Gerardo Reichel-Dormatoff

Gerardo Reichel-Dormatoff

Ethnologist and anthropologist. He studied the indigenous civilizations of Colombia, both in the country’s interior and its Caribbean area. He is considered the father of Colombian anthropology.

He was born in 1912 in Salzburg, Austria. He studied anthropology in Austria, Germany and France. In the early 1940s, he began studying ethnology as a student of Paul Rivet, with whom he collaborated in the French liberation movement against German fascism. In 1940, he began archaeological and ethnographic work in various parts of Colombia. In 1946, he became director of the Magdalena Ethnological Institute in the city of Santa Marta.

In 1951, he wrote his classic monograph about the Kogi people of the Sierra Nevada, titled Los kogi: una tribu indígena de la Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. A decade later (1961), in collaboration with his wife, ethnologist Alicia Dussan Maldonado, he published a study about the people of the Aritama community, also in the Sierra Nevada, titled The People of Aritama: The Cultural Personality of a Colombian Mestizo Village.

From 1953 to 1960, he excavated important sites such as Barlovento, Momil and Puerto Hormiga on Colombia’s Caribbean coastal plain. These sites played a role in the expansion of practices such as pottery making and agriculture to the rest of the continent and the Caribbean islands.

In the 1960s, he and his wife created the Colombia Anthropology Department associated with the University of the Andes. There, he wrote one of his main works, Desana: simbolismo de los indios tukano del Vaupés (1967), considered by Claude Levi-Strauss to be a revolutionary text in South American ethnography. According to his studies, the spiritual world of the Desanas ruled all their actions. They considered the preservation of their society’s cultural and biological continuity to be the purpose of their existence. For them, hallucinogens were a resource for gaining access to an understanding of the origins of the universe and the cycles of the natural and supernatural worlds. The topics of hallucinogens and shamanistic activity are important in Reichel-Dolmatoff’s studies. He emphasized the importance of understanding the spiritual world and symbols as a way to gain access to the indigenous universe and its cultural diversity. In this sense, he recognized the huge importance of their relationship with nature, specifically the tropical forest. His ethnographic work emphasizes participatory observation as a primary method of study to establish direct ties with the indigenous world in various parts of the continent. The goal was to gain a detailed understanding of the wide diversity of traditions and customs, as well as the similarities among different sites.

In addition to his research and the publication of numerous books and articles, Reichel-Dolmatoff taught classes at universities in Colombia and the United States and was a member of organizations such as the National Academy of Sciences in the United States, the Spanish Royal Academy of Sciences and the Third World Academy of Sciences. Among his recognitions is the Thomas H. Huxley medal from the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.
He died in Santafé de Bogotá on May 17, 1994.

Author: Reniel Rodríguez Ramos
Published: May 08, 2012.

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