Alicia Dussán Maldonado is one of Colombia’s most remarkable defenders of cultural and ethnic diversity, and a pioneer for women academics and researchers worldwide. She was the first Colombian woman to graduate as an ethnologist and to establish a lifelong link with that profession, she designed the first methodologies to investigate rural-urban migration, and she worked for the legalisation of the first indigenous resguardos in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Her work has contributed enormously to a greater appreciation and respect for Colombia’s indigenous peoples – from the Kogi of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, to the Tukano of the northwest Amazon.
She was born on 16th October 1920, to a wealthy Huilense farmer, who died young, and a ‘liberal’ thinking mother, Lucrecia Maldonado, who became her best ally when she bravely dared to walk on paths forbidden to women. Alicia grew up on Bogotá and studied at the Gimnasio Femenino, which specialized in educating girls to be excellent housewives or perhaps nurses or teachers.
Before starting her university career, Alicia asked her mother to allow her to travel to Berlin to study German language and civilisation, and she did so in 1938. She became a regular visitor to the Ethnological Museum, and with concern observed that many pieces from San Agustín and the Colombian Amazon were on display in private collections. That trip only lasted a long year because the Second War began, and she returned to Bogotá to study law. Lectures by the Frenchman Paul Rivet fuelled her interest in ethnography, and she gave up studying law to enrol in the National Institute of Ethnology, created and directed by Rivet.
She met her husband one quiet Sunday afternoon while crossing the square in Pacho, a small town near to Bogotá. Gerardo Reichel Dolmatoff, who later founded the Faculty of Anthropology of the Andes with her, was buying pots in the square. They were united not only by her knowledge of the German language, but also by their mutual interest in the secrets of the Earth and the secrets of the first peoples in the Americas. They married in 1942 and a much-loved anecdote tells how their honeymoon included an archaeological exploration: funeral urns of the Magdalena basin. It was the beginning of a life that took them to all corners of Colombia. Long journeys took them in search of pictographs, archaeological sites and, above all, indigenous groups of which nothing was known. Among many things, Alicia and Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff discovered that the Colombia’s indigenous population were the first in the Americas to make objects in baked clay and ceramics, and that 600 years B.C. settlements based on corn agriculture already existed on the Pacific Coast. Together, they produced over 40 books and 500 articles, and they advised the setting up of Colombia’s Gold Museum.
By the 1960s, the attention of the academic world was increasingly focused on Professor Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff. For his holistic approach and in-depth fieldwork, he was deemed the “father of Colombian Archaeology”. This well-deserved prestige grew internationally, but Alicia remained lesser known despite her important contributions. Female anthropologists, archaeologists and ethnologists in those days could be counted on the fingers of one hand – they were looked at with a certain amount of strangeness, and their knowledge was doubted. In later years, Alicia’s work and sharp intellect have gained their rightful place and she is now rightfully honoured in her home country. Recent tributes include this homage to her legacy as co-founder of the Anthropology Faculty, University of Los Andes, Bogotá.
In the mid 1990’s, thanks to the generosity of Teddy Goldsmith, Gaia welcomed Alicia and Gerardo to stay at Gaia House. They spent many weeks compiling, editing and producing two books, published by the Gaia Foundation with Themis Books. The Forest Within: the World-View of the Tukano Amazonian Indians (1996) is a detailed portrait of how indigenous cultures understand the cosmic dimensions of their partnership with the rainforest. Rainforest shamans: essays on the Tukano Indians of the Northwest Amazon (1997) explores role of shamanism, their view of the forest as a model of the cosmos, and their complex and multi-dimensional bond with their environment.
We celebrate the centenary of Alicia Dussan’s life dedicated to research, teaching and knowledge of indigenous cultures of Colombia.
- Alicia Dussán Maldonado, una mente maravillosa, El Tiempo, 18th September 2020
- La Decana, La Semana, 15th October 2020
- Para desafiar la vida nació Alicia Dussan, fundadora de la facultad de Antropología de los Andes. El Tiempo, 4th April 2009
- Alicia Dussán: 100 años de la precursora de la Antropología en el país, Universidad de los Andes, Colombia.
[Header photo credit: Rodrigo Sepúlveda, El Tiempo, 18/09/2020]