many sites including in San Agustin Huila. He produced one of the first overviews of Colombian archeology and an interpretive framework of its pre-historic past (Colombia: Ancient Peoples and Places. Thames and Hudson. London. 1965)

In 1963, he and his wife taught anthropology courses and then in 1964 formally created the first Department of Anthropology in Colombia at the Universidad de los of the Andes in Bogota, Colombia. (Reichel 1991).Gerardo received a visiting fellowship to Cambridge University in 1970 and also later became an adjunct professor in the Anthropology Department at the University of California-Los Angeles. During the 1960s and until the mid-1990s Reichel-Dolmatoff advanced in-depth research on Amerindian shamanism, indigenous modes of life and their cosmologies and worldviews, and he also did research on entheogens, ethnoastronomy, ethnobotany, ethnozoology, and on the architecture of temples and of the Amazonian 'maloca' longhouses; additionally he did research on the shamanic symbolism of pre-Columbian goldwork, as well as other artifacts and material culture.

Reichel-Dolmatoff was a member of the Colombian Academy of Sciences, and a Foreign Associate Member of the NAS National Academy of Sciences of the United States and he was also a member of the Academia Real Española de Ciencias. He was awarded the Thomas H. Huxley medal by the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland in 1975. He was the author of 40 books and hundreds of articles all dedicated to the archeology and anthropology of Colombia and specifically highlighting the relevance of indigenous peoples of the past and present.

In 1983, he was one of the founding members of the Third World Academy of Sciences TWAS which was created and headed by Dr. Abdus Salam (Nobel Prize in Physics) with renowned scientists of the Third World who sought to focus differently on the issues of science and technology for the interests of the developing countries themselves.

While living in Colombia for over half a century, Reichel-Dolmatoff provided his professional services to the national and departmental governments, and as university professor, researcher and author to public and private universities. In 1945 he founded in Santa Marta the Instituto Ethnologico Nacional of the Magdalena, and later in the early 1950s he was a professor of Medical Anthropology at the University of Cartagena. In 1963-4 Reichel-Dolmatoff founded Colombia’s first Department of Anthropology at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogota. He occupied, amongst other positions, those of researcher and lecturer of the Instituto Etnologico Nacional and the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and he was Chair and professor of the Department of Anthropology of the Universidad de los Andes. He was also Visiting Scholar at the University of Cambridge, Visiting Professor of the National Museum of Ethnology in Japan, and was Adjunct Professor at the University of California Los Angeles. Reichel-Dolmatoff participated in numerous academic congresses and seminars and gave many conference papers in universities and international or national academic events in South America, North America and Central America as well as in Europe, Japan. In the field of Archaeology, Reichel-Dolmatoff helped define in Colombian lands the early archeological evidence of the Formative Phase based on sites excavated by him which provided the then most ancient site in all the Americas where pottery had originated over 6,000 years ago, and this research was tied also to new interpretations of the meaning and connections of the cultural evolution of Colombia with other regions of the Americas; he also researched origins of early chiefdoms and he explained the millenarian evolution of Amerindian cultures and their links to contemporary indigenous groups (including those in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, amongst others. Reichel-Dolmatoff excavated archeological sites in many regions of Colombia in the Caribbean Coast, Pacific and in the Andean and inter-Andean areas as well as in the lowland Llanos. His excavations focused mainly on house sites and refuse and garbage heaps and he avoided exploring or excavating monumental sculptures, monumental architecture and indigenous burial sites. In the field of Anthropology Reichel-Dolmatoff focused on investigating and celebrating Colombia’s ethnic and cultural diversity and especially of indigenous peoples. The scope and extent of his work and dedication to understanding, acknowledging and disseminating the importance and value of Colombia's contemporary indigenous peoples was very significant.

