As a fledgling anthropologist just four years out of Princeton, Michael Brown ’72 spent 21 months living among the Awajún, an indigenous tribe located in the upper reaches of the rainforests of Peru. He was forced to leave when political turmoil erupted, but decades later he returned to his field notes and rediscovered a world whose complexity and significance he says he had failed to appreciate as a younger, less experienced man.
In Upriver: The Turbulent Life and Times of an Amazonian People, Brown recalls that during his initial fieldwork, he encountered what seemed an exuberant and resourceful culture. But as he dug deeper into the Awajún’s way of life, Brown discovered the prevalence of violent, often murderous, vendettas among the tribe members. Even more disturbing were the rates of suicide from wives who tried to exercise control over their husbands with the threat of their own death.
Brown, who is the president of the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe and a professor emeritus at Williams College, returned to Awajún in 2012 to write Upriver, which is part memoir, part ethnography. It chronicles Brown’s struggle to make sense of the tensions and conflicts in Awajún life and explores the nature of civilization and independence.