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Darrell Posey

Darrell Addison Posey: a short biography


Rodrigo Penna-Firme


Darrell Posey was a famous anthropologist/ethnobiologist born on March 14, 1947, in a farm in Kentucky. He passed away on March 6, 2001(ISEB, 2006). Posey studied at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, taking a BSc in entomology and agriculture, and later a master’s degree in geography and anthropology. His first research as an ethnobiologist began with the Kayapó Indians of the Xingu Basin of Brazil’s Pará State in 1977, in order to complete a doctoral dissertation on ethnoentomology. He was awarded a PhD in anthropology in 1979 from the University of Georgia (Posey, 1990b).


In 1982, Darrell initiated a multi-disciplinary ethnobiological research project called Kayapó Project that eventually included over 20 scientists and technicians from different scientific fields such as agronomy, botany, entomology, plant genetics, astronomy, geography, anthropology and linguistics in effort to document the traditional biological knowledge of the Kayapó. According to his own account (Posey, 1990a, 1990d), his initial grant came from Wenner-Green Foundation for Anthropological Research, while he was a PhD student. After this period, the multi-disciplinary research team was awarded a grant for the first two years from the Brazilian Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq). In 1984 the project received additional grants from multiple sources, such as WWF-US (general ethnobiological investigation), WWF-International (research and education), the National  geographic society (mapping and ethno-ecological zone definition), NSF (interpretation of satellite images), and the Ford Foundation Brazil (ethnobiological training) (Posey, 1990a).


      His first professor/researcher position was at the Department of Biology, at the Federal University of Maranhão, Brazil. There, he played a major role in implementing the first Brazilian Ethnobiology laboratory, which represented a landmark for the development of interdisciplinary research in Brazil, and a “natural” way to set up the grounds for his next step: the Kayapó Project at the Museu Emilio Goeldi (Goeldi Museum), Belem, Para, Brazil.


As of 1984, in a preliminary article on the Kayapó management of the Amazon forest he expressed a tremendous concern with the fate of the forest and its people. The consequences of the deforestation led by shifts in the land use/tenure patterns in the Amazon, soon became his major source of social awareness and concern. In the same article he said that the New York Botanical Garden, the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazônia (INPA), and the Universidade Federal do Maranhão were systematically collecting ethnobiological information from indigenous people. In fact, these were the institutions he for a long time got deeply involved with. The main goal which tied these institutions together was the creation of a common data base in order to formulate new strategies of resource exploitation consistent with indigenous ecological models, based upon long-range management of plant and animals (Posey, 1984).


In Brazil he was a research of the Brazilian National Council for Science and Technology (CNPq), and head of the Program of Ethnobiology of the Goeldi Museum, Belém, Brazil.


Probably one of his first major appearances as an international leading scholar was during the first International Congress of Ethnobiology. He was the main organizer of this congress held in 1988 in Belém, Para, Brazil. By that time he occupied a professor/researcher position at the Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi, Belém, Pará, Brazil. As posed it on the introductory chapter of the proceedings, “one common theme appeared and reappeared throughout the Congress: the richness and relevance of traditional knowledge and the global threat to native peoples and their cultures”. He continued by saying “Amerindians are the only societies with the necessary knowledge, expertise, and tradition to prosper in the Amazon jungle. Amerindians not only appreciate what exists, but also understand ecological interrelations of the various components of the Amazonian ecosystem better than the modern ecologists. Indians perceive specific relationships which biologists are only now discovering to accurate”. Posey, by the tone of his first public arguments brought about old questions into a new fashion. As it will become even clearer, the development of these ideas pushed him toward a political and public activism for indigenous rights.


      During this congress Posey and other colleagues were able to put together the “Declaration of Belém”, an international document to specifically call for the just compensation of native peoples for their knowledge and the legal defense of indigenous Intellectual Property Rights (IPR). Other important figure in the congress was the Kayapó chief Paiakan. This indigenous leader was brought to the congress by Posey in order to speak to the scientific audience and lobby against the Brazilian government “structural adjustment plans”, which included flooding an area as large as New England, and consequently vanish the last Kayapó village from the map.


