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An independent collector

Austrian ethnographer Wanda Hanke traveled alone throughout South America in the 1930s to study indigenous groups

Paranaense Museum archives Pictures taken by the researcher when she lived among the Bororo tribe in Mato Grosso State, BrazilParanaense Museum archives

The Austrian ethnographer Wanda Hanke was in her forties when she sailed to South America to study indigenous populations. Despite a lack of institutional support, she spent the last 25 years of her life immersing herself in the forests of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, and Paraguay, gathering, photographing, and recording artifacts and peoples that had never before been studied. Her expeditions resulted in a plethora of linguistic studies, cultural objects, and iconographic records of various tribes. Though it is not well known, Hanke’s work provides a historical record of indigenous diversity in South America and has contributed to the establishment of ethnology studies in the region.

Wanda Hanke (1893–1958) was born in Opava, a city in the present-day Czech Republic. The few records of her life in Europe suggest that she obtained a medical degree in Germany and, later, studied law and philosophy. It is known that she worked as a physician for a few years before becoming interested in ethnology, then an incipient science. “Her lack of experience as an ethnographer in Europe resulted in her willingness to venture on expeditions throughout Latin America at a time when women who toured Brazil did so with their husbands or ran the risk of being looked down upon by the locals,” explains historian Mariana Moraes de Oliveira Sombrio from the Multidisciplinary Graduate Program in Museology of the University of São Paulo (USP).

Paranaense Museum archivesSombrio studies the paths taken by women who explored Brazil in the first half of the twentieth century. Sombrio and historian Maria Margaret Lopes of the Department of Gender Studies of the University of Campinas (UNICAMP) analyzed documents from the Council for the Supervision of Scientific and Artistic Expeditions of Brazil (CFE), a federal department created in 1933 to oversee and license the work of foreign researchers in the country, and found records of license applications from 38 female explorers. Most were foreigners, such as Austrian anthropologist Etta Becker-Donner (1911–1975) from the Museum of Ethnology in Vienna, who was the first to explore certain parts of Brazil in the 1940s, and American archeologist Betty Meggers (1921–2012) from the Smithsonian, who showed in the 1950s that the peoples living at the mouth of the Amazon had a complex material culture.

Unlike Becker-Donner and Meggers, Hanke traveled alone. She was an independent collector with no ties to any institutions. She was involved in both scientific and business-related activities, gathering and selling collections, writing articles, and photographing and making records of her travels. She came to South America for the first time in 1934 to document the Caiguá tribe in northern Argentina. From there, she continued on to Paraguay to study the Guayaki tribe. “With no financial support, Hanke funded her own expeditions by working as a physician in small villages,” Sombrio says. The ethnographer returned to Europe in 1936 to try to obtain more resources for her expeditions. Despite her lack of success, she returned to South America the next year for another expedition. The trip was supposed to last two years, but she stayed for two decades.

Paranaense Museum archives Hanke between an indigenous couple from the Kaingang tribe in Faxinal, ParanáParanaense Museum archives

Upon returning to Argentina, she dedicated herself to archeology, collecting objects from the Matako and Toba peoples. In 1939, she began to focus her studies on the Botocudo tribes in Santa Catarina State, Brazil. Years before, the ethnographer had sent an official request to the CFE for a Brazilian expedition she would lead to perform ethnic, sociological, and linguistic studies on the regions surrounding the Xingu and Tapajós rivers. Her request was denied, however—probably because she had no affiliations with any research or teaching institutions and could not demonstrate proof of funding to support the expedition.

Even so, Hanke made her way into Brazil. In Santa Catarina, she collected artifacts and took notes on the Botocudo tribes’ linguistic and anthropometric data. Soon after, she continued on to the Brazilian city of Curitiba, where she met physician and anthropologist José Loureiro Fernandes of the Paranaense Museum. She began to exchange correspondences with him and to sell artifacts collected on her travels, which helped to finance her expeditions.

Hanke did the same thing when she was in Bolivia. Over time, however, the conditions under which she carried out her research became progressively more precarious. Records show that she wrote many times to the University of San Simón in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba asking that they pay her for the pieces she’d sold to them. With the money she was able to scrape together, she traveled back to Europe once again in 1955 to try to raise funds for her travels. She returned to Brazil in 1957 to study indigenous tribes on the Nhamundá and Yatapu rivers in the Amazon region. It was on this trip that she contracted malaria. She died at the age of 65 in the city of Benjamin Constant, Amazonas State.

Stefanie Liener, 2010 The ethnographer left Europe in 1934 to study indigenous peoples in Latin AmericaStefanie Liener, 2010

Hanke published scientific papers in journals in Brazil and abroad. “She also wrote reports on the mythical narratives on the creation of the world as told by the Botocudos, made lists of indigenous vocabulary words with loose translations, and, in the case of the Kaingang tribe, provided a detailed essay on the grammar,” recounts linguist Wilmar da Rocha D’Angelis from the Institute of Language Studies (IEL) at UNICAMP. Some were published, but others were not. Her notes were imprecise, and her translations, while not wrong, were very simplified. She also wrote two books: Dos años entre los cainguá (Two Years among the Cainguá Tribe) and A pesquisa etnográfica na América do Sul (Ethnographic Research in South America), both of which were published posthumously in 1964.

Her lack of training in anthropology hindered her analyses of the objects she collected. However, D’Angelis notes, many of the artifacts she obtained are now in museums and represent a little-known source of indigenous ethnological material, which is slowly starting to be rediscovered.