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A memorial to the (almost) unknown Norwegian

13 April 2010

Mexico and Norway have a lot in common.  They’re both oil producers with more than a passing interest in actually doing something about climate change and … uh… er… um —  remembering Carl Lumholtz.

Born in Fåberg in 1851, and trained as a theologian, Lumholtz became famous in the late 19th century as a explorer, archeologist and early ethnographer.  In 1880 he moved to Australia, where, for two years he lived among the indigenous residents of North Queensland, publishing his account of their lives and culture in 1889 with the enticing title, Among Cannibals.

Among Cannibals is not an adventure book, although Lumholtz certainly could have written of adventure.   Theology, when you come down to it, tries to not so much explain the ways of God to man, but to explain the ways man thinks about God and himself.  How did the people of North Queensland think about God and themselves?

Lumholtz couldn’t, as he could with tracking down the beliefs and history of his own people, simply bury himself in a library and quote endlessly from books.  And, as any theologian knows what people say about their beliefs and how they act may not be the same thing.  And Lumholtz knew his fellow Norwegians had not always been the staid, steady Lutherans, but had been the kick-ass hell-raising Vikings at one time.  They changed over the centuries, so why wouldn’t the Queenslanders?   But, he was studying a people without books… so, in a plodding, methodical and cautious way, Lumholtz gathered other kinds of evidence, noted everything and wrote it down.

Perhaps it was his training in the esoterica of 19th century Scandinavian Lutheranism, with their tradition of exhaustive learned disputations, or living up to the stereotype of the plodding, methodical and cautious Norwegian, but  what made Among Cannibals unique and different was that it was plodding, methodical and cautious.  It was modern science applied to communities of human beings.

From Bernado Sahagún (who studied the Aztec culture the better to sell his own religion) onwards, Europeans have methodically studied the “others” they encountered… always with an agenda — selling something (usually religion) or acquiring something (usually the object of the study’s decimation).  Although the title of Lumholtz’ book was shameless marketing (the Queenslanders are not — and were not — cannibals), Lumholtz  didn’t want anything particular, except to satisfy his boundless curiosity.

Lumholtz might be faulted for  misleading the public with his book title, but a book by an unknown Norwegian (written in English) needed a hook if it ws going to attract attention at a time when the romantic image of the explorer off in the wilds of the unknown parts of the globe was slowly fading as more and more of the world map was filled in with mundane details of mountains and rivers and mineral deposits.  The human map… that was a different story.  Lumholtz was lionized by the scientific community and could basically pick his own projects.

Fiesta de jículi, Santa Catarina, Jalisco, December 1895

What he chose to spend the next twenty years of his life on was not exactly tierra incognita.  Northern Mexico was known, and had been mapped and mined and grazed by Europeans for centuries.  But little attention had been paid to the Tarahumara and Huichole people living there.  The Aztecs simply dismissed them as Chichimeca (“Sons of Bitches” — literally).  Other than being in the way when the Spanish (and the later Mexicans) wanted to run cattle or needed warm bodies to dig out gold and silver and copper out of the Sierra Madres, they were largely ignored.  Lumholtz, amply funded by the American Museum of Natural History in New York, spent twenty years (from 1890 to 1910) methodically and cautiously working his way southwards studying peoples and their history from the Zuni and Navaho to the Tarahumara, to the Huicholes to the Coras to the Purépechas (in his day, known as the “Tarascos”)… from New Mexico and Arizona, though Sonora, Durango, Sinaloa, Jalisco and Michoacán.

Huichole Shamans (ca. 1895-96)

Huichole shamans, photo ca. 1895-96

His achievements — describing the people among whom he wandered for the first time in a scientific, disinterested manner and the then radical idea of applying archeological methods to study a rural people’s past  in an age when archeology meant digging up cities and monumental tombs —  were many.  Photography had been used to record people’s rites and practices for several years, but Lumholtz was one of the first to also use sound recordings.  Think of it.  In the 1890s, sound recording were done on wax cylinders, and there weren’t electrical outlets in the Sierra Tarahumara, even if there were some electrical recording instruments.  And no refrigerators.  Bringing back the music — was a feat in itself… one that took a methodical, plodding and cautious genius to accomplish.

Of course, he had the typical faults of Victorian scientists. He tosses around the words “savage” and “primitive” regularly.  He carted off entire cemeteries, and when the digging was tough, resorted to dynamite.  But, his 1902 two-volume Unknown Mexico; a record of five years’ exploration among the tribes of the western Sierra Madre; in the tierra caliente of Tepic and Jalisco; and among the Tarascos of Michoacan. (Volume 1 can be downloaded here. Volume 2 is here) is still the basic text for any ethnographer of the region.


And Unknown Mexico is still worth reading for the adventure and romance of it all.  People today whine about possible dangers at police roadblocks might find comfort in realizing that narcos might be scary, but there was a time the traveler had to contend with maurading Apaches, highwaymen, and exploding burros.

After 1910, with the Revolution making it impossible to get government permission for a scientific expedition, Lumholtz turned his attentions to Borneo (where there really were cannibals), working there until 1917, when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and retired to the sanatarium at Saranac Lake, New York, where he died in 1922.

The Norwegian Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, is on a state visit to Mexico.  Stoltenberg turned over to the Instituto de Antropología e Historia a collection of recording Lumholtz made in the 1890s of Tarahumara and Huichole singers.  Something to celebrate.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Ana permalink
    13 April 2010 5:45 am

    Thank you for enlightening us with a fascinating post.

  2. 13 April 2010 10:27 am

    Doesn’t Mexico import bacalao from Norway too? Personally, I prefer my cod fresh, not salted, and deep fried in batter…

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