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)