150 Years of Smithsonian Research in Latin America

Over the past century and a half, Smithsonian scientists have found a fertile field for collaborative research and exploration in Latin America. 150 Years of Smithsonian Research in Latin America offers a window on the complex and rich relations among scientists throughout the Americas.


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Island Voyagers: Caribbean Archaeology and Natural History

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Image of opened book, with a images of a ship on one side, and a title plate and stamp on the otherBlack and white image of a landing party of men standing and sitting on a small boat that is about tSmithsonian scientists have a long history of collaborative research in the Caribbean. In 1914 a Smithsonian expedition traveled to western Cuba and the Colorados reefs to study land and marine geology, flora, and fauna. John Brooks Henderson, a member of the Smithsonian's Board of Regents, had collected marine mollusks in southern Florida and wanted a broader understanding of the region's fauna.
He first obtained the support of Dr. Carlos de la Torre of the University of Havana, then the leading Cuban naturalist. Henderson later described him as "our most enthusiastic member--our guide, philosopher, and friend."

Black and white photograph of Carlos de la Torre from the chest up, with white receding hair and a m

Jesse Walter Fewkes (1850-1930), Smithsonian Institution Archives, SIA Acc. 90-105 [SIA2008-0593].
Cuban and American staff were recruited for a six-week expedition. A new fishing schooner, the Tomas Barrera and crew, were loaned by the "great and unexpected generosity of the owner, Raoul Mediaville." President Menocal of the Cuban Republic provided further staff and funding, being interested in the preservation of "food-fish life among the Colorados" and in collections of marine life for the University of Havana. Among many specimens collected was the brilliantly colored land snail. Henderson published the results of their work in the Cruise of the Tomás Barrera. The voyage led to the discovery of more prolific and varied flora and fauna than previously known in this region. De la Torre's lasting collaboration with Smithsonian scientists exemplifies the scientific cooperation and exchange that still continues between the two countries.

Image of Cuban newspaper, with black and white photographs of a ship and of men in back and white su

Other Caribbean expeditions in the early 1900s include travels in the West Indies by J. Walter Fewkes of the Bureau of American Ethnology. Fewkes planned to "collect specimens and data that would shed light on the prehistoric inhabitants ... [of Puerto Rico] which had lately come into the possession of the United States." His first visit in 1902 revealed the need for further work in Puerto Rico and for comparative work on other islands: "The character of the aboriginal Antilleans could not be satisfactorily solved from material collected on any one [island]." Thus Fewkes returned to investigate neighboring islands such as Haiti, Cuba, Trinidad, and the Lesser Antilles.

Ceramic Vessel, Taino, Puerto Rico, 1200-1400 A.D., Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Carved Diorite Collar or Yoke, Taino, Puerto Rico, 1200-1400 A.D., Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Carved Marble Ceremonial Object, Zemi, Puerto Rico, 1400 A.D., Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Land Snails, Polymita Picta., Cuba, collected in 1914, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Mollusks from the Tomas Barrera Expedition, 1916, Collected by Carlos de la Torre and J.B. Henderson, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Fewkes' Puerto Rican finds yielded much information about the early inhabitants' physical characteristics and manner of life. Among the "problematic archeological objects" he recovered were mysterious stone collars, or rings. Fewkes guessed that they were "images of the coiled bodies of serpents or reptilian monsters which personated some great nature power, possibly a sky or wind god." (Recent interpretations by scholars suggest that the stone collars represented protective gear used in ball games.) He included the collars with carved three-pointed stones called zemis, which he described as "idols with conical projections."

In addition to excavations, Fewkes and his staff studied a number of private collections and drew data from historical and ethnographic sources. Their finds and others from private collectors were added to the Smithsonian's National Museum. (The Latimer collection, an outstanding gift of pottery and remarkably beautiful stone implements, was the first large enough for comparative study.) Fewkes' work and subsequent publications, such as Aborigines of Porto Rico and Neighboring Islands (1907), contributed greatly toward identifying and documenting the cultural remnants of "... peoples of the West Indies, swept almost without record from the islands during the early years of Spanish colonization."

Image of opened book, with text accompined by drawings of triangular-shaped aboriginal artifacts