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David Maybury-Lewis 1929-2007

David Maybury-Lewis, PhD, a protector of indigenous cultures, died at 78 on December 2, 2007.1 A professor at Harvard University, he was most well-known for his work with Cultural Survival, a human rights organization founded in 1972 by him and his wife, Pia Maybury-Lewis.2 Dr. Maybury-Lewis said he started the organization because of "the struggles the Xavante [people] in Central Brazil faced to protect their lands and culture."3

Dr. Maybury-Lewis once described the Xavante as one of the most aggressively hostile tribes of Mato Grosso, Brazil.2 Despite this, he and his wife and two children ventured into the Mato Grosso area for fieldwork where they became aware of many injustices against the Xavante. Although anthropologists normally observe rather than help the people they study, Dr. Maybury-Lewis decided to "go beyond just studying people to actually attempting to do something to change the conditions in which they lived," said Bret Gustafson, a former student of Dr. Maybury-Lewis, in a Cultural Survival tribute.2 "Anyone who had basic human decency working in Brazil at the time would have realized the incredible injustices that were going on toward native peoples, but a lot of people in his position would not have acted."

Dr. Maybury-Lewis was born in 1929 in Hyderabad, formerly of India and now a part of Pakistan.1 He studied at Cambridge University and in 1960 earned a doctorate in anthropology from Oxford University. He became an assistant professor of anthropology at Harvard in 1961 and a professor in 1969. He also chaired Harvard's anthropology department from 1973 to 1981 and achieved an emeritus professorship in 2004.

Wade Davis, PhD, a previous graduate student of Dr. Maybury-Lewis, described him in a passage in his book Light at the Edge of the World: A Journey Through the Realm of Vanishing Cultures. Dr. Davis said he "fell into the orbit" of Dr. Maybury-Lewis and that he was "a man of searing intelligence, whose formal eloquence masked a deeply human spirit."4 Dr. Davis further illuminated Dr. Maybury-Lewis by referring to him as "one of the great Americanists, a brilliant scholar."

Ellen Lutz, current president of Cultural Survival, describes Dr. Maybury-Lewis in an issue of Cultural Survival Quarterly as someone who "embodies what it means to be both a great anthropologist and a great indigenous rights advocate: he is courageous and humble; a committed learner and a dedicated teacher; intensely curious about human diversity and passionate about protecting it."5 She also stated in this article that many of his students referred to him as "the conscience of anthropology" and members of Cultural Survival referred to him as "a saint."

Dr. Maybury-Lewis is survived by his wife Pia Maybury-Lewis, his two sons Anthony and Biorn, his two sisters Patricia and Jean McLaren, and his four grandchildren.1

-Kelly E. Saxton
  1. Pearce J. David Maybury-Lewis, who studied native tribes, dies at 78. New York Times. December 14, 2007;A0:39.

  2. In Memoriam: David Maybury-Lewis, 1929–2007. Cultural Survival Article; December 6, 2007. Available at Accessed January 25, 2008.

  3. Maybury-Lewis D. Xavante archive documents vital culture. Cultural Survival Quarterly. March 31, 2003: 27.1. Available at publications/csq/csq-article.cfm?id=1629. Accessed January 25, 2008.

  4. Davis W. Light at the Edge of the World: A Journey Through the Realm of Vanishing Cultures. Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada: Douglas & McIntyre Ltd; 2001.

  5. Lutz E. Cultural Survival: A human rights organization. Cultural Survival Quarterly. June 15, 2004: 28.2. Available at Maybury-Lewis. Accessed January 25, 2008.