'I HAVE examined your book with passionate interest, and I marvel at the riches of the world you have revealed to me. South American ethnography will never be the same again.' The recipient of this high praise from Claude Levi-Strauss was Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff, and the book in question was Desana - Simbolismo de los indios Tukano del Vaupes (1967), later published in English as Amazonian Cosmos: the sexual and religious symbolism of the Tukano Indians (1971).
Though Desana established the author's wider fame among anthropologists, it came midway in a life which after difficult beginnings showed the originality, versatility and industry that made Reichel-Dolmatoff such a commanding figure in the anthropology and archaeology of Colombia and of north-west South America.
Born in Salzburg in 1912, Reichel-Dolmatoff was the descendant of Russian aristocrats and Austrian savants and artists. As a young man he studied art in Munich, and after the anschluss went to Paris and the Sorbonne. In 1938 he followed the eccentric advice of the political scientist Andre Siegfried to seek his fortune via Colombia. He did not find in Bogota the shady patios with fountains and lemon trees that he used to recall that Siegfried had promised, but he did land a job as a draughtsman-engineer with the Richmond Petroleum Company.
With the Second World War he found employment with the great French ethnologist and Americanist Paul Rivet, who after the fall of France became the local representative of the Free French, and at the same time the inspiration of an outstanding generation of Colombian scholars. Reichel-Dolmatoff worked for the Free French cause; Rivet gave him his academic formation as an ethnologist and guided his first anthropological and archaeological fieldwork. In 1943 he married Alicia Dussan Maldonado and decided to remain in Colombia. She accompanied him on nearly all his travels.
In 1946 he was appointed Director of the newly founded Ethnological Institute of Magdalena, based in the Caribbean port of Santa Marta. His years on the Atlantic Coast began the stream of papers on an extraordinary range of subjects that continued uninterrupted for 18 years. They also produced his first substantial monograph, two volumes on the Kogi of the Sierra Nevada published in 1950-51. The second volume came out in a hundred copies at his own expense, 'because certain attitudes of the Kogi had offended the inscrutable sensibilities of my superiors'. The work remains the fundamental starting-point for understanding that culture. Less well known is the late 1950s study of a mestizo village in the same Sierra Nevada, The People of Aritama (1961), which he wrote with his wife. What began as a conventional 'community study', then much in vogue, and a study of 'acculturation' in a village that they confessed they had picked because it looked a pleasant place to pass the time, became in their hands something more subtle and disturbing. The photographic record, too, that he left of Indian Colombia will never be surpassed.
A clubbable but not an institutionable person, Reichel- Dolmatoff worked best in relative isolation in Bogota, supported by academic and other forays abroad. For many years he held a visiting professorship at UCLA. In Britain he appreciated a short visiting fellowship in Cambridge, several long-vacation stays in Oxford, the invitation to give the 1975 Huxley Memorial Lecture to the Royal Anthropological Institute, and his Fellowship of the Linnean Society. A Colombian citizen, he was an enthusiastic member of the Third World Academy of Sciences, and delighted in the opportunities it gave him for meeting unlikely people in unlikely places.
Reichel-Dolmatoff's intellectual excitement remained undimmed: he had recently completed a book on Amazonian trees, a unique combination of botanical and anthropological knowledge, and on the day before his death finished a lecture, planned for next month in Madrid, on frontiers.Reuse content