David Maybury-Lewis, a Harvard anthropologist who served as a tireless advocate for indigenous cultures and peoples, died Dec. 2 at his home in Cambridge, Mass. He was 78.
Maybury-Lewis passed away after a long, difficult struggle with Parkinson’s disease, according to his family.
A social anthropologist with a towering international reputation, Maybury-Lewis was a deeply committed supporter of the rights of the peoples that he studied. He worked extensively with central Brazilian Indian peoples affected by what he termed “developmentalism”: destructive development projects, of national aDonald Pfister chosen as new dean of Harvard Summer Schoold international origins, that pay little heed to the original peoples and the environments in which they live.
“David Maybury-Lewis brought attention to the very critical matter of cultures being destroyed by globalization and industrialization,” says Nur Yalman, professor of social anthropology and Middle Eastern studies emeritus at Harvard. “He was pioneering in this area. The world’s native peoples have benefited greatly from his life’s work.”
In 1972, to help protect the rights of native peoples, Maybury-Lewis, his Danish-born wife, Pia, and colleagues on the Harvard faculty co-founded Cultural Survival, a Cambridge-based nonprofit organization dedicated to the human rights of indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities. It remains widely regarded as the premier institution of its kind in the United States. Partnering with indigenous peoples to support their rights and to preserve their land, resources, language, and culture, Cultural Survival has worked to assist populations in North and South America, Africa, Asia, and Europe.
Maybury-Lewis was president of Cultural Survival until his passing. For their advocacy work, David and Pia Maybury-Lewis received the American Anthropological Association’s Distinguished Service Award in 1988. David Maybury-Lewis was also awarded the Anders Retzuis Gold Medal of the Swedish Society of Anthropology and Geography in 1998.
“Recognizing how economic development programs often led to the destruction of the rainforest and the exploitation of the peoples of the lowlands, he helped build a field committed to supporting alternative forms of development that would protect the rights and the interests of such peoples,” says Byron Good, professor of medical anthropology at Harvard Medical School. “He founded a specialized program in development studies within the Department of Anthropology at Harvard, designed to educate a cadre of scholars who could change the direction of the global organizations investing in development projects throughout the world.”
Maybury-Lewis joined Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences in 1960 as an instructor in social anthropology, becoming an assistant professor in 1961. He was appointed Edward C. Henderson Professor of Anthropology in 1969 and chair of the Harvard Anthropology Department between 1973 and 1981. He also served as the curator of South American Ethnology in Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology from 1966 to 2004, when he retired from the University.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Maybury-Lewis led the Harvard-Central Brazil Project. With Harvard and Brazilian social scientists, this project not only documented, through a series of detailed ethnographies, the interrelationships between the cultures of the various tribal peoples of central Brazil, it also helped lay the groundwork for modern anthropology in Brazil. Maybury-Lewis and his Brazilian collaborators went on to found graduate programs in anthropology in Rio de Janeiro and in sociology in the northeastern Brazilian city of Recife.
Maybury-Lewis’ colleagues and students at that time are now among Brazil’s senior social scientists, and the institutions he helped found thrive to this day. For that and for his pioneering research in general, he was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of Scientific Merit, Brazil’s highest academic honor, in 1997.
Born May 5, 1929, in Hyderabad, Sindh, under the British Raj in what today is Pakistan, Maybury-Lewis was the son of a civil engineer in the British Civil Service. His father’s post in the remote Sindhi desert building dams and canals acquainted Maybury-Lewis, from his very earliest days, with the confrontation of modern and traditional ways, high technology and backwardness, empires and subjects, and culture clashes: the contradictory issues that would be the object of his life’s work at Harvard.
Maybury-Lewis attended King’s School Canterbury, an English boarding school. From 1948 to 1949, he served as a British army officer in the West Yorkshire Regiment. He went on to study modern languages at Cambridge, eventually becoming fluent in nine languages, including two central Brazilian indigenous languages. He received his M.A. in social sciences at the University of São Paulo, and his D.Phil. in anthropology from Oxford University in 1960.
His doctorate, based on groundbreaking work among the Shavante of central Brazil, was published as the ethnography “Akwï-Shavante Society” (Clarendon Press, 1967).
“His courses covered a broad range of subjects from the intricacies of kinship analysis to foundations of social theory,” says James J. Fox, professor at the Australian National University and former member of Harvard’s Anthropology Department. “His lectures were stunningly well-prepared and authoritatively delivered. His intellectual interests mirrored his course offerings. Brazil was always a key interest of his, but some of his most probing research focused on the nature of dual organization and its prevalence throughout the world.”
The author of eight scholarly books and innumerable articles, Maybury-Lewis’ first book, “The Savage and the Innocent,” was published in 1965. A popular classic on the challenges facing anthropologists conducting “fieldwork” among tribal peoples, the book documented Maybury-Lewis’ and his family’s time living among the Sherente and the hunter/gatherer Shavante peoples of Brazil between 1955 and 1958, detailing the Indians’ response to contact with outside cultures.
“In the 1960s there was growing recognition and interest in the relationship between the cognitive structures of people and the societies in which they lived, and he contributed greatly to this discussion,” Yalman says. “He was one of the really important figures in the structuralist tradition in anthropology, and his work in Brazil contributed mightily to the refinement of the theories of Levi-Strauss, one of the towering figures in 20th century social sciences.”
In 1992, Maybury-Lewis hosted a popular Public Broadcasting System series titled “Millennium: Tribal Wisdom and the Modern World,” also writing a companion book by the same name. The series, which aired over 10 weeks, covered such universal themes as death, romantic love, spirituality, and friendship, depicting the lives of indigenous peoples from 15 different countries around the world.
“David applied this same spirit of engaged anthropology to his remarkable film series,” says J. Lorand Matory, professor of anthropology and of African and African American studies at Harvard. “More than any other anthropologist since Margaret Mead, David brought the wisdom and the worth of other lifeways into the living rooms of hundreds of thousands.”
Always an advocate, but never patronizing of the people he studied, in a 1992 interview with the Harvard Gazette, Maybury-Lewis said of the television series, “What I wanted to do was show how other people live so that we could think about how we live.”
“He was a brilliant, brilliant orator; very witty, very fair, and very noble,” Yalman says. Yalman recalls Maybury-Lewis playing a central role in a long-running Christmastime tradition in Adams House, a Harvard dormitory with which he was associated since the mid-1960s: annually joining a group of distinguished Harvard professors in tuxedos who would read aloud, after the holiday dinner, a chapter from “Winnie-the-Pooh” to the celebrating students. In his august Oxfordian accent, Maybury-Lewis read the part of the narrator.
“A memorable feature of his deep involvement with life at Harvard,” Fox says, “was his collegiality and conviviality. He and his wife regularly held a Sunday evening open house at which students and faculty of every sort gathered for good food and excellent conversation.”
“As a colleague, David seemed to take an example from the men in the lowland South American societies that he so admired,” Matory says. “He led by example, by inspiration, and by elegant persuasion, not by dictation or bullying. His was a strong presence. He had a way with the deftly chosen and encouraging word.”
David Maybury-Lewis is survived by his wife, Pia; two sons, Biorn (Harvard ’80) of Cambridge, Mass., and Anthony (Harvard ’83) of London; and four grandchildren. A memorial service will be held at Harvard in March.