Terra Desconhecida: Nature, Knowledge, and Society in the Pantanal Wetlands of Brazil and Bolivia

Jason Kauffman Department of History University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill 2013-2014 Research Fellow

My dissertation examines the process by which multiple groups of historical actors created knowledge about the Pantanal – a seasonally-flooded wetland that straddles the border between Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay – in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The scientific community now regards the Pantanal as the world’s largest freshwater wetland, an isolated ecological region now threatened by various economic development projects. My research calls into question the supposed isolation of the Pantanal, combining social and environmental history to demonstrate the many ways that humans have shaped, created knowledge about, and co-evolved with the Pantanal landscape over time. Scientific discovery and exploration has a long history in the Pantanal. In the sixteenth century, the first Europeans to travel through the region identified it as a vast inland sea, the Laguna de los Xarayes. Based upon these reports, cartographers created visual representations of the region, inscribing them on maps that circulated throughout Europe. While 18th century treaties between Portugal and Spain and subsequent boundary surveys debunked many of the legends that circulated about the region, 19th century naturalists continued to regard the Pantanal as terra desconhecida, a remote region waiting to be delineated and classified by learned scientists from Europe and, increasingly, the United States. Its “primitive” indigenous tribes and wealth of flora and fauna quickly earned it a reputation as an ideal staging ground for the practice of the field sciences during a time when many institutions were in their infancy and sought to build anthropological, botanical, and zoological collections. Between 1914 and 1931, multiple museums sponsored expeditions to the Pantanal, including the American Museum of Natural History, the Colorado Museum of Natural History, and the Field Museum. In 1931, the Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the Academy of Natural Sciences (ANS) lent scientific legitimacy to the Mato Grosso Expedition, which traveled under the banner of the Explorers Club of New York and assembled a motley troop of sport hunters, journalists, scientists, and businessmen. A PACHS Fellowship in Spring 2014 enabled me to expand upon research already completed on this expedition at three different archives in Brazil and the United States. Before then, I had already pieced together evidence on two expedition members, the famous jaguar hunter Sasha Siemel and physician Alexander Daveron. Their files in the Supervisory Board of Artistic and Scientific Expeditions collection – housed at the History of Science Archive at the Museu de Astronomia e Ciências Afins in Rio de Janeiro – revealed the skepticism with which Brazilian officials regarded the expedition as well as the blurred lines between sport hunting and scientific research in the Pantanal. Neither of these individuals, however, held any formal affiliation with the Penn Museum or the ANS. The correspondence, reports, field notes, and journals of Vincenzo Petrullo, an anthropologist from the Penn Museum, provided a much clearer picture of the scientific objectives of the expedition as well as the interpersonal conflicts that plagued it. Specifically, Petrullo took pains to distinguish his research from the activities of other expedition members, which he regarded as self-interested and amateurish. At the same time, his research depended upon the generosity of private donors, particularly Eldridge Johnson, cofounder of the Victor Talking Machine Company. It also depended upon the labor and local knowledge of ranch hands at the American-owned Fazenda Descalvados in the northern Pantanal. While in the field, Petrullo and other expedition members relied heavily upon local informants to guide them through unfamiliar terrain, to track wild animals, and to mediate encounters with indigenous people. The Petrullo Collection thus illuminates the contingent nature of scientific knowledge production and the ways in which one field scientist struggled to negotiate the uneasy marriage between capital and scientific research. I also gained a better understanding of the changing nature of scientific research in the Pantanal by the 1930s. While late-nineteenth century ethnographers focused their attention on indigenous groups such as the Guató, Borôro, Terena, and Kadiwéu, by the 1920s and 30s, anthropologists regarded them as too “degraded” by the vices of civilization. Petrullo apparently shared this sentiment, claiming that the Pantanal held “little interest for the ethnologist." Instead, he busied himself with archaeological excavations on the ranch that hosted the expedition until he could secure the necessary permission to strike north into the Amazon basin. Rather than fertile ground for anthropological research, by the first decades of the twentieth century, scientists had come to regard the Pantanal as a vast repository of zoological specimens. Finally, my research at the Penn Museum and the ANS enabled me to further explore the ways that field scientists used visual technologies to represent the flora, fauna, and people of the Pantanal. Both archives I visited held extensive photograph collections documenting the region as it appeared in the early 1930s. Particularly useful were photographs depicting guides who tracked and hunted animals for the expedition, bringing to life individuals who often remain nameless in the written record. The collections also house some of the earliest aerial photographs of the Pantanal that I have been able to identify, yielding valuable historical images of the landscape. From Kate Pourshariati, film archivist at the Penn Museum, I also learned more about the efforts of expedition members to film the region and its indigenous inhabitants, which eventually produced one of the first known motion picture recordings with synchronized sound. The research I conducted in Philadelphia will enable me to complete the chapter of my dissertation focused on field scientists and their interactions with local environments and populations in the Pantanal. While the chapter examines the roles of both Brazilian and American scientists, the Mato Grosso Expedition was the most highly publicized and best documented and thus makes an ideal case study to anchor my analysis. I would like to thank PACHS for making this research possible and the staffs at the Penn Museum and the ANS for welcoming me to their archives. Alex Pezzati at the Penn Museum was especially helpful, sharing his deep knowledge of the collection and putting me in contact with fellow researchers and potential collaborators.