Wednesday, March 6, 2024

Anthropologist Zelia Nuttall: A New Biography

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, History of Science, Nature of Science, Archeology, Anthropology

Ed Hessler

American anthropologist and archeologist, Zelia Nuttall (Zelia Maria Magdalena Nuttall), September 6 1857 to April 12 1933, was unknown to me but not to Wiki. I was introduced to her in a chapter excerpt from a new biography (see end) by Merilee Grindell.

Smithsonian Magazine, November 2023, has an excerpt of this new book and my aim is to point it out and extract a few excerpts. It is lavishly illustrated.

Each of the following is amplified and discussed more completely in Grindell's chapter from the Smithsonian Magazine. Take a look if you are unfamiliar with her and/or her scientific work.

In 1885, while visiting ancient ruins - Teoitihuacan - north of Mexico City which "had once been home to the predecessors of the Aztecs, she picked up a few pieces of pottery". To compress the next fifty years of her life her work "would challenge the way people thought of Mesoamerican history...became the first to decode the Aztec calendar, identify the purposes of ancient adornments and weapons, untangle the organization of commercial networks and transcribed ancient songs."

This chapter contains information about her early life, the expansion of her language skills, and a most curious marriage that ultimately led to a divorce. Her visit to Teoitihuacan where she had found the small terra cotta heads about which some anthropological scholars had formed some non-evidence based opinions based on "racial identity (as a) marker of human development.  These were based on "mistaken ideas about Darwinism. All of it was speculation which Nuttall turned upside down by replacing "it with observation and reason."

Nuttall also realized that she needed some help and it came as a result of contact with Frederic Ward Putnam, the curator of Harvard's Peabody Museum of Archeology & Ethnology.  Putnam had "regard for women's intellectual capacities."  About them he had said "several of my best students are women, who have become widely known by their thorough and important works and publications; and this I consider as high an honor as could be accorded to me." Her time with Putnam is filled out.

Her work on the terra cotta heads led her to some interpretations about differences among them as well as what the small holes in them had been used for. These were based on concrete observations which are discussed.

Nuttall returned to live in Mexico with her daughter where she was "welcomed into the international community of anthropologists in Mexico, where she became known for her afternoon teas, her ambles with shovel and bucket in hand but not known for purchasing a commentary in Nahuatl written on deer skin that she smuggled. out of the country. The chapter closes with comments on her beliefs about "hierarchy and a natural order of classes and races, her funeral and comments made by Alfred Tozzer in the journal American Anthropologist, and why we know so little  about her private life.

Grindell closes by writing "A single mother pursuing a career while looking after a family in a man's world: In some ways, Zella Nuttall was a very modern woman."


In the Shadow of Quetzalcoatl: Zelia Nuttall and the Search for Mexico’s Ancient Civilizations, by Merilee Grindle, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2023


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