A Dolphin Tooth Necklace from the Rubber Boom Genocide Collections at the British Museum

by Laura Osorio Sunnucks, Juan Alvaro Echeverri, Oscar Román Jitdutjaaño, Alicia Sánchez,  María de las Mercedes Martínez Milantchi, and  Maria Fernanda Esteban Palma

McGregor’s History of the World in a 100 Objects includes chapters or segments that focus on various works of visual and material culture from Central and South America, which all reference pre-Conquest civilisations with one exception, a contact era Mexican codex map dated to the late sixteenth century. None of the Latin American objects chosen for this project come from Amazonia, however, and the majority of material from this cultural area in the British Museum was made and acquired in the early twentieth century. The objects described by McGregor are grouped thematically and described in their cultural and historical context, emphasising the ways they illustrate this history. For example, the Mexican bark cloth codex references, among other things, the Spanish missionary conversion of local religions in Mesoamerica to Catholicism during the colonial administration that followed the fall of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan. The chapter/segment also touches on the legacies of the Spanish missionising project in modern-day Mexico, showing how the past shapes contemporary religious identities.

This object biography presents a project developed by the Santo Domingo Centre of Excellence for Latin American Research at the British Museum using one particular Amazonian object that encapsulates the history of its collection. The Centre invited Murui-Muina Amazonian elders Oscar Román Jitdutjaaño and Alicia Sánchez to work with and interpret material acquired from the Murui-Muina and Bora Peoples during the height of the rubber boom in Western Amazonia, with the objective of building a discussion directed by the descendants of the people from whom the collections were sourced, as opposed to by curators, directors or academics. It makes clear that many of the objects held by anthropology museums illustrate much more than their makers’ and receivers’ historical and cultural context. The acquisition of these works and the reasons behind that activity reveal the underlying colonial framework of early anthropological collecting. In light of the very clear problematic and political role of this process, this project hoped to take committed positions in solidarity with the descendants of Peoples impacted by colonial programmes.

Genocide in Western Amazonia and the Murui-Muina and Bora collections at the British Museum

In 1905 the British Museum received around 100 objects collected by the French explorer Eugène Robuchon from the Murui-Muina (formerly known as Witoto) and Bora People  in the then Peruvian, now Colombian, Amazon. This collection was added to about a dozen objects deposited by George Lomas in 1904, and was complemented by later additions in the following decades made by, J H A Meech (1914), E Seymour Bell (1925), Miss E G Merston (1928) and a number of objects from the Munich Ethnographical Museum, collected in the first half of the 19th century by J B von Spix and C F P von Martius, all of which were also from the Putumayo region in Northwestern Amazonia.  

A research project on this particular collection is being developed by two Murui-Muina elders, Oscar Román Jitdutjaaño and Alicia Sánchez, together with Juan Alvaro Echeverri, Professor at the National University of Colombia in Leticia, and the Santo Domingo Centre of Excellence for Latin American Research at the British Museum. The aim of the project is to reconnect the works that the Museum acquired from Robuchon, and later from other travellers, with elders who remember their parents and grandparents talking about cultural practices and the materials associated with them, which have been lost and/or forgotten as a result of the rubber boom genocide. The Murui-Muina (Witoto) and Bora people were among the groups which came close to extermination during the period of brutality related to the escalation of rubber extraction promoted by the Peruvian Amazon Company (PAC). It was during this same period that these works were collected, transported and accessioned. 

The Amazonian rubber boom (1885-1930), fuelled by demand in the industrial world for this raw material used in the production of cars and machines, resulted in the exploitation of the region’s Indigenous peoples. The exploitation of rubber workers took various forms, ranging from debt peonage and relative autonomy to enslavement, torture, rape and genocide.1 The most violent episodes during the boom under the PAC reduced the Bora, Muinane, Miraña, Nonuya, Ocaina and Murui-Muina population to a tenth of its size between 1900 and 1930.2 In the years following the escalation of the boom, these people were displaced from their ancestral territories. Many escaped and chose to live tribal lives, while others resettled along the banks of the Caquetá, where they worked in the timber industry, traded with white settlers and sent their children to Catholic boarding schools.3 The cultural landscape of Western Amazonia was torn apart and reconfigured, leading to culture loss as well as new encounters between communities from the big rivers and those from smaller tributaries.   

The core of this collection are the objects donated by Robuchon in 1905 and E Seymour Bell in 1925. Robuchon carried out an initial survey of the Igaraparaná and Caraparaná Rivers,  the homeland of the Murui-Muina and Bora groups, in 1903-1904, which is where he collected the objects he donated to the British Museum in 1905. That same year, the Peruvian government, through the Case Arana (PAC), hired him to conduct a geographical and anthropological study of the Putumayo region. Robuchon died shortly afterwards in the course of his second expedition at the beginning of 1906 and though circumstances of his disappearance have never come to light, it is widely assumed that his death was arranged by the Case Arana, as a consequence of his photographic documentation of the atrocities associated with the rubber boom. Robuchon’s findings were significantly altered/amended by the Casa Arana and published the following year.4 This publication framed the Casa Arana rubber tapping enterprise as a civilising project. The rubber stakeholders mobilised scientific neutrality within a dispute over territory between Peru and Colombia.  