Repeatedly, Posey stated along his career that the current devastation of native people and the ecological systems that they have conserved, managed, and intentionally known for millennia, require that new and drastic steps were taken to reorient world priorities. For him, all channels, such as NGOs, professional organizations, local and international governments, must work together to reverse the current momentum in loss of cultural, ecological and biological diversity of this planet. Posey can be taken as one of the major advocates of indigenous rights, and probably the most important leading person at that time, at least in the Brazil’s Amazonian context. He argued that whatever the debate about indigenous rights would be, “all the steps must be led by indigenous people themselves” (Posey, 1994). According to him, it was fundamental that the intellectual property rights should not be used to simply reduce traditional knowledge into Western legal and conceptual framework (Posey, 1996; Posey, 1999). He recalled that scientists and scientific institutions had become heavily involved – actively or passively – with the private sector. Research was becoming even more funded by corporations, leaving questions of who controls the resulting data and benefit from it. He ended this article by asking: “if the “new science” of dialog cannot be developed out of ethnoecology, then where could it come from?”.


      Indeed, for good or for worst this kind of declarations marked both Posey’s academic and activist trajectory until his last day among us. In 1987, Darrell Posey was threatened with criminal prosecution by the Brazilian government on account of a visit that he paid to Washington, DC, with Kayapó Indian leaders, to act as their interpreter when they sought to persuade the World Bank to withhold development funds from a hydroelectric scheme in the Xingu River region (Posey, 1990b, 1990c). Darrel made his most audacious move because he realized that, while still an academic, he could not stand and watch this world being destroyed. So, he felt compelled to participate in the Kayapó’s battle to protect their rainforest home.


Despite Posey’s political and academic contribution, one may easily perceive and criticize his emotionally and exaggerated position toward the image of an “ecologically sophisticated”, and “pure” native population. It is undeniable that he romanticized the notion of human-nature equilibrium, which he himself rarely reviewed and criticized.  In addition, one may argue that oftentimes his “justifications” for the salvage of native and indigenous people took them as a “universal patrimony”. I argue that such an argument would have acted against Posey’s main purposes. Since, the underlying rationale for putting those people as “hotspot” of ecological knowledge is eminently utilitarian. In other words, they deserve the salvage and respect from the humanity because of their knowledge. Regardless, I believe that Posey consciously created this romantic-utilitarian discourse as the best channel (I thought he believed it) through which indigenous people would be given voice. It is clear, however, that he never acted to impede indigenous development toward a modernized world, but what he fought to avoid was the consequences of it: (1) the loss of cultural and biological diversity, and (2) the loss of ecological knowledge of the environment. What Posey fought for his entire academic life was to assure the Indians the just compensation for their knowledge (Posey, 1990; Posey, 1994; Posey, 1999)


Posey argued that Ethnobiology for its very nature seems to be uniquely placed to lead the way to bring a new understanding, that is, “to bridge disciplines and cultures through a practical focus on the implications and applications of traditional knowledge for all humanity” (Posey, 1990). As he put it, “ethnobiology is not only a methodology, but a philosophy. Its principal consists of making a bridge between the understanding of the world by different cultures (Posey, 1990). Other concern Posey recurrently presented along his life was the significant methodological barrier he believed ethnobiology was to overcome. In other terms, the existing barrier between the Western scientific arrogance and the apparent naïve indigenous knowledge. He found it very difficult to find out Western scientists who were “of a personal ilk that allows them to shed the mantle of Western scientific superiority to learn form the “primitives”” (Posey, 1984).


