Carolyne R. Larson. Our Indigenous Ancestors: A Cultural History of Museums, Science, and Identity in Argentina, 1877-1943. 232 pp., 29 illus., notes, bibl., index. University Park: Penn State University Press, 2015.

Argentina, more than almost any other Latin American country, has been associated with a white, criollo identity. The longstanding scholarly narrative held that the formation of this identity relied on strategic erasures of the presence of indigenous and African-descended peoples from the nation’s history, a project that crystallized in the late nineteenth century during a surge in European immigration. More recently, scholars and intellectuals such as Monica Quijada have pointed to the presence of indigenous peoples in nineteenth-century literary texts or museum practices, adding complexity to the narrative of erasure and opening space for historians to explore the multivalent roles of African-descended and indigenous peoples in Argentinian nation formation after independence from Spain in 1818.[1]

Carolyne Larson’s Our Indigenous Ancestors: A Cultural History of Museums, Science, and Identity in Argentina, 1877-1943 rebuts narratives of indigenous erasure by showing how scientists (anthropologists and archaeologists) “strategically incorporated” indigenous peoples as possessed symbols of national identity in museums, educational institutes, newspapers, and magazines (3). The first chapter explores the collection of indigenous people—living and dead—in the Museo de la Plata. Honing in on the Director Francisco Moreno’s tenure in the decades after the Conquest of the Desert in 1877, Larson details how the museum catalogued and displayed skulls and other human remains. Living indigenous people were also held captive in the museum. Larson highlights how the captives sought to shape the terms of their captivity by refusing, for example, to produce ethnographic “objects” (e.g. weaving) for the museum’s collections. Unfortunately, Larson does not describe how the principles of racial classification actually worked in the process of cataloging remains, merely stating that museum officials classified according to race. Historians of Latin America have probed the diversity and idiosyncrasy of racial science in nineteenth and twentieth-century, showing how, for example, neo-Lamarckian ideas of racial inheritance underlay the development of public health projects by promising racial transformation through environmental change in turn-of-the-century Buenos Aires.[2] It is difficult to understand why Larson passed on the opportunity to flesh out the precise racial theories made useful in the context of the museum.

In one of the book’s strongest chapters, Larson implements her “object-oriented” analysis by focusing on the trade in objects by Buenos Aires’s Museo Etnográfico from the beginning of the twentieth century to 1930. She taps a wonderful archive of donor agreements between the museum’s officials and other museums in the Americas and Europe to show how museum objects, including the remains of Argentina’s indigenous peoples, constituted a “commodity.” Working from Arjun Appadurai’s expansive definition of commodities as objects of exchange which are valued differently by the actors exchanging them, Larson provides a lively and often insightful account of the aspirations and values of Buenos Aires museum officials as they sought to craft a museum collection for the nation. At times, one suspects that the motives of officials involved in a variety of exchanges are more ambiguous than Larson lets on. Her functionalist interpretation of their actions as always coalescing in support of a “romantic/scientific narrative [that] allowed creole Argentinians to cast themselves as true ‘natives’ of this land” (61) belies the real complexity of their positions, and I would have liked to see a greater appreciation of the how the negotiation of personal professional advancement and scientific ideals did not always result in the agenda she lays out for them.

The last two chapters provide much needed breathing room from the first two chapters where the focus on museum directors and their collecting practices in relation to nation formation at times feels artificially separate from the larger cultural context of which museum directors were, after all, also products and participants. In chapter three, Larson shows how anthropologists from northwestern Argentina countered the sometimes-dismissive attitudes of Buenos Aires scientists by conducting ethnographic studies of indigenous groups that aligned with a regional identity based on criollo and indigenous inheritances. While half of the chapter is devoted to local ethnography, the section describing coastal archaeologists at work in the northwest makes expansive claims about how archaeologists produced narratives of “empty space” of which coastal Argentinians were the natural heirs and science the only possible epistemology (102). These claims about the motives of coastal archaeologists, which lack citations and rely on the word “generally” twice in the space of a few pages, turn out to be based on the writings of a single archaeologist. While her analysis of his writings corroborates these claims, she does not provide the reader with theoretical or empirical evidence that would allow us to accept the personal views of one archaeologist as representative of professional attitudes writ large.

Larson devotes the final chapter to examining the popularization of science, largely through newspaper stories, in early twentieth-century Argentina. She concentrates on the popular reception of the ideas of Argentina’s first scientific celebrity, Florentino Ameghino, who argued, in the face of significant scientific opposition, that Argentina’s settlement by humans significantly predated the later date which most scientists accepted. The story of his popular appeal shows how anthropology “escaped” from elite control as it was appropriated by and for the popular classes. The chapter is poorly organized, presenting Ameghino’s popular celebrity before we have an understanding of what exactly he was famous for. Further, the notion that scientific discourse “escaped” elite control is a curious one, given that scientific discourse itself was never separate from its political and cultural context a point amply demonstrated, albeit implicitly, in the book’s first three chapters.[3]

Larson has succeeded in demonstrating that indigenous peoples were not erased from Argentinian national identity narratives as they took on a symbolic role in the press, museums, and scientific investigations around the turn of the twentieth century. Several critical questions, though, remain unanswered. Despite gestures to the role of anthropologists in nation formation in other parts of Latin America, particularly Mexico, Larson does not grapple with the intellectual current of indigenismo, which took on distinct national forms from Peru to Mexico in the early twentieth century. It may be that indigenismo did not touch Argentina in the same way, but given its central role in the historiography of twentieth-century Latin American nation formation and Larson’s focus on indigenous cultures as distinct from peoples (to adopt Rebecca Earle’s distinction), indigenismo’s utter absence in Argentina is itself deserving of some contemplation. Larson argues that official depictions of indigenous peoples in museums and national culture are replaced by criollo and Hispanic forms by the 1930s.[4] The reasons for this shift are vaguely related to a more conservative political climate. The question of what happened to the anthropologists and archaeologists whose professional standing depended on the political and cultural importance of indigenous peoples is not addressed at all. Understanding how these scientists responded to shifting political climates is essential, not ancillary, to understanding the relationship between science and nation formation. Any misgivings about this book’s analysis are compounded by its frequently imprecise language, which included excessive adverbs and vague causal verbs. This book makes an important contribution to our understanding of the indigenous presence in Argentinian nation formation, and it will find an audience among historians of Latin American nation formation interested in anthropology and indigenous groups. Unfortunately, it does not make the requisite moves to find an audience among scholars interested in Latin American indigenismo.

[1] Mónica Quijada, “Ancestros, ciudadanos, piezas de museo. Francisco P. Moreno y la articulación del indígena en la construcción nacional argentina (siglo XIX),” Estudios Interdisciplinarios de América Latina y el Caribe 9, no. 2 (September 30, 2014).

[2] Nancy Stepan, The Hour of Eugenics: Race, Gender, and Nation in Latin America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991); Eduardo A. Zimmermann, “Racial Ideas and Social Reform: Argentina, 1890-1916,” The Hispanic American Historical Review 72, no. 1 (1992): 23–46.

[3] Bruno Latour, Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987).

[4] Rebecca Earle, “‘Padres de La Patria’ and the Ancestral Past: Commemorations of Independence in Nineteenth-Century Spanish America,” Journal of Latin American Studies 34, no. 4 (2002): 775–805.

Josh Mentanko: contributions / / Department of History, Yale University