“Los estudios del Señor Robuchon han de tener, indudablemente, fuerza probatoria en cualquier circunstancia en que sea preciso atestiguar como las energías peruanas se han ejercitado en las zonas que nos disputan algunos países vecinos.”5 Quote from the Peruvian consul at Manaus, Carlos Rey de Castro – a close ally of Julio Cesar Arana.  

In 1910, the British Government sent a commission to Putumayo to investigate the atrocities that the PAC was accused of committing. This commission consisted of a member of the Amazon rubber company, a specialist of tropical plants, a brother of the ambassador to France and E Seymour Bell, an economist. One of the mandates of this commission was to assess the potential for commercial development. E Seymour Bell made a collection of mostly tooth necklaces, which was eventually accessioned to the British Museum in 1925. One of these is a river dolphin tooth necklace. 

The Murui-Muina collections held at the British Museum contain a number of tooth necklaces, made from animals such as wild pigs, jaguars, monkeys and dolphins. These teeth are gathered to harness the living powers of the animals from which they are taken. They are considered dangerous and so they are kept far away from people at night, which is when they come alive and can disturb those nearby. Their power can be tamed by those who are knowledgeable and experienced, and can be used for healing purposes. However, once they have been damaged the living being inside them dies. Román Jitdutjaaño and Sánchez reviewed most of the collections held at the British Museum.  All the tooth necklaces assessed by Román Jitdutjaaño and Sánchez were pronounced dead with one exception: that made from the river dolphin teeth. 

At the Museum

Oscar Román Jitdutjaaño, Alicia Sánchez and Juan Alvaro Echeverri joined the Centre for workshops to design a display case in the Wellcome Trust Gallery at the British Museum, which explores cross-cultural approaches to Living and Dying, using collections from Africa, Oceania and the Americas. Their work with the British Museum’s galleries and collections led them to name this project “House of Shadows”. This title, roughly translated from Murui-Muina Jananɨaɨ Iko, reflects Román Jitdutjaaño and Sánchez’s impressions of the space. Community houses (or malocas) in their part of Amazonia are vaults that mimic the universe; they represent the covering of the world conceived as a vessel, while baskets are used as metaphors for the support provided from below. Together they make up the body of the world. Seasonal dances that take place in and around malocas re-create this world of agricultural cycles, and the relationship between events in the past, present and future. Within the Murui-Muina worldview, therefore, the Museum’s Great Court is a vault similar to that of a maloca. However, the objects on display are dissociated from their living contexts and so appear to be lifeless reflections or shadows of the cultures they seek to represent. 

According to Murui-Muina people, river dolphins are shape-shifters, who can disguise themselves as men and women, and use other river creatures as their clothing. For example, an electric eel is changed into a belt, fish are made into shoes and a crab becomes a watch. They wear stingrays as hats as a way to disguise the blowholes on the back of their necks and, thus disguised, they attend parties and bars to seduce or rape their victims. Their teeth can be scratched to produce a powder used for love spells. As dolphins are shape-shifters, their teeth cannot be used for healing. Although river people inhabit the entire Amazonian region, for the Murui-Muina, these disguised dolphins appear as white people; they are well-dressed, perfumed and wealthy. They are associated with the acquisitiveness and greed of foreigners in Amazonia, as well as the foreign diseases that are a product of cultural contact. As river dolphins live in the large rivers, they and the narratives and knowledge associated with them reached the communities that are removed from these large rivers (such as those in La Chorrera) as a result of the movement of people and ideas during the rubber boom. This necklace would have been a very new object when it was collected by Seymour Bell in the early 1900s and sent to the British Museum. This living necklace embodies not only the power of river dolphins but also a point of cultural contact and trauma, splintering and annihilation as well as new knowledge and experience. The seductive “qualities” of river dolphins are a type of local mythology and they are viewed with scepticism and irritation by certain Peoples in Western Amazonia. However, the cultural knowledge surrounding these animals takes on a particularly nefarious nuance in the context of the communities who were particularly impacted by the rubber boom genocide. 

The Robuchon collection also contains a number of crowns, each with a small layer of feathers located at the front of a woven palm circle (see pictured example). Younger members of the Indigenous groups from La Chorrera do not recognise crowns such as these as part of their tradition or cultural history. This is as a consequence of the rubber boom, during and after which these crowns were neither produced nor used. Not only did the material knowledge associated with these works disappear, so did the associated social positions, such as that of chief (or captain), who would have worn the crowns as a symbol of their rank and identity. However, Román Jitdutjaaño and Sánchez were able to identify them through childhood memories of elders from the community who described them and the ceremonies they were used for. 

