John V. Murra, a professor of anthropology who culled voluminous Spanish colonial archives for research that reshaped the image of the Incas and their vast South American empire, died on Oct. 16 at his home in Ithaca, N.Y. He was 90.
The death was confirmed by Blaine Friedlander, a spokesman for Cornell University, where Professor Murra taught from 1968 until his retirement in 1982.
“Before he came along, the image of the Incas was one of barbaric splendor,” said Frank Salomon, the John V. Murra professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. But Professor Murra’s work “forged a radically new image” of that empire, Professor Salomon said — one based on an intricate and often ceremonial exchange of produce as gifts among tribal kinfolk. They hiked from the edges of the rain forest to meet those living at the heights of the Andes, ensuring each other’s survival by trading key lowland crops like maize and potatoes for scarce mountain goods like llama and alpaca wool. That economic system was named “the vertical archipelago” by Professor Murra.
“His ‘vertical archipelago’ model has been verified through research
that archaeologists have since done in the Andean zone,” said Heather
Lechtman, a professor of archaeology and ancient technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
While some experts debate aspects of the theory, Professor Lechtman
said, “This is certainly the accepted model for the central Andes.”
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Murra's papers are at the National Anthropological Archives of the Smithsonian Institution, according to a press release issued in 2005 announcing the availability of a finding aid [.pdf] to the collection. The press release also includes additional biographical information:
The National Anthropological Archives is pleased to announce the availability of a Register to the Papers of John Victor Murra, an anthropologist and ethnohistorian whose research focuses on Andean cultures and the Caribbean. Murra is the author of Survey and Excavations in Southern Ecuador (with Don Collier, 1943); The Economic Organization of the Inca State (1956); Cloth and its Functions in the Inca State (1962); Current Research and Prospects in Andean Ethnohistory (1970); Formaciones económicas y políticas del mundo andino (1975); Historia general de América Latina / 1. Las sociedades originales (with Teresa Rojas Rabiela, 1999); and El mundo andino: población, medio ambiente y economía (2002), and is the editor of American Anthropology, the Early Years (1976) and Anthropological History of Andean Polities (with Nathan Wachtel and Jacques Revel, 1986).
Trained at the University of Chicago, Murra taught at Chicago, Vassar, the University of Puerto Rico, Brooklyn College, Yale and Cornell, and held visiting professorships in Chile, England, France, Peru and Spain. He served as the president of the American Society of Ethnohistory (1970-71), the American Ethnological Society (1972-73), and the Institute of Andean Research (1977-83). Murra’s efforts to cultivate educational opportunities for South American graduate students and promote an international dialogue among students produced three well known programs: the Comparative Seminar on the Andes and Mesoamerica (1972), the Lake Titicaca field project (1973) and the Otoño Andino held at Cornell University (1977).
Following his retirement from Cornell, Murra served as a consultant to the Banco Nacional de Bolivia at the Museo Nacional de Etnografía, La Paz. In 1983, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship to pursue archival research in Spain, later teaching at the Universities of Madrid and Seville and at the Institut Catalá d’Antropologi in Barcelonia (1985-86). He was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of the Sun, Peru, and Doctor Honoris Causa from the Universidad de Barcelona. Murra currently lives in Ithaca, New York.