The Secret of the Cigar Box: Carl Lumholtz and the Photographs from His Sonoran Desert Expedition, 1909-1910

Article excerpt

Carl Sophus Lumholtz (1851-1922) was born in the vicinity of the Norwegian town of Lillehammer, the host of the Olympic Winter Games in 1994. His father was a military officer who wished his son to become a priest like his own father and grandfather, Bishop Nicolai Lumholtz of Christiania. But young Lumholtz, who grew up in a very close relationship to the beautiful landscape of the region, realized very early in life that it was far more interesting to study plants and animals than Latin or theology. Even as a schoolboy he started collecting plants that he sent to the Botanical Museum of the University of Christiania (the previous name of the capital Oslo), and later his herbarium was presented to Kew Gardens, outside London.

When it was time for young Lumholtz to attend the University of Christiania, he wished to study botany and zoology, but because his father refused to understand there could be any future in such studies, the son gave in to his wishes and started studying theology. As his final exams were approaching, however, Lumholtz pushed himself too hard, and after having passed the exams in 1876, he suffered a nervous breakdown. To recover he resumed collecting plants and animals. While his love of nature and his concern and knowledge about his own surroundings deepened, he realized one day: "what a misfortune it would be to die without having seen the whole earth" (Lumholtz 1921:226). In this article I wish to tell about Lumholtz's efforts to see "the whole earth," particularly in regard to his use of photography and his work in the Sonoran Desert in 1909-1910.


When the Museums of Natural History of the University of Christiania were establishing their collections of zoology and botany in the latter part of the nineteenth century, they sent scholars to different parts of the world to collect exotic specimens. Lumholtz had, through his previous donations and reports, established good contacts with the museums, and thus Professor Robert Collett proposed that Lumholtz, at the age of twenty-nine, should go to Australia to collect animals, birds, and plants. With the help of several grants he was able to stay for four years (1880-1884) in Queensland, in the northeastern part of Australia. Initially, Lumholtz stayed at a cattle station near Rockhampton, but later he extended his expeditions farther into the interior of Queensland and stayed on the Herbert River for almost a year. He himself prepared the collections of plants, birds, and animals from his numerous excursions, before shipping them to Christiania.

Being a European of his time, Lumholtz considered Western culture to be the highest form of living, assuming that the Australian natives had an inferior culture. Until he arrived at the Herbert River he had worked primarily as a zoologist, but the year he spent with the natives there turned him into an explorer. He was fascinated by the landscape, but the people he met impressed him even more, challenging his senses, and after a while he decided to camp and travel alone with the natives. He was convinced they had knowledge and understanding of nature that would help him find animals previously unknown to science. Lumholtz was richly rewarded, for he found new species of mammals, including an unknown tree kangaroo, the Dendrolagus lumholtzii. At the same time he gained a profound insight into the lives of people who at that time were considered to be utterly primitive. He was, however, very upset by the way they were treated by the colonists, and gradually his patronizing attitude towards the natives changed.

From Lumholtz's four-year sojourn in Australia, there do not seem to exist any photographs of his own, but there are sketches in ink and a selection of exquisite watercolors in shades of gray, considered to have been drawn either by Lumholtz himself or by a professional illustrator from his descriptions. Together with the photographs he had collected, these illustrations were the originals for the woodcuts illustrating his first travelogue, Among Cannibals (Copenhagen, 1888; New York, 1889; Hamburg, 1889; Paris, 1890), which aroused a great interest internationally. …