September 29, 2012

Putting the Reich back in Reichel-Dolmatoff: Nazi past of legendary Colombian anthropologist revealed

While delving into Colombia's rich indigenous heritage, the acclaimed Austrian-born anthropologist Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff may also have been hiding his own Nazi past. 

A tireless fieldworker and scholar, Reichel-Dolmatoff carried out research throughout Colombia's diverse geographical and cultural regions. He founded Colombia's first department of anthropology and made contributions in all fields of the discipline, including archeology.  His ground-breaking research and prolific writings spanning nearly six decades inspired multiple generations of anthropologists in Colombia and throughout the world, including myself.

In the Spring of 1986, archeologist Anna Roosevelt, then at the Bronx Museum of the American Indian, lent me her copy of Reichel-Dolmatoff's Amazonian Cosmos[1] and changed my life.  At the time I was a a pre-med student at college but found myself increasingly drawn to foreign languages, folk medicine and ethnobotany.  After reading Reichel-Dolmatoff's brilliant study of mythology and shamanism among the Tukano people of the Vaupes river I became set on working in the Amazon.

Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff, born Erasmus Gerhard Reichel in Austria in 1912, emigrated in 1939 to Colombia where he pursued anthropological research on diverse indigenous groups including the Guahibo, Kogi, Kuna and Tukano.  His work in the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta resulted in the classic ethnography on the Kogi people[2] as well as important archeological discoveries[3].  He was best known for his work on Tukano shamanism, pointing out the role of ecological concepts in indigenous cosmology[4] and highlighting the significance of the hallucinogenic vine yagé (ayahuasca)[5].  He also made pioneering contributions to the archeology of the Amazonian lowlands[6].

Considered the "father of Colombian anthroplogy," Reichel-Dolmatoff published 33 books and hundreds of scientific articles, crowning his career with prestigious visiting positions at Cambridge and UCLA beginning in the 1970s.  In 1975, he received the Thomas H. Huxley medal from the British Royal Anthropological Institute.

He was admired by students and colleagues as much for his erudition and meticulous scholarship as for his generosity and humanism.  He died in 1994 at the age of 82.  In 2012, the Colombian anthropological community was prepared to celebrate his centennial with accolades.

At an anthropological conference in Vienna this July, however, Colombian anthropologist Augusto Oyuela-Caycedo presented disturbing evidence concerning Reichel-Dolmatoff's Nazi past.  According to documents he uncovered in German federal archives, Erasmus Gerhard Reichel was a member of the SS, participated in Hitler's murderous "Night of Long Knives" in 1934 and served as a guard in the notorious Dachau concentration camp in 1935.

A Nazi party notice seeking Erasmus Gerhard Reichel in 1937 after he had left Germany. 
(Image source: Bogotá Blog)
In 1936, Reichel was hospitalized for an apparent nervous breakdown and was ultimately dismissed from the SS.  He came to France in 1937 and became involved in the anti-Hitler resistance movement, for which he was expelled from the Nazi party.  

Oyeula-Caycedo, now a professor of anthropology at the University of Florida in Gainesville, knew Reichel-Dolmatoff personally and admired his work.  He wrote a glowing review of Reichel-Dolmatoff's intellectual legacy[7] and referred to him as the "Grand Jaguar" of Colombian anthropology[8].  This July in Vienna, while reading an alleged excerpt from Reichel's diary describing how he shoots and kills an old man during a Gestapo raid in 1934, Oyuela-Caycedo breaks out in tears:  "It hurts me to read this."

A number of prominent anthropologists have been the subject of harsh exposés questioning their ethical choices and professional legacy:  Alfred Kroeber[9], Margaret Mead[10], Napoleon Chagnon[11].  The discovery of Mircea Eliade's support for Romanian fascism in the 1930s raised troubling questions about his acclaimed work on shamanism[12].

Some choose to view Reichel-Dolmatoff's nervous illness, expulsion from the SS and participation in the Resistance as a crisis of conscience and a sign of redemption.  There is certainly no hint of Nazi racial ideologies in his voluminous and influential scientific work.  On the contrary, he celebrated the diversity, richness and complexity of an indigenous heritage that had long been considered "primitive."

Some colleagues find it hard to believe the acclaimed scholar and admired humanist could have such a dark spot hidden in his past. Yet given the amount of documentary evidence he eventually uncovered, Oyuela-Caycedo was, if anything, surprised the story hadn't surfaced sooner.  "This information existed, it was out there. What surprises me is that no one saw it," he told Revista Arcadia.

