Philip “Don Felipe” Drucker: Archaeologist, Anthropologist, and Rancher 1911-1982
Many young people enter college with a career firmly in mind, only to change majors. I was one, and as a university professor for almost forty years, I’ve known quite a few. For me, it was a wise decision but many others secretly regret it the rest of their lives. Some change careers later in life or even switch back and forth. Philip Drucker (Don Felipe, as he was known in Mexico), was one of the latter. In 1927 he entered Colorado Agricultural College (now Colorado State University) to study animal husbandry with ranching as his goal. He soon switched to Liberal Arts, later moving to the University of California, Berkeley, to study anthropology.
After receiving his PhD degree, he pursued a productive career as an archaeologist working in Mexico, an ethnologist studying the Native American Nootka in British Columbia, Canada, a Naval officer, an applied anthropologist in Micronesia, a longtime employee of the Smithsonian Institution, and a professor at the University of Kentucky. All of this is well-known to archaeologists but there was a missing decade that few know about and that I was fortunate to observe during my student days in the 1960s.
Drucker’s life story was well-told by his friend and colleague Margaret Lantis in an obituary published in the American Anthropologist (Vol 83, p. 897-902, 1983). A prolific writer himself, he even penned an autobiographical novel of his ranching life named Tropical Frontier under the nom de plume of Paul Record. I highly recommend it; it is the best description of ranching in the Mexican jungle I have ever found.
Early Career: Ethnographer and Archaeologist 1940- 1952
After receiving his PhD at the University of California-Berkeley, Drucker joined the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of American Ethnography as a cultural anthropologist specializing in the Nootka and other Native American cultures of the Northwest coast. For reasons that remain obscure, his boss, Matthew W. Stirling, decided to take him to Mexico as an archaeologist. Matt and his wife Marion were excavating several major Olmec sites in southern Veracruz and Tabasco.
These pioneering investigations lasted from 1939 to 1946 with a hiatus during World War II. Matt spent the war at his desk in Washington while Don Felipe served in the US Navy, doing dangerous and grueling convoy duty on merchant ships in the North Atlantic. He returned to the Smithsonian at the wars end and the old gang returned to Veracruz in 1946 to excavate the then-unknown site of San Lorenzo, now recognized as ancient Mesoamerica’s oldest city.
The Navy recalled Drucker in 1950. He served as an anthropologist in Micronesia, probably trying to explain to the Natives why the US was still occupying their islands long after the war was over. Back at Smithsonian once again, he joined Mexican archaeologist Eduardo Contreras on a six- month horse-back reconnaissance looking for archaeological sites in the isolated jungles on the Veracruz-Tabasco. Every two weeks or so they rode into Huimanguillo, Tabasco, to buy supplies and blow off steam. They befriended Don Ovidio Chable, manager of the local telegraph office. After sending telegrams reporting their progress to their bosses, they went out on the town, often accompanied by Don Ovidio.
Fifteen years later Don Ovidio became my father-in-law, known affectionately to my son Rich and me as Papa Viyo. According to him, the townspeople were happy to see the archaeologists arrive and delighted to see them leave. As they moved on the next leg of their journey with aching heads and stressed livers, some locals were hungover, others greatly relieved, and the local constabulary was able to stand down for a few weeks.
Mid-Career: Back in the Saddle 1953-1968
This reconnaissance trip must have reawaked Don Felipe’s interest in ranching life. Perhaps it even served as a covert search for a suitable ranch where a gringo could retire in peace and isolation. In any case, he disappeared from the American anthropological world for a decade.
In the meantime, the 1946 project at San Lorenzo had uncovered 5 beautifully carved stone Colossal Heads that opened an archaeological can of worms. How old were these heads and the civilization that had produced them? Stirling and Drucker had no way to date them because C-14 dating was being invested as they dug and would not become widely available for another decade.
The publications on their seven years of research unleashed animated debates in the groves of academia. How old was Olmec civilization? Did it serve as Mesoamerica’s “Mother Culture”, creating the blueprint for later civilizations? Stirling believed the Olmecs were quite ancient; Miguel Covarrubias, Mexico’s renowned artist and the leading pre-Columbian art historian of his day, agreed with Stirling; as did archaeologist Alfonso Caso. Drucker disagreed, equating them with the Classic period Maya. Most Mayanists agreed with Drucker, others simply grumbled. George Kubler, a highly-respected Yale University art historian, argued that San Lorenzo’s heads were the youngest of the dozen or so heads then known while Michael D. Coe, his junior colleague across campus in the Anthropology department proclaimed San Lorenzo to be the earliest Olmec center and its heads the oldest known.
The fat was in the fire. Drucker and Robert Heizer, an expert in the archaeology of California as well as Drucker’s college room-mate and life-long friend, re-excavated La Venta in 1955. Stirling and Drucker had excavated the site before the war, uncovering stone monuments and large quantities of exquisite jade objects. Drucker and Heizer set out to establish La Venta’s construction history and place in time using the newly perfected C-14 dating. Their dates shocked everyone; La Venta dated to 800=400 BC, about 1,000 years earlier than even Drucker expected. Like a true scientist and gentleman, he graciously admitted he had been wrong.
