Photos of Farabee show a stoic fellow with a magnificently thick and well-trimmed mustache, his face something of a cross between Kevin Kline and Clint Eastwood—perfect casting as a romantic explorer-scholar, going into the unknown with courage and stamina. He was already 48 years old when he took up the lead of the South American Expedition. He had been to the continent a few years earlier as part of an expedition sponsored by Harvard University, where he received his doctorate in 1903 and taught until joining the Penn Museum as head of its South American Expedition and a curator in the American Section.

Farabee’s proposed salary was $3,000 a year, to be increased to $3,500 when he returned from South America. He accepted, less for the money, one suspects, than out of a sense of moral duty—to document indigenous peoples before their cultures were more heavily altered by Western contact—and the chance for adventure.

This was an era is which museums around the country were racing to build the biggest and best ethnological, archaeological, and naturalist collections. Scholars like Franz Boas, known popularly as the “Father of American Anthropology,” George Byron Gordon, then the director of the Penn Museum, and Farabee were also greatly concerned about the vulnerable state of indigenous cultures. The Amazon had recently made its way into the international media with a scandal revolving around the atrocities of Peruvian rubber baron Julio César Arana, who was alleged to “have killed some 30,000 out of the 50,000 inhabitants of the Putumayo area,” a tributary in the Amazon, says Eleanor M. King Gr’00, an assistant professor at Howard University’s sociology and anthropology department and an archaeologist with a special focus on the history of anthropology, rainforest environments and ecology, and the Americas. “The scandal began in 1909 when a British newspaper began publishing the facts,” she explains. “A special investigation by the British was published in the summer of 1912 and in the spring of 1913 Arana was questioned [before Parliament]. By 1911, the scandal had already been rocking the international community.”

Starting in the 1850s, the Amazon was the stage of a lucrative multinational rubber boom. Its decline by the 1920s came about quickly, especially after the first successful attempt at cultivating rubber trees outside of the wild Amazon basin took hold in Southeast Asia, a market shift stimulated by the greedy maneuvers of rubber barons in Manaus, Brazil, who were pushing up prices. “There was a spectacular crash of the Manaus market in 1913 that left it a ghost town, where before it had been this extravagant, bustling, world-class city. Southeast Asian production kicked in right after the peak of Amazon rubber production in 1911,” says King.

“Back at the museum, you get Boas writing to Gordon in 1911 urging salvage ethnography of the Amazon area,” she adds. “My guess is that the need became urgent as news began leaking about what was going on down there. It was then that the Museum began planning an expedition.” Gordon recruited Farabee, whom he had known when he too was at Harvard, and by 1913, Farabee was on his way. For this three-year expedition it appears he left his wife, Sylvia, behind, though she accompanied him when he returned to South America in the 1920s.

In 1917, one year after Farabee’s return from the Amazon, he served in the U.S. Army’s Intelligence Corps. When World War I ended in 1918, “he was put in charge by Woodrow Wilson to draw up cultural maps of the world,” notes the Museum’s senior archivist, Alessandro Pezzati. Wilson appointed Farabee the lead ethnographer in the American peace commission toward this purpose. His work was used in an advisory capacity to help the diplomats who created the Treaty of Versailles determine new national boundaries, though Farabee was not a part of this latter endeavor. Pezzati considers this perhaps Farabee’s greatest contribution as an ethnographer.

After the war, Farabee returned to his curatorial post in the museum’s American section. In 1921, President Warren Harding sent him as a special diplomatic envoy to Peru, the land of his first serious South American fieldwork from 1906 to 1909. In 1922 Farabee returned again to South America for ethnological and archaeological fieldwork, this time focusing on Peru and Chile. But that would be, in hindsight, a fatal trip; during it, he contracted such a fierce tropical illness that it would unravel his health and lead to his death in 1925, at the age of 60.

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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Farabee in a formal portrait, and his wife Sylvia,
smartly turned out for a photo taken in Para Brazil.
Though she did not accompany him in 1913-16,
she was with him in 1922 when he contracted
the illness that would lead to his death.

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©2007 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 8/30/07