A Lumholtz Legacy: Tarahumara Mask

by AMNH on

From the Collections posts

A mask of carved wood with a human face and a single antler protruding from the left side of the skull.
Ethnologist and naturalist Carl Sophus Lumholtz documented over 200 Tarahumara objects, including this carved wooden mask. Photo courtesy of the Division of Anthropology (Catalog no. 65/1030).

For the first expedition organized by the Museum’s Division of Anthropology, to the Sierra Madre range in Mexico in 1890, the Museum recruited a researcher with a truly global resume.

Born near Lillehammer, Norway, Carl Sophus Lumholtz was an ethnologist and naturalist with an intense interest in people and their environments. A pioneer of the participant-observation technique, he had come to the Museum’s attention for his work in Australia, where he spent four years learning the customs of the indigenous Australians while collecting botanical and zoological specimens.

Between 1890 and 1897, Lumholtz led three expeditions to Mexico, traveling some 900 miles in the Sierra Madre Occidental. It was during the second expedition, in 1891, that he lived among the Tarahumara Indians, known as extraordinary distance runners, and detailed Tarahumara daily life, rituals, and beliefs. He also collected and documented 230 objects—among them, three carved wooden masks with human faces, including the one pictured here.

A beautiful example of Tarahumara material culture, this mask had already lost one of its two antlers by the time Lumholtz acquired it on January 6, 1891, during dances celebrating the Feast of the Epiphany. The Tarahumara incorporated traditional beliefs into their Christian observances, and this mask was associated with supernatural beings that helped ensure an abundance of animals to hunt.

During his Mexican expeditions, Lumholtz also researched the Huichol, Cora, and Tepehuane cultures, ultimately collecting some 2,000 objects. The quintessential researcher, he brought back numerous botanical and zoological specimens and meteorological data he had gathered along the way.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Winter issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.