But where did that leave San Lorenzo? Mike Coe decided to resolve the issue by reinvestigating San Lorenzo. His plan was simple in conception but daunting in execution: locate additional sculptures, carefully excavate them, and date their deposition using C-14 dating. No one had ever tried to date sculptures in this way before. This is where I came into picture but I need to back up a bit to catch up with Don Felipe.
He had somewhat mysteriously dropped out of the debate and out of sight in 1952. Why? Well, the cowboy never left his soul and one day he abandoned his Smithsonian office and Washington to live out his dream on a ranch in southern Veracruz, Mexico. Only the Stirling’s and Heizer knew where he was and how to contact him.
In 1965 Coe received National Science Foundation financing and a permit from the Mexican government to investigate San Lorenzo. The plan was to conduct fieldwork during the 1966 and 1967 “dry” seasons (January to May). That is where I came into the picture. Mike’s teaching duties at Yale prevented him from being in the field fulltime so he hired me, then a graduate student at Penn State, as his Field Director. The “story behind the story” is a story for another time.
By then Don Felipe had been on his ranch for more than a decade, enjoying life punching cattle, riding horses, fishing, and hunting. He had married and had children, a sure cure for his rowdy ways. No ties to a desk or on his neck. I was able to get his mailing address from Matt Stirling, wrote him a letter explaining what we planned to do at San Lorenzo and asked if I could visit him to discuss his experiences. Two months later I received a gracious letter in reply saying he would welcome me and giving me directions how to find him. All I had to do was take the daily train from Coatzacoalcos to Las Choapas, hire a boat to take me up river for three hours, and rent a horse and a guide at the riverbank for my two-hour ride to his ranch. Somehow, I never found the time to do it and assumed our paths would never cross.
Thankfully, I was wrong but I now regret not making the trip.
Don Felipe Returns to San Lorenzo April, 1967
Towards the end of our 1967 field season, he and Robert Heizer, a University of California-Berkeley archaeologist, excavator of La Venta and Don Felipe’s college room-mate and life-long friend, came to visit us. The two old companions, accompanied by Dr. John Graham and several Berkeley students, were on their way to La Venta for a short field season. Drucker had just caught up with the others the day before.
After spending more than a decade living with no television, newspapers, or internet, he had no way of knowing how drastically the US and American college students had changed since the Eisenhower days. I don’t know who was more shocked at that initial meeting: Drucker at the long hair, scraggly beards, sloppy clothing, foul language, pot-smoking, promiscuity, and lack of respect for elders showed by the hippy “Berkeley Boys” (as Mike Coe called them); or the youngsters (all my age) at this utter throwback to their parents’ generation and symbol of everything that was wrong with America.. Heizer had just bailed them out of a Berkeley jail after participating in a protest against the Vietnam War so they could accompany him; Drucker had served two stints in the Navy and was a quietly patriotic but visibly perplexed man.
We held a pachanga (Veracruz-style party) long into the night after they arrived, complete with music provided by all three local musicians, extra cases of beer, and ample tepache, backcountry sugar cane squeezing’s. People came from far and wide; some to greet their old friend Don Felipe, others just to see the man who had become a legend in the intervening twenty years.
As the night progressed, some of the stories behind the legends came out. We had suspected that Don Felipe was something of a lady’s man; after all, our cook Domatila, who had been the Stirling’s cook twenty years before, named her last-born daughter Felipa after him even though he was not the child’s father. However, we were not aware of his revered status as a vaquero (cowboy). Back in 1946 the gringo archaeologists were invited to a cattle roundup at which Drucker astounded the crowd by riding four bulls during the afternoon. Nobody had ever seen anything like that before or since. What he neglected to tell them was that he had once been a professional rodeo rider!
Now I understood why my workers were so interested in my background and confused by my ineptitude around horses. That also is a story for another time. They expected me to play Don Felipe’s role, one for which I was utterly unsuited.
After the party died away, Don Felipe and I bunked down in my camp house. We sat around a sputtering Coleman lantern discussing the outside world while passing back and forth a three-gallon garafon of tepache. He was a fast learner and open to understanding the changes, the mark of a really good anthropologist. After we cut the lantern, I was drifting off to sleep when I heard a strange noise. Opening my eyes, I saw my roomie lying on his cot taking a deep draught from the jug. The next morning, he woke up fresh as a damn tee-totaller while I could hardly lift my aching head from the pillow. The Berkeley Boys and their leaders went downriver and on to La Venta, where they had a short but quite successful field season.
Late Career: professor 1968- 1982
I only encountered Don Felipe once more after that, about a year later at Dumbarton Oaks conference on the Olmecs in Washington, DC. By then he had sold his ranch and returned to the US. He loved the ranch and the life but realized that he needed to return to the US so that his children could get a good education. I suspect it was a great sacrifice for him but one he willingly made.
In any case, a series of teaching positions led him to the University of Kentucky, where he became a highly regarded professional elder, professor, and even department chairman. Quite an accomplishment for someone who only entered teaching in his late 50s. As I said, he was a quick learner but you could tell he was a rancher at heart, just from the way he sat in the saddle and drew circles in the dust with the toe of his boot.