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The Karl Schwerin Collection at the Latin American and Iberian Institute

October 16, 2019 - Manon Robyn Cote

The Karl Schwerin Collection at the Latin American and Iberian Institute


Dr. Karl Schwerin, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico (UNM), received his PhD from UCLA in 1965.  He began working as an ethnologist at UNM in 1963 where he taught courses on ethnology, cultural evolution, complex societies, tropical adaptations, and the history of anthropology with a focus on Mesoamerica and South America.  During the course of his 37-year career at UNM he collected hundreds of books related to Latin America, and in 2006 he donated most of the collection to the Latin American and Iberian Institute at the University of New Mexico where the collection resides today.  On August 2, 2019 Dr. Schwerin was interviewed by LAII Program Manager Manon Robyn Cote, who asked him several questions related to the collection itself and to his years of research at UNM.  The following is a recap of that interview.

Dr. Schwerin originally thought he wanted to be a physicist, “but when I failed calculus I realized I needed to find a different career.”  He was always interested in history and people, and was influenced by an Introductory Anthropology course he took as an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley as well as other courses on cultural evolution, and he was “fascinated by how organisms and humans in particular adapt to their environmental circumstances.”  He received his bachelors in Anthropology from UC Berkeley in 1958 and soon thereafter received a fellowship from the Coro Foundation to study in their public affairs organization in Los Angeles.  After a year with the Coro Foundation he decided he wanted to study more anthropology so he applied to UCLA and was accepted directly into the PhD program. 

While at UCLA he did his fieldwork in the oil fields of the eastern plains of Venezuela studying the impact the oil industry had on the local people.  He later studied another community to the south near the Orinoco River, and became interested in how the people there were different from the people who lived in the oil fields.  So began his career in the study of cultural evolution, social change, and environmental adaptation.

He returned to Venezuela in 1967 and did some archival research in Caracas and eastern Venezuela and then in 1969 he received a Fulbright to do research in Ecuador.  In Spring of 1969 he spent one semester teaching at UNM’s Centro Andino in Quito and then went on to do a socioeconomic investigation of the hacienda systems in Cañar, Ecuador to the south, an area that had just experienced a large agrarian reform, and he wanted to see how that had impacted the people living on the haciendas. 

He also worked in Mexico.  While he was an undergraduate he spent a summer in Tlaxcala with the Quakers working at a summer camp building a school for the community.  While at UCLA he returned to the Tlaxcala area to conduct a survey on several local communities who had a strong component of the “Schematic Church” also known as the “Mexican Catholic Church” which had “an interesting mix of religious persuasions….there were the Catholics, the Methodists, the Evangélicos, and the Schismatics.”  While in Mexico he became interested in ethnobotany and collected several books on cultivated Mexican species and cacti which he used as references and some of which are not part of the collection.

While he was doing archival research in Venezuela he frequented the Venezuela National Academy of History, the Venezuelan National Bank, and the Socieded de Historia Natural where he collected many books.  “They had a lot of books about early chroniclers, so I bought every one of those I could lay my hands on.  I’m a sort of bibliophile, anywhere I go I collect books.”  Many of the works he collected were about Alexander von Humboldt, the German naturalist, geographer, and explorer who traveled in Venezuela with French botanist Aimé Bonpland between 1799-1800.  “They collected phenomenal amounts of data and specimens…botanical stuff, zoological stuff, mineralogical stuff, and took detailed records of temperatures and altitudes and climatic factors.”

In spring of 1979 he was invited to teach for one semester at the Instituto Venezolano de Investigaciones Científicas where he taught a course on the History of Anthropology, with a focus on the history of anthropological research in Venezuela.  During the course of his research he came across the works of Alcide d’Orbigny, a Frenchman who explored the southern cone of South America between 1826-1833 collecting specimens related to natural history, geology, mineralogy and paleontology as well as linguistic and ethnographic data.  Fascinated by his work, Dr. Schwerin was later awarded a grant to go to Paris to do archival research on d’Orbigny, from which he published a couple of papers.

Dr. Schwerin’s interest in natural history and ethnology made him a popular professor at UNM.  “I have good recollections of the numerous exceptional graduate students with whom I was privileged to work, both in Anthropology and Latin American Studies.  The Latin American Studies program had provided a context for people to study various aspects of Latin America from a more comprehensive perspective than you would get just doing history or anthropology or geography or political science or any of the other specific disciplines, because it brings all those things together.  It’s just a different way of approaching similar questions, and it provided an opportunity for faculty to work together across departmental lines.”

Dr. Schwerin retired from UNM in 2001.  “It was Frank Hibbens’ fault that I retired when I did.  They were holding a celebratory dinner for him at the Albuquerque Country Club and were presenting him with that painting of him looking like a white hunter, leopard skin hat and all…and all of a sudden I couldn’t talk.  I had had a TIA, a Transient Ischemic Attack.  I recovered about six months later, but I realized somebody was trying to tell me something.  It was time to stop teaching.” After he retired he moved offices and was not sure what to do with his collection.  In 2006 he spoke with then Director of the LAII Dr. Susan Tiano who agreed to house the collection.  “I’m happy to have it some place where it could be properly utilized, hopefully people could take advantage of it.  I would hope that students would find it useful, for general knowledge, for research, term papers, course assignments – however - using it as an intellectual resource.  It’s important for people to learn just how important and diverse Latin America is.  Generally, my idea about things is that I’d like them to be used by and appreciated by other people, so when I’m gone it would still be of some utility.”

Dr. Schwerin’s collection is available for perusal by the UNM community in the Latin American and Iberian Institute Reading Room during regular operation hours.