Amazonian studies—and realities—have changed a lot since Farabee’s time. Today there are many more grassroots political movements and organizations and greater self-determination among indigenous groups, political and cultural revival efforts, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) fueling efforts economically, culturally, and environmentally. And we now have native ethnography, in which people are studying and recording their own indigenous culture, adds Penn’s Greg Urban.

A cultural anthropologist specializing in Amazonian languages and cultures, Urban lived for three and a half years among the Laklano and Kaingang peoples of southern Brazil, who speak languages within the Jê language family. Unlike Farabee, he and his wife stayed in one place, learning to live as locals.

Farabee “was at the tail end of the explorer-anthropologist [era],” says Urban. “His books are incredibly invaluable because he may have been the first person to go and describe what he saw, but the depth of any group was missing.”

“I think his [greatest contribution was the] documentation of a number of different tribes on the Amazon and its tributaries at a time when their life ways were rapidly vanishing,” adds Howard University’s King. “His holistic anthropological approach—recording everything from physical anthropological characteristics to language to culture and even archaeology (he dug at Marajó) is illustrative of the early days of professional anthropology in this country.”


“My dear Dr. Gordon,” wrote Sylvia Farabee from Ica, Peru, on June 8, 1922, “Mr. Farabee is here very ill with inflammatory dysenteria. He took sick in the interior one hundred and fifty four miles away. As there was no physician he had to come here. He rode on horseback fifty-two miles the first day, then went to bed and sent for an automobile which arrived three days later. He has had an awful journey in a Ford car over the trail of the Pampa Huahuari to Ica a distance of one hundred miles where he arrived more dead than alive. Doctor says if he had been two days later he could not have saved his life.”

Farabee had been excavating a Nazca archaeological site in Peru when he fell ill. From Ica he went on to Arequipa and then to Juan Fernandez Island, all in pursuit of suitable places to recover his health. Aware that he was not strong enough to make further expeditions of any great physical challenge, he made one more journey, to collect ethnographic information about the Araucanian natives in central Chile, before boarding a ship to Philadelphia where he arrived in the spring 1923.

Doctors determined he had a “pernicious anemia” that had settled into his body, most likely from his bout with diphtheria. Farabee’s efforts to reclaim his health continued for two years, and included receiving around 35 blood transfusions. Before he fully retired to his home in Washington, Pennsylvania, where he was born and had grown up, he spent some time in West Virginia, living as simply as possible. His obituary in Washington’s newspaper, the Observer, described that as a time “when he roamed through the fields, hunting and fishing, wearing only a breechcloth, such as was worn by the aborigines.” It makes one wonder if Farabee felt betwixt and between after so much time in another part of the world, if he was trying to capture what he had lost. Though he regained some strength from that time, when he returned to the museum his health soon took another turn for the worse. He died on June 24, 1925.

Though Farabee is relatively unknown now except to anthropologists who study South America, he was viewed as a prominent figure in the field at the time of his death. Newspapers across the country, from Philadelphia and New York, to Boston, to Columbia, South Carolina, ran respectful obituaries. Many made the point that he gave his life for his work—and he did.

Beebe Bahrami Gr’95 is currently researching a book, The Spiritual Traveler—Spain: A Guide to Sacred Sites and Pilgrim Routes, due out March 2009 from HiddenSpring Books (Paulist Press).

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

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Top: A man of the Mapidian tribe, one of the groups Farabee met in the Amazon region, aims his bow and arrow at a fish in the water. Above: Farabee poses with several residents outside a Mapidian village home.

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