      Posey’s contribution to Ethnobiology is was almost entirely draw upon his personal experience among Kayapó. He studied in detail the ethnoecological classification of the forest types by this tribe. However, in doing so he avoided to fall into prescribed scientific paradigm at that time, such as structuralism. He developed a methodological model to integrate linguistic categories (nomenclatural) with it symbolic value. As he puts it: “this model intends to deal only with named categories by indigenous people, by ignoring the non-spoken or unrevealed ones” (Posey, 1986). In other words, such a method cannot be applied to a complete investigation of a cultural system, but may give way to a generative methodology based on indigenous linguistically revealed categories, rather than underlying structural rules. Posey believed that this “generative methodology” would overcome part of the inherent bias embodied in researcher-informant oriented Ethnobiological enterprise. He argued that because researchers go to field work with pre conceived categories and hypotheses, it would provide them with plenty of data to fulfill the Western sciences expectations. But, he pointed out, in this condition, the obtained “answers” rarely reflect the logic and reality of the culture under analysis, but the researcher’s.


One of the recurrent key-concept in Posey’s analyses of the Kayapó knowledge was the distinction between “emic” and “etic”. He said that “emic” interpretation reflect cognitive and linguistic categories of the natives, whereas “etic” interpretations are those that have been developed by the researcher for purposes of analysis. However, he pointed out, “it would be nice if such distinctions clearly existed” (Posey, 1990). He continued by saying: “after 12 years of research among the Kayapós, I learned that the dialogue between the researcher and the informant obscures these categories”, which is natural, given that individuals from different cultures think and speak with distinct cognitive “realities”.


In collaboration with colleagues from the Goeldi Museum, such as Anthony Anderson (1989), and Willian Baleé, Posey found what came to be one of the most important paradigm shifts concerning the ideas of forest management practices among indigenous people. Before them, to a certain extant, it was taken for granted that indigenous people in Brazil had historically preserved the Amazon as a “pristine” forest. But, what they found was that the Kayapó not only used virtually all the species found in the apêtês, they had actually planted all of them. Apêtês are “islands” of vegetation that occur in some ecosystems, such as transitions between forests and savannas (campo cerrado in Brazil).


      Posey (1989) explains that indigenous groups such as Kayapó of central Brazil actually increased biological diversity in managed areas such as trail sides, gardens, forest openings, and rock outcropping. In the same article he suggested that many tropical ecosystems usually considered as “natural” may have been profoundly altered by indigenous in the past. As Baleé (1989) puts it, many “natural” ecological zones and even large portions of entire ecosystems would have been managed, which destroys the myth of pristine environments. So that, to say that Amerindians adapt to their environment and respond to the environmental limits is fallacious. Instead, they culturally manage their “natural” environment, such as fish, plants, soil, and game. Therefore, most indigenous have never been foragers, but resource managers. Baleé went further by estimating that at least 11.8% of terra firme in the Amazon was anthropogenic (human-made forest).


Posey who was the Editor along with Balleé of the especial issue of the Advances in Economic Botany (1989), where these articles were first published, wrote in the introduction: “this collection unites some of the most recent studies of conservation and management, emphasizing how indigenous and folk people actually mould the natural landscape to suit their needs and desires”. However, he always made his best effort to divulgate his major research finds among Kaypó in portuguese. He published some important articles on Ciência Hoje (Science Today), a popular Brazilian scientific journals.


Darrell played a central role putting his “indigenous rights perspective” in the international arena of negotiation that took place during the Biodiversity Convention agreement signed by more than 170 countries at the Rio Summit in 1992. He also had the opportunity to bring indigenous people to speak to the world about their plights and the significance of their culture (ISEB, 2006). After the Rio convention and many years in Brazil he went back to England, where he served as an associate fellow at the Linacre College, and research associate at the Oxford Forestry Institute. According to the International Society of Ethnobiology webpage (2006). Darrell had difficult times working in Oxford, since most of his views were often felt to be a threat by other academics more concerned about their own professional advancement than scientific innovation. He was also one of the founders, and past president of the International Society for Ethnobiology where he served as Executive Director of the Global Coalition for Biological and Cultural Diversity and received a UN “Global 500” award in 1993. He coordinated the International Working to develop a Covenant on intellectual and cultural property for indigenous peoples (Posey, 1994).


