Darcy Ribeiro was one of the leading Brazilian anthropologists of the twentieth century and also an eminent public intellectual.
Early in his career, he carried out fieldwork with many different indigenous groups across the country while working for the Seção de Estudos of Serviço de Proteção aos ĺndios (SPI). He then moved on to a distinguished career in education and politics while publishing a number of important works on broad anthropological, indigenist and historical themes. He also published four novels.
Ribeiro also made a significant contribution to the history of ethnographic film in Brazil. This took the form of two films made in collaboration with Heinz Förthmann when they were colleagues at the SPI. The first, Os Índios “Urubus”, shot in 1950, offered a day-in-the-life portrait of the indigenous group now more commonly known as the Kaapor, while the second, shot in 1953, concerned a Bororo funeral. Sadly, the former now only exists in a highly degraded copy, while the editing of the latter was never completed.
After studying with Herbert Baldus in the Escola Livre de Sociologia e Política, at the Universidade de São Paulo, Ribeiro entered the SPI in 1947 and remained there for ten years. He was named head of the Seçao de Estudos in 1952 and in this capacity, he was instrumental in the creation of the Museu do Índio the following year.
The combination of fieldwork and comparative research that he carried out whilst at the Seção de Estudos laid the groundwork for the publication for which he is probably best known in anthropological circles, namely, Os Índios e a Civilização, a comprehensive and devastating analysis of the impact on indigenous groups of contact with the national society. This was first published in 1970 but has since gone through multiple editions in several languages and is still frequently cited today.
But following a series of crises within the SPI as a result of severe budgetary cuts, Ribeiro left the organisation in 1957 and moved into matters of educational policy and national politics, eventually becoming Minister of Education in the left-leaning Goulart government. When this was brought down by a military coup in 1964, he went into exile but continued to write broadly on anthropological, indigenist and historical topics while holding various academic posts across Latin America.
After returning to Brazil in 1976, he continued to participate in political and academic matters at the highest national level, though his last publication, Diários Índios, which came out in 1996, the year before he died, was based on the notes that he wrote while carrying out fieldwork with the Urubu-Kaapor in 1949-51.
In 1992, he was elected to the Academia Brasileira de Letras, arguably the highest academic honour for the Humanities in Brazil. The Academy has published a summary account of his career which can be accessed here.