The Children of Atlantis: Human Origins and Anthropological Thought in Bolivia, 1880sā€“1920s

Friday, January 6, 2017: 8:50 AM
Room 403 (Colorado Convention Center)
Robert Matthew Gildner, Washington and Lee University
Around the turn of the twentieth century, Belisario Díaz Romero made a remarkable discovery.  One of Bolivia’s most prominent gentleman of science, he belonged to the elite caste of European-descendant, or creole intellectuals who had risen to national prominence with the Liberal Revolution of 1899. While his colleagues set to more urgent questions of national geography, Díaz Romero remained fixated on the origin of the human species. It was, after all, one of the most popular scientific issues of this unquestionably modern age. For years he contemplated his own existence in light of recent advances in Victorian anthropology, German ethnology, and French anatomy. After over a decade of research, he announced that Creoles traced their racial lineage to Atlantis. Praised among his peers in the Liberal scientific vanguard and celebrated by the creole elite, Diaz Romero’s discovery transformed Atlantis into an icon of ascendant creole nationalism. Diplomats and scholars, publishers and politicians—the luminaries of La Paz société reveled in their Altantean heritage. The leading weekly carried the name of Plato’s mythical lost city, and so too did bars, cafes, theaters—even puteros—in upscale neighborhoods like Miraflores and Sopocachi. In this paper, I will argue that this origins narrative was much more than a figment of the postcolonial imagination. It tied into a broader project of creole identity formation, one intended to shed the biological component of their American heritage from the 1880s to the 1920s, a moment marked by the ascendance of romantic nationalism and the expansion of European settler colonialism. I analyze the bodies of knowledge that supported creole claims to Atlantean ancestry to highlight the specific scientific traditions and particular cultural sensibilities behind the growth of anthropological thought in Bolivia.