William C. Farabee (1865-1925), the second individual to obtain a doctorate in physical anthropology from Harvard University, engaged in a wide range of anthropological work during his time as a professor at Harvard and then as a researcher at the University Museum, Philadelphia. He is best known for his work in human genetics and his ethnographic and geographic work in South America.
Following his work in genetics, Farabee began working in South America. His goal was to record the cultural diversity and obtain items for the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia, where he was employed as a researcher and curator. He made three trips to the Amazon basin, each lasting several years.
While in South America, Farabee traveled into very remote regions. He helped to fill in maps of locations where there had not been any previous exploration. On several occasions, he was the first man of European descent that the natives had seen. In other locations, he witnessed the atrocities that were taking places by slave hunters, such as the story of Simasiri, a translator for the expedition, who witnessed his family sold into slavery or killed by the traders (Farabee, 1922).
While in South America, Farabee also took note of the archaeological sites that they came across. He freely collected artifacts that he thought would be suitable for the Museum and shipped them back to Philadelphia. His array of pottery, beadwork, clothing, ornaments and other artifacts represent an amazing cultural diversity.
The volumes that Farabee produced from his travels include Indian Tribes of Eastern Peru based on his first trip in 1906-1908. His second trip, from 1913-1916, is retold in The Central Arawaks and The Central Caribs. His final trip was in 1921-1923. Each of these books details the people he met and studied, and the cultural groups each belonged to.
Farabee held fairly modern views regarding the people that inhabited the Amazon. He felt that all cultures are a product of their environment and that there is no way to separate culture and the influence that the surrounding world has had on it (Farabee, 1917). He stated that "…there are no primitive men, neither is there primitive culture," (Ibid), which was a novel concept at a time when man was still often viewed in terms of the size of his crania. Although this did not preclude him from obtaining anthropometric data during his travels. Farabee went on to state that "Man has been able to profit by his knowledge of nature's laws, but he has not overcome them" (Farabee 1917). This statement was also innovative because mankind was typically viewed as the apex of creation and able to overcome his natural environment. It was Farabee's experiences among individuals very much at the mercy of the rivers, forests, and diseases that led him to these conclusions.