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Stories in a drawer

The bulk of Emil Snethlage’s research among indigenous peoples in Rondônia in the 1930s has never seen the light of day

Snethlage in the storage area of the Ethnological Museum of Berlin in the 1930s

Snethlage family archivesSnethlage in the storage area of the Ethnological Museum of Berlin in the 1930sSnethlage family archives

Since the 1930s, unique records of indigenous peoples from the upper Madeira River and the Guaporé River Valley in Rondônia have been kept in Germany. They include information on indigenous customs and places, notes on individual words and phrases in native languages that are now nearing extinction, photographs, one silent movie on dances and rituals, songs recorded on wax cylinders, 2,400 individual objects, and interviews with native peoples – all of which could help descendants of the region’s inhabitants recapture a period of their own history. Part of the collection is available for consultation at the Ethnological Museum of Berlin and the Berlin Phonogram Archives, but an equally valuable part remains unpublished and in the hands of Rotger Snethlage, son of ethnologist Emil-Heinrich Snethlage, a German researcher who collected and recorded extensive data and observations during two long stays in Brazil.

Emil Snethlage (1897-1939) was the nephew of Emilia Snethlage (1868-1929), the German ornithologist hired by Emílio Goeldi in 1905 to work at the Emílio Goeldi Museum of Pará (MPEG), in Belém. Emilia Snethlage was one of the chief scientists in the history of the museum, where she twice served as director. Her stories and letters inspired her brother’s son to embark on a scientific career as a traveling researcher. Following his aunt’s advice, Emil studied botany and received his doctorate in Berlin in 1923.

Footage from Snethlage’s silent movie shows Amniapé and Guarategaja Indians playing with a rubber ball, which they could only touch with their heads (no date)

Snethlage family archivesFootage from Snethlage’s silent movie shows Amniapé and Guarategaja Indians playing with a rubber ball, which they could only touch with their heads (no date)Snethlage family archives

That same year, Emil Snethlage traveled to Brazil to help put together a collection for the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and embarked on an expedition through a number of states in the Northeast, part of which in the company of his Aunt Emilia. With the guidance of his aunt, Snethlage catalogued 449 species of birds and wrote three articles for the Journal für Ornithologie. He also encountered a variety of indigenous peoples along the way and compiled a steady stream of notes on their cultures. He returned to Germany in 1926, where he gave a lecture at the Berlin Society for Anthropology and as a result was hired as an assistant at the Ethnological Museum there. Snethlage quickly set aside botany and zoology, embracing ethnology instead.

In 1933, he returned to Brazil, this time on assignment for the Berlin museum. He visited the Guaporé River Valley, near the border between Brazil and Bolivia, the same region that Claude Lévi-Strauss would journey to years later. Snethlage stayed there until 1935, making contact with no fewer than 13 ethnic groups. During this time he kept a thick diary, in addition to making recordings, taking photographs, and filming at least one silent movie.

Apinajé indigene, probably in Maranhão (no date)

Snethlage family archivesApinajé indigene, probably in Maranhão (no date)Snethlage family archives

“The studies he did are the only systematic scientific record of these indigenous peoples from the 1930s to the 1950s, and most of them have never seen the light of day,” says Gleice Mere, journalist and photographer with a graduate degree in photographic design in Germany. She is responsible for Emil Snethlage’s archives in Brazil and is an independent researcher, with no institutional affiliation. In the September-December 2013 issue of Boletim do MPEG – Ciências Humanas (MPEG Newsletter – Humanities), Mere published a scientific paper that included biographic notes, an analysis of the German researcher’s two expeditions, and letters from the ethnologist Curt Nimuendajú.

Snethlage’s field diary runs to 1,042 pages. He failed to publish most of the studies that he conducted in Brazil because he died of a pulmonary embolism at the early age of 42. “According to Rotger,” says Mere, “after his father’s death, his mother, Anneliese, typed up the manuscript and protected it from the Nazis – Emil wasn’t a member of Hitler’s party – and from the bombings of Berlin.” Today, Rotger Snethlage and Mere are looking for financing in Germany and Brazil to fund the publication of this material.

Snethlage’s field diary is an extremely rich resource for anthropologists and for the descendants of the ethnic groups that he visited,” says Dutch linguist Hein van der Voort, a researcher at the MPEG, who works with the Guaporé Indians and who has had access to the manuscript. In 2009, nine Indians from the region visited museums in Basel, Switzerland; Vienna, Austria; Leiden, Holland; and Berlin. They took with them original artifacts made by their peoples and had a chance to see the indigenous collections held by these institutions. “While listening to a recording made by Emil in the 1930s, one indigenous woman recognized songs sung by her father; another man – whose ethnic group is almost extinct – rediscovered the names of his ancestors, which had been lost in time,” says Mere, who accompanied the group on its travels, made possible through a project financed by European museums and a German anthropologist. If they succeed in getting Emil Snethlage’s diary published in German and Portuguese, much more information will become available.