Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca

"These people love their offspring more than any in the world, and treat them very mildly.
If a son dies, the whole village joins the parents and kindred in weeping."

- Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca in "The Malhado Way of Life"

"Frazer is much more savage than most of these savages."

- Ludwig Wittgenstein in "Remarks on Frazer's Golden Bough"

Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, or ANCdV as I'll be calling him through the course of this journal, holds a special point in history for me, because he was one of the first, well known, western anthropologists. He was sort of like Columbus version 2.0, in that he went on perilous journeys of adventure and discovery, and managed to do so without raping or killing anyone, which is pretty admirable for a 150''s Spanish explorer. In fact, not only does he NOT slaughter the indigenous peoples of wherever he went, but managed to also write very detailed journals on them, their culture, their customs, etc. What I find to be remarkably notable is that he manages to write all this tremendous literature on this culture so outrageously foreign to his own, and manages to do so without once calling them "backwards", "savages", "simple" or without writing his hands evilly and thinking "these people would make good slaves!"
Growing up, one of my favourite books were "The Golden Bough" written by James Frazier in 1890. Just in case you're not familiar with the text, here's a brief summary. James Frazier went around the world, studying a vast multitude of indigenous tribes, making detailed accounts of their society, focusing mainly on the elements of mysticism and magic he observed. His thesis was to find a unifying theme among the world's various religions and mythologies.
At the time, I had considered this to be one of the west's first and best forays into a lengthy understanding of cultures completely foreign to theirs, and I took it in with great interest, because I am a sucker for anything ancient. However, as I grew older, I began to look at Frazier's writings with more critical eye. Of course, to this day I still very much admire his work, his attention to detail, and his scholarly determination to know as much as he can about his subject, but there is one flaw in his approach. Frazier suffers from the all to difficult to eliminate "point of view". While Frazier never comes out and says anything as non PC as "These backwards savages worship the sun" or anything like that, his mindset is still very present in his writing, whereas Cabesa De Vaca seems to not only approach the subject a much more open mind, but also with a certain level of caring, and acceptance. Strange that the more enlightened viewpoint would come almost 400 years before the one that is still having some trouble.


  1. 30/30 Agree that deVaca is essentially our first Western anthropologist. You'll be utterly fascinated to read, therefore, the recent book titled "Crossing the Continent 1527-1540: The Story of the First american Explorer of the American South" -- who is, accordign to author Robert Goodwin, deVaca's former African slave Esteban Dorantes -- whom deVaca mentions, but does not give "center stage" to. He should have. What a book. Your kind of history.

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