      Darrel Posey wrote 150 papers, published edited 10 books. His last book, “Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity” was edited for the UN Environment Programme in 1999. Despite his enormous contribution to the scientific advance of ethnobiology, one may say that he was never a pivotal theorist in such a field of inquiry. Nevertheless, his work was noticeably marked by the use of western science’s concepts and framework “tested” against what he called “traditional sciences”, the traditional knowledge, or “popular science”. In an interview conceded by him in 1983 for the making of the documentary “Jungle Pharmacy” he said: “the question whether their knowledge is scientific or not is a completely nut point, it is indeed science”. For him, one of the major tasks of ethnobiology should be the construction of unified language, or a “sharing of realities”. That was the last Darrel Posey great contribution.


After his death the International Society of Ethnobiology (ISEB) “paid its compliments” to him by creating a Darrel Posey Fellowship. According to the ISEB’ homepage, “the Darrell Posey Fellowship promotes understanding of peoples’ complex and dynamic relationship with their environment, and supports indigenous peoples and local communities working to sustainably manage, and security rights to, thaeir environments and resources. The Darrell Posey fellowship for ethnoecology and traditional resource rights was launched in 2004 with a grant from the Christensen Fund, and is administrated by the International Society of Ethnobiology, of which Darrell Posey was a founder”.


In summary, for those who want to pursue an academic career in Ethnobiology or correlated fields such as Human Ecology, Ecological Anthropology, and Ecological History, I hope these brief comments on Posey’s outstanding contributions might help in elucidating part of the role he played in the modern history of the filed. It is also my desire that the work carried out by Darrell Posey continues to influence new generations of ecologically-oriented anthropologist.



Anderson, A and Posey, D

1989  Management of a Tropical Scrub Savanna by the Garotire Kayapó of Brazil. In: resource management in Amazonia: indigenous and folk strategies. Posey, D and Baleé (Ed). Advances in Economic Botany. Vol. 7.

Baleé, W

1989  The culture of Amazonian forests. In: resource management in Amazonia: indigenous and folk strategies. Posey, D and Baleé (Ed). Advances in Economic Botany. Vol. 7.


2006  International Society of Ethnobiology http://ise.arts.ubc.ca/darrellposey/index.html

Posey, D

1984   A preliminary report on diversified management of tropical forest by the Kayapó Indians of the Brazilian Amazon. In: Ethnobotany in the Neotropics. Prance, G and Kallunki, J (Ed). The New York Botanical Garden. Bronx, New York, U.S.A.

Posey, D

1990a   Etnobiologia: teoria e prática. In: Suma Etnológica Brasileira. Darci Ribeiro (ed). Finep-Vozes. Petrópolis. 15-29.

Posey, D

1990b   Manejo da Floresta secundária, capoeiras, campos e cerrados (Kayapó). In: Suma Etnológica Brasileira. Darci Ribeiro (ed). Finep-Vozes. Petrópolis. 173-189.

Posey, D

1990c   Intellectual property rights and just compensation for indigenous knowledge. Anthropology Today. Vol. 6 No. 4.

Posey, D

1990d  The application of Ethnobiology in the conservation of dwindling natural resources: lost knowledge or options for the survival of the planet. In: Proceedings of the First International congress of Ethnobiology. Belém, Brazil. Vol. 1

Posey, D

1994  International agreements and intellectual property rights Protection for indigenous people. In: Intellectual property rights for indigenous people: a source book. Tom Greaves (Ed.). Society for applied anthropology. Oklahoma City, OK, USA. 223-253

Posey, D

1996.  Os povos tradicionais e a conservação da biodiversidade. In: Uma estratégia Latino-Americana para a Amazônia. Crodowaldo Pavan (Ed). Editora Unesp. , São Paulo. 149-158.

Posey, D

1999  Safeguarding traditional Resource Rights of Indigenous People. In: Ethnoecology: situated knowledge/located lives. Virginia  Nazarea. The University of Arizona Press. Tucson. 217-230.