Farabee’s surviving notes and journals from his 1913-16 South American expedition, as well as others he carried out for the Penn Museum through 1922, now reside in the museum’s archives. “We have about 30 notebooks from Farabee,” as well as other records such as correspondence, photographs, glass slides, books, and articles, says Alessandro Pezzati, the museum’s senior archivist. “His handwriting is fantastically bad, and he wrote in pencil on paper that is now brown, so the reading of them may be tedious. But they [are] fun,” Pezzati adds. “I remember one passage where he is taking pictures inside a house in Peru when an earthquake strikes, so he moves his camera under the doorway and keeps taking pictures, completely unfazed. He was a fascinating individual.”

Measuring five by seven inches, with stiff medium-brown covers and very yellow pages, Farabee’s notebooks are a delightful hodgepodge: copious notes of observed everyday life and customs, folklore, myths and legends, native drawing designs, foot and hand tracings of different individuals, physical-measurement charts, linguistic-comparison lists and graphs, notes on local cat’s cradle string-design methods that read like a knitting kit, lists of provisions (matches, 14 coats, 4 trousers, 9 shirts, 5 powder caps, knives, cups, spoons, machetes, photo materials, milk, butter, raisins, sugar, corn biscuits, pickles, jam, sausage, fruit, peas), and trade inventory (cloth, mirrors, combs, thread, buttons) and collections (combs, clubs, trays, fans, sandals, dance rattles, necklaces, whistles, feather crowns, ear ornaments, stools, sieves, graters, mortars, hairtubes, belts, baskets, arm bands, arrow point cases, cassava strainers … ). Indicating some musical training, he also includes musical notations, capturing the notes, key, tempo, and melody of ritual songs he heard sung in several Amerindian villages.

Farabee also kept a more chronological set of loose-leaf notes that help piece together the order of the notebooks. Still, if it were not for his published works, it would be hard to make complete sense of his overall expeditions. He seems to have used the notebooks as shorthand, a memory aid to be expanded on later. His publications reveal details he recalled after the fact, and with greater emotion.

In one dramatic instance, from a time when Farabee was overwhelmed by fever, navigating difficult terrain, and beset with frequent food shortages, on March 15, 1913, he wrote: “Old man said we had traveled too fast—we should wait ’til spirit caught up and [so we] got away at 11:00 [a.m.]” Later, in his published account, A Pioneer in Amazonia, he elaborated on the same event: “When the dance was over or rather when the food was exhausted we started home [back to another Amazonian village where they were briefly staying] with an old trader [possibly of the Diau tribe] who lived twenty-eight days northeast of this village. He and his people had been drinking and dancing until they were so nearly exhausted that they traveled very slowly. We were in the habit of walking fast until we encountered game or until afternoon when we would camp and go hunting. The second evening they got into camp late. In the morning when we were ready to start he refused to move, saying that we had traveled so fast the day before that his soul had not been able to keep pace and that he would have to wait until it caught up. About eleven o’clock it came in and we got away but it was so tired we made a very short journey.”

While Farabee’s published accounts may provide more detail, what is unique about his notebooks are the spontaneous records of immediacy and of being in the thick of things. Moreover, there are wonderful blurts in his notebooks that that have little to do with the context of the writing on the page around which they occur. One reads: “Men and women seem affectionate.” Case open and closed. Another: “Measured Waiwai hair—man 28 inches long.” Don’t you wonder what the Waiwai man was thinking? Or: “They have no flood story,” revealing the comparative mythologist at work, looking for a universal in the stories (or the evidence of Christian missionaries). Or, more personally: “Birthday—2 plantains,” noted on his birthday of February 7, and a stark “Xmas dinner,” noted on December 24. In A Pioneer we get more about the latter occasion: Farabee’s group was actually at a Waiwai village dance: “[it] reminded us of somewhat
similar occurrences which were taking place at home. We celebrated Christmas the next day as best we could with the thermometer at 94 degrees.”

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The Ethnologist Sets Out by Beebe Bahrami
Photos courtesy of the Penn Museum

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