William Curtis Farabee conducted pioneering studies of the Amazon for the Penn Museum in the early part of the 20th century. His journals and notebooks offer extraordinary glimpses of the area’s indigenous peoples, and the artifacts he brought back offer an unmatched—and still largely unexamined—treasure-trove of cultural materials. By Beebe Bahrami

In late April of 1914, six men walked out of the bush and into the streets of Georgetown, British Guiana, gaunt, fever-ridden, clothes in tatters, four not wearing much clothing at all. The four were natives of South America—two members of the Wapisiana tribe (also called Wapishana), one Taruma, and one Ataroi (also called Atorad). The other two were a Scotsman named John Ogilvie, who had settled in the region a decade-and-a-half earlier, and an American, William Curtis Farabee, a Harvard-trained anthropologist working for the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, who had been dispatched the year before to head an ethnographic and archaeological expedition to the continent. “We were declared the toughest looking men who had ever entered the city,” Farabee wrote in A Pioneer in Amazonia, his 1917 account of the expedition.

Though not much remembered today, Farabee was indeed a pioneer in studying the indigenous peoples and cultures of the Amazon. He wrote about several Amazonian peoples, offering moment-in-time glimpses of their world prior to greater contact with the Western, industrial world. He also carried out archaeological excavations, such as at Marajo Island at the mouth of the Amazon and on Nazca sites in southwestern Peru. Among the indigenous groups he met were the Wapisiana, the Macusi, the Waiwai, the Taruma, the Atarois, the Parikutu, and the Diau (all his spellings). He organized his work by linguistic families, the Arawak and the Carib language groups, publishing The Central Arawaks in 1918 and The Central Caribs in 1924. He also stopped along the way during his Amazon expedition to sketch and map petroglyphs on rocks and caves to document the past of groups that may have already perished or that offered some insight into the ancestries of contemporary groups.

Even though Claude Levi-Strauss’s book Triste Tropique, published in 1955, “is the most celebrated” study of indigenous Amazonian societies, Farabee’s work “is a major contribution; it lay the groundwork for what came after it,” says Greg Urban, the Arthur Hobson Quinn Professor of Anthropology and a consulting curator in the museum’s American Section.

Farabee had reached South America in late July 1913, arriving in Manaus, Brazil, after several mishaps with transport—a leaky ship, a resigning captain, and a drunken first-mate—and with customs officials. Traveling with Farabee from Philadelphia was a Dr. Franklin H. Church, who was interested in studying tropical diseases. Between September and November, along with a young Brazilian named Joaquim Albuquerque hired after their arrival, Farabee and Church explored Boa Vista in northern Brazil and the Rio Branco, a branch of the Amazon. From there, they pushed on into largely unexplored parts of British Guiana and northern Brazil. They headed toward Dadanawa, a settlement along the Rupununi River in south-central Guyana, then a part of British Guiana—and toward one of the great adventures of Farabee’s life.

Sept|Oct 07 Contents
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The Ethnologist Sets Out by Beebe Bahrami
Photos courtesy of the Penn Museum

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Top, left: Farabee took this photo of an anaconda
stretched across a fallen tree. Above: The ethnologist on oxback.

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Last modified 8/30/07