The Politics of Time 

Amazonia has often been represented as a wild untouched landscape inhabited by un-contacted Indigenous Peoples. This historicised image has been created in contrast to modernity; while Amazonia has been viewed as natural, apolitical and frozen in time, global modernity is active, evolving and politicised. Recent archaeological studies related to terra preta, further than pushing back the first peopling of Amazonia, establish the sustained intentional human activity that has shaped the societies and environments of the region.6 This work has been disseminated to the public through, for example, museum exhibitions such as that held at the British Museum in 2001, Unknown Amazon: Culture in Nature in Ancient Brazil.7 At the same time, advances in anthropological research have begun to focus on neo-Amazonian populations and their relationship with as well as impact on global politics and culture.8 Furthermore, these studies have focused on how colonial and national expansion as well as extractive projects over time have intersected with Indigenous ontologies to construct culturally specific historical and memory narratives.9 These studies are of particular relevance in the context of contemporary museological considerations.   Following Bahktin’s literary narrative theory,10 museums have been described as chronotopes,11 in that they are underpinned by historical time-consciousness and totalisation, as it has been debated and described in Western philosophy. Anthropology museums, in which events and objects are lent causality, result in fictional chronotopes that are presented as neutral and scientific. This framework created by Enlightenment-derived movements such as positivism and its more benign transfiguration, empiricism, continue to underpin museum narratives. The collections project described here takes two ethnographic collections from Western Amazonia that were acquired during the rubber boom and are currently held at the British Museum in order to disturb the supposed scientific neutrality underlying their creation as well as to show how collections such as these can be mobilised for politically and emotionally relevant contemporary projects with the descendants of the communities they were taken from. Like many of the collections at the British Museum, the rubber boom genocide collections have remained under-researched and in storage since their accession over a hundred years ago. It has been publicly asserted that they have been retained on the basis that they tell important stories about cultural pathways in South America. Indeed, the creation and preservation of these collections can be justified in that many of the objects in these collections can prompt memories and narratives that have been lost by many of the Peoples identified as their “source communities,” as is the case with the feather crowns sent to the British Museum by Robuchon. However, they can also illustrate the political uses of the scientific and neutral narratives that were used to justify their accession and the projects associated with anthropology. They can be re-politicised now, putting critical stress on the extractive neoliberal projects that continue to operate unharnessed on Indigenous territories in Amazonia, and worldwide, today.

Román, Echeverri and Osorio at Franks House, British Museum at Franks House, British Museum. 

Dolphin tooth necklace 
Tooth necklace (pink river dolphin) made by the Murui-Muina (witoto) (Am1925,0704.9) © Trustees of the British Museum

Coca Leaf Crown
Feather crown used by Murui-Muina (witoto) chiefs (Am1905,0216.7). Collected by Eugène Robuchon © Trustees of the British Museum

1 Carolina Carvalho, “How to See a Scar: Humanitarianism and Colonial Iconography in the Putumayo Rubber Boom.” Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies 27, no. 3 (2018), 371-397; Barbara Weinstein. The Amazon Rubber Boom, 1850-1920 (Stanford University Press: Stanford, 1983).

2 Juan Alvaro Echeverri, “The People of the Center of the World: A Study in Culture History and Orality in the Colombian Amazon.” (PhD Dissertation, New School for Social Research, New York, 1997); Juan Alvaro Echeverri “The Putumayo Indians and the Rubber Boom.” Irish Journal of Anthropology 14, no. 2 (2011), 13.

3 Juan Alvaro Echeverri, “The Putumayo Indians and the Rubber Boom”, Irish Journal of Anthropology 14, no. 2 (2011), 14.

4 Eugène Robuchon, En el Putumayo y sus afluentes (JC Arana y hermanos: Lima, 1907). 

5 Eugène Robuchon, (ed) Juan Alvaro Echeverri En el Putumayo y sus afluentes (Biblioteca del Gran Cauca: Universidad del Gran Cauca 2010/JC Arana y hermanos: Lima, 1907), 61.

6 William Woods and Joseph McCann, “The Anthropogenic Origin and Persistence of Amazonian Dark Earths”. Yearbook. Conference of Latin Americanist Geographers 25  (1999), 7–14; Bruno Glaser and William Woods (eds) Amazonian Dark Earths Explorations in Space and Time (Springer-Verlag: Berlin and Heidelberg, 2004).

7 Colin McEwan, Cristina Barreto and Eduardo Neves. Unknown Amazon: Culture in Nature in Ancient Brazil (British Museum Press: London, 2001).

8 Evan Killick, “Rubber, Terra Preta, and Soy: A study of Visible and invisible Amazonian modernities” Journal of Anthropological Research 74, no. 1 (2018), 32-53.

9 Carlos Fausto and Michael Heckenberger, Time and Memory in Indigenous Amazonia: Anthropological Perspectives (Gainsville: University of Florida Press, 2007); Neil Whitehead (ed). Histories and Historicities in Amazonia (University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln and London, 2003).

10 Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays edited by Michael Holquist and translated by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990 (1981).

11 Gwyneira Isaac, Diana Marsh, Laura Osorio Sunnucks, and Anthony Shelton, “Borders and Interruptions, Museums in the Age of Global Mobility, Mexico City, 7-9 June 2017” Museum Worlds: Advances in Research 7 (2019), 182-199; Julia Binter, “Beyond Exhibiting the Experience of Empire; Challenging Chronotopes in the Museum.” Third Text 33, no. 4-5 (2019), 575–593. 

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