PART OF CONFERENCE SPPECH at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia GIVEN BY REICHEL-DOLMATOFF in 1987 ‘Today I must acknowledge that since the beginning of the 1940s, it has been for me a real privilege to live with, and also try to understand in depth, diverse indigenous groups. I noted among them particular mental structures and value systems that seemed to be beyond any of the typologies and categories held then by Anthropology. I did not find the ‘noble savage’ nor the so-called ‘primitive’. I did not find the so-called degenerate or brutish Indian nor even less the inferior beings as were generally described by the rulers, missionaries, historians, politicians and writers. What I did find was a world with a philosophy so coherent, with morals so high, with social and political organizations of great complexity, and with sound environmental management based on well-founded knowledge. In effect, I saw that the indigenous cultures offered unsuspected options that offered strategies of cultural development that simply we should not ignore because they contain valid solutions and are applicable to a variety of human problems. All of this more and more made my admiration grow for the dignity, the intelligence and the wisdom of these aborigines, who not least have developed wondrous dynamics and forms of resistance thanks to which so-called ‘civilization’ has not been able to exterminate them. I have tried to contribute to the recuperation of the dignity of the Indians, that dignity that since the arrival of the Spaniards has been denied to them; in effect, for five hundred years there has been an open tendency to malign and try to ignore the millenary experience of the population of a whole continent. But humankind is one; human intelligence is a gift so precious that it can not be despised in any part of the world, and this country is in arrears in recognizing the great intellectual capacity of the indigenous peoples and their great achievements due to their knowledge systems, which do not lose validity for the mere fact they do not adjust to the logic of Western thinking. I hope my conceptualizations and works have had a certain influence beyond anthropological circles. Maybe I am too optimistic, but I think that anthropologists of the older and new generations, according to their epochs and the changing roles of the Social Sciences, have contributed to revealing new dimensions of the Colombian people and of nationhood. I also have trust that our anthropological work constitutes an input to the indigenous communities themselves, and to their persistent effort to attain the respect, in the largest sense of the term, that is owed to them within Colombian society. I think that the country must highlight the indigenous legacy and guarantee fully the survival of the contemporary ethnic groups. I think that the county should be proud to be mestizo. I do not think that it is possible to advance towards the future without building upon the knowledge of the proper millenarian history, nor overlook what occurred to the indigenous peoples nor the black populations (Afrodescendants) during the Conquest and the Colonies, and also during the Republic and to this day. These are, in sum, some of the ideas that have guided me through almost half a century. They have given sense to my life.’


Reichel's youth's Personal life[edit]

During the 54th International Congress of Americanists held in Vienna in July 2012, the Colombian and US archaeologist and now associate professor Augusto Oyuela-Caycedo (University of Florida) presented a conference with German anthropologist Manuela Fischer and others) where they alleged having information of Reichel's youth and Oyuela has been since claiming that Reichel-Dolmatoff at age 14 in 1926 formed part of the Hitler Youth and later was SS between 1932-1935 and says he was also NSDAP member in Austria, and as a SS Sargent in Dachau (1934-1935). Oyuela-Caycedo says he has documental support from the SS file and NSDAP file of his activities, and documents from the Federal Archive in Berlin and the National Archive in Washington D.C. In the newspaper "The Third Front", published by Otto Strasser who had been a leader of the NSDAP, notes taking from a "diary" of Reichel where published in 1936. Strasser became opposed to Hitler's branch of the Nazi party after the killing of his brother Gregor Strasser in 1934, his view on the NSDAP where to the right of Hitler. According to the conference paper presented by Oyuela-Caycedo and article published in December 2012 and also in further newspaper interviews and some publications Oyuela-Caycedo continues to reiterate this about Reichel's past. Oyuela-Caycedo also says Reichel by 1936 was expelled from the SS and following a mental crisis Reichel-Dolmatoff abandoned the Nationalsocialist party and SS and left Germany and Austria, and is in 1937 later living and studying in Paris. In 1939 and advised by Professor André Siegfried, Reichel arrives to Colombia. Reichel became member and was the Secretary to the 'France Libre'/Free (1942-1943) France Movement with the help of his colleague and friend the French ethnologist Paul Rivet (see Paul Rivet in Wikipedia) who was the Delegate of the Resistance of France Libre and living in Colombia. General Charles De Gaulle later awarded Reichel-Dolmatoff with the medal of the Ordre du Mérite, by recommendation of the ultra-right archaeologist and governor of Angelia, Jacques Soustelle.wikipedia

He is buried in Medellín, Colombia.


Reichel-Dolmatoff had always stressed the importance of holistic research. By adopting the approach of consistent participant observation with the peoples he studied and was with, he was able to better grasp and later clarify the cultures, social organisation, and world views of numerous populations and especially Amerindians He very well may have been the very first anthropologist to ever ingest the entheogenic drug Banisteriopsis caapi, ayahuasca. In so doing, he partook in a sacred ritual central to the organizing principles and cosmological beliefs of many Amazonian peoples. He understood the many lessons to be learned and emulated from indigenous societies throughout the world.

Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff’s hard work and extensive studies throughout Colombia as a whole, have paved the way for many more generations of aspiring archaeologists and anthropologist. His many research and publications achievements (Oyuela-Caycedo, 1998) have earned him the title of “Father of Colombian Archaeology” — and rightly so.

Bibliography by Reichel-Dolmatoff[edit]


See also: Reichel and Dolmatov