From Mato Grosso to Millennium: An Introduction to the Anthropology of Dialectical Observations

By Levi, Jerome M. | Anthropological Quarterly, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

From Mato Grosso to Millennium: An Introduction to the Anthropology of Dialectical Observations


Levi, Jerome M., Anthropological Quarterly


This special issue of Anthropological Quarterly celebrates the life and work of David H. P. Maybury-Lewis, who died at home, surrounded by family, on December 2, 2007, after a long and distinguished career as a remarkable ethnographer, theoretician, humanitarian, and pioneering champion of the rights of indigenous people. As the Edward C. Henderson Professor of Anthropology at Harvard University, where he taught from 1960 until his retirement in 2004, he influenced friends, colleagues, and generations of students, some of whom are represented in this collection (for the impact his arrival had on the Harvard Anthropology Department, see Peacock, this volume). Their writings, presented here, testify in part to the moral commitments that drove him and the intellectual ideals to which he aspired.

Our collection is divided into two parts, not counting the Forward, which we are very honored to have had written by Professor Claude Lévi-Strauss, preeminent anthropologist of the twentieth century. Part one contains an introductory essay and four articles, each representing a different intellectual horizon or phase of David's career. As organized here, these include: 1) his contributions to lowland South American ethnography and ethnology, 2) involvement in the debates concerning the strengths and weaknesses of structuralism, 3) founding of Cultural Survival and defense of the rights of indigenous peoples as ethnic groups in modern states, and 4) the amplification of his teaching and scholarship to embrace Amerindian peoples throughout the Americas in examining what he termed the "Second Conquest," as well as his efforts to broadcast his anthropological vision to a general audience through his hosting of the PBS Millennium series.

Part two consists of a series of shorter essays, reflecting the above themes, but highlighting more personal reminiscences of David's professional life as a teacher, scholar, and public intellectual. Most of the contributions, including the forward by Claude Lévi-Strauss, have been written expressly for this volume. Some were presented at "Indigenous Theories, Anthropological Ideas, and Public Service," a conference honoring David's career convened at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on May 8, 2004. One, by Nur Yalman, was read at David's memorial service held in Harvard Memorial Church on March 23, 2008 (see also Yalman 2009). Taken together, they illustrate the complex interrelationships that animated David's interests and activities as an anthropologist which, while diverse, nonetheless reflect an overall integrity, like different facets of a single crystal.

The forces that shape professional careers are many and varied, but surely some of the most profound are those that can be traced back to one's childhood. Anthropologists seldom acknowledge these earliest influences in print, but in the case of David Maybury-Lewis we are fortunate that he did so. David was born on May 5, 1929, in Hyderbad, Sindh, in what was then the waning days of the British Raj. He maintained that his experiences at the time were not unrelated to the profession he was to choose and the kind of fieldwork he would ultimately conduct. Recounting a story he also sometimes liked to share with his graduate students, he wrote of his early confrontations with alterity:

"I met my first aliens in early childhood, and they fascinated me. I was a small boy, traveling with my family in what was then British India and is now Pakistan. My father was a British engineer who built and inspected canals in a constant struggle to make the desert bloom. I loved the months when we were on tour. Every few days, the contents of our entire household, from carpets to crockery, would be packed into huge chests and loaded onto the backs of twenty-seven protesting, government-supplied camels. The camels would go off in the evening and walk through the Sindh Desert...We followed the next morning, transported over the rutted tracks in an Armstrong Siddeley, a car with fenders so high off the ground that I had to be lifted into it. …

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