The Secret of the Cigar Box: Carl Lumholtz and the Photographs from His Sonoran Desert Expedition, 1909-1910
Eek, Ann Christine, Journal of the Southwest
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.
By 1886 Lumholtz had already been elected a member of the Society of Science in Christiania, as a result of his zoological and botanical contributions. Even before the book of his Australian studies was published, however, he was sufficiently renowned to be invited to lecture in many countries. It was probably while lecturing in London in 1887 that the self-taught ethnographer became interested in the cliff dwellers of the Sierra Madre in Mexico and decided to study the primitive humans of America (Lumholtz 1921:230). As lanternslide lectures were becoming increasingly popular in attracting public interest, Lumholtz apparently realized the importance of using photography as a means to document and publish his explorations. (1) At the geographic congress in Paris in 1889, however, Lumholtz's Australian experiences were overshadowed by those of his compatriot Fridtjof Nansen, who in the previous year had crossed Greenland on skis.
Later on some scientists and aborigines have been very critical of Lumholtz's book about Australia, for its patronizing views on the natives and descriptions they consider to have contributed to the prejudice about the aborigines as inferior people. In spite of that, land in the vicinity of the Herbert River in Queensland was dedicated as the Lumholtz National Park and was opened by the British TV producer Sir David Attenborough in 1991.
In the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, the search for raw materials and markets for growing industries created alliances among adventurers, scientists, and sponsors. When Lumholtz arrived in the United States on his lecture tours in 1889, it was probably the recognition he had received in Europe that helped him finance his field studies. Lumholtz was a man who preferred the solitude of nature and who never married, but with his great social talent and self-confidence, he soon made the acquaintance of scientists, institutions, and philanthropists interested in supporting his expeditions. After intense fundraising and under the auspices of the American Museum of Natural History and the American Geographical Society, he left in August 1890 with a huge party consisting of several scientists for his first expedition to the Sierra Madre. This eight-month expedition resulted in several archaeological excavations and the gathering of about five hundred pieces of beautiful pottery, as well as zoological and botanical material. He met no cliff dwellers, but did encounter Indian tribes unknown to the rest of the world and found traces of old cultures.
In 1892-1893 Lumholtz returned to the Sierra Madre to study the Tarahumara Indians, many of whom still lived in caves. This time he traveled with a smaller group, but after six months he decided to gradually dismiss his party for he found it too difficult to make a close study of the Indians with other foreigners present. From then on he usually traveled alone, in the company of only a translator and an indigenous guide, his experiences of living close to the Australian natives being a great asset. In this way Lumholtz somehow anticipated the standard method of later anthropologists in the field: participant observation. Sometimes, however, he had difficulties in establishing contact with the Indians, as they were shy and suspicious of him, a stranger. Skulls and bones collected from an excavation, stored close to his tent, contributed on one occasion to the rumor spreading among the Indians that he was a man-eater: "Wherever I came I was abhorred as the man who subsisted on babies and green corn" (Lumholtz 1902, 1:185). On other occasions he had severe difficulties photographing, for people were afraid of his cameras, fearing he was a conqueror planning to take their land. Gradually, these problems were overcome as he realized the best way to understand the natives was to live with them on their own terms, and treat them as fairly as possible. By interviewing the shamans and learning their songs, the ice was broken. His admiration for the Indians, the Tarahumara in particular, was emphasized by his descriptions of their physical strength and endurance.
The rich collections Lumholtz brought back to New York this time were exhibited at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, and he was also invited to lecture at the International Conference of Anthropologists in 1894. The American Museum of Natural History was very pleased with his work and decided to send him out again, so in 1894-1897 he traveled, without any assistant, to study the Tarahumara, Cora, Tepecan, and Huichol Indians. His work among the Huichol Indians was particularly rewarding as he managed to establish an extraordinary rapport with them, even …
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Publication information: Article title: The Secret of the Cigar Box: Carl Lumholtz and the Photographs from His Sonoran Desert Expedition, 1909-1910. Contributors: Eek, Ann Christine - Author. Journal title: Journal of the Southwest. Volume: 49. Issue: 4 Publication date: Autumn 2007. Page number: 369+. © 1999 University of Arizona. COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale Group.
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