According to Martin von Hildebrant, a prominent Colombian anthropologist and defender of indigenous rights, "This debate should not diminish the value of his life's work."

Others, however, see the revelations as shaking the very foundations of Colombian anthropology.

Reichel-Dolmatoff seemed intent on keeping this part of his life a secret.  Yet as anthropologist Carlos Uribe concludes in an interview with BBC Mundo, "Everything ends up becoming known.  A fundamental tenet of anthropology is that all human activity leaves traces."


Other on-line sources:
References cited:

[1] Reichel-Dolmatoff, Gerardo. 1971. Amazonian cosmos; the sexual and religious symbolism of the Tukano Indians. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[2] Reichel-Dolmatoff, Gerardo. 1950. Los Kogi: Una tribu indígena de la Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia, Tomo I. Revista del Instituto Etnológico Nacional (Bogotá). 4(1-2): 1-319.

[3] Reichel-Dolmatoff, Gerardo. 1954. Investigaciones arqueológicas en la Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Partes I-II. Revista Colombiana de Antropología (Bogotá). 2(2): 145-206.

[4] Reichel-Dolmatoff, Gerardo. 1976. Cosmology as ecological analysis: A view from the rain forest. Man 11(3):307-318.

[5] Reichel-Dolmatoff, Gerardo. 1975. The Shaman and the Jaguar: A study of narcotic drugs among the Indians of Colombia. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

[6] Reichel-Dolmatoff, Gerardo. 1973. The agricultural basis of the sub-Andean chiefdoms of Colombia. In: D. Gross (Ed.), Peoples and Cultures of Native South America. Garden City, NY: Doubleday/Natural History Press, 28-36.

[7] Oyuela-Caycedo, Augusto. 1996. Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff 1912-1994. American Antiquity 61(1): 52-56.

[8] Oyuela-Caycedo, Augusto. 1997. Prólogo al Gran Jaguar. In: G. Reichel-Dolmatoff, Arqueología en Colombia: Un texto introductorio. Bogotá: Biblioteca Familiar Colombiana, xi-xix.
[9] Starin, Orin. 2004. Ishi's Brain: In search of America's last 'wild' Indian. New York: Norton.
[10] Freeman, Derek. 1998. The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A historical analysis of her Samoan research. Boulder: Westview Press.
[11] Tierney, Patrick. 2000. Darkness in El Dorado: How scientists and journalists devastated the Amazon. New York: Norton.
[12] Harrowitz, Nancy. 1994. Tainted Greatness: Antisemitism and cultural heroes. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.


  1. As anthropologist, I have been impressed with GRD's work... In fact, I stumbled upon this while doing a search for something that he wrote. It's horrific and shocking. HIs contribution to anthropology and Colombian ethnology and prehistory is unquestionable... but this leaves open many many moral questions that we may never know, unless some close relative has some more insights...

    1. Reichel-Dolmatoff was a great influence on me as well and I still admire him tremendously. Ultimately he did a courageous thing, leaving Germany and supporting resistance. It seems too easy to judge today in hindsight. But still the revelations bring up difficult questions especially for those who admire his work. Thank you for your comment, Glenn

  2. AnonymousJune 06, 2013

    Daniel W. Gade

    As the previous comments, I too was strongly influenced by
    Reichel-Dolmatoff, especially his writings on shamanism. The revelation about his Nazi past reminded me of my own efforts to do the same with a scientist I had known in South America,
    and who ethnobotanists may know about: Heinz Brücher (1915-1991). He was in the SS and fled to Argentina in 1948 where he was given a position at the Universidad Nacional de Tucumán. The paper that resulted from my quasi-detective work on this (unlike GRD) unrepentent Nazi is the following: D.W. Gade. 2006. Converging ethnobiology and ethnobiography: Cultivated plants, Heinz Brücher, and Nazi ideology, Journal of Ethnobiology 26 (1): 82-106. Vanity Fair magazine later contracted me to go to Argentina and clarify the cause of his 1991 murder, but without the "smoking gun" decided not to publish my findings.

    1. Dear Daniel, Thanks for that fascinating comment, and for your extensive sleuthing. You should get in touch with Augusto Oyuela at the University of Florida if you haven't already, I'm sure he'd be very interested in your research. Did you see the piece published recently in Brazil about a Nazi scientific expedition to the Amazon in the 1930s? Is there any relation between this group and "your man"? I linked to this story it on my "News" page on the blog, I attach the full link below (in Portuguese). Thanks again for your comment, Glenn. Here is that link -- "Nazis in the Amazon," Revista Brasileiros: