Insights into Loss from the History of Knowledge

This post is part confession and part revelation.

When Simone Lässig approached me about collaborating on migration and the history of knowledge, I immediately agreed.[1] I began writing about German scientists and the production of knowledge over twenty years ago, and much of my current work involves migrants.[2] Taking part in the GHI effort offered me an opportunity to think more systematically about the production of migrant-oriented knowledge and its implications for my studies of German communities across Latin America.

It seemed logical to center my essay on Erwin Paul Dieseldorf, David Sapper, and Karl Theodore Sapper, three Germans who produced practical, tacit, and social knowledge in Guatemala from the 1880s through the interwar period.[3] To my mind, the controversies around their activities captured some of the challenges inherent in writing about the roles of European migrants as knowledge producers during the age of empire.

On the one hand, a number of contemporary archeologists, ethnologists, geologists, and linguists have praised these Germans’ publications and collections. They have also used the knowledge these migrants produced either for their own comparative analyses or for tracking cultural, linguistic, and geological changes over time. On the other hand, several historians of Guatemala, focused on questions of coffee capitalism, liberalism, nationalism, and neocolonialism, have found much to deride about those same Germans’ efforts. Some characterize the knowledge these German migrants produced as an ill-gotten tool of oppression. The disjuncture between these evaluations intrigued me.[4]

Yet, what began with my interest in competing narratives of knowledge production shifted to a more fascinating encounter with the history of that knowledge—not just its production but also its transformation, and in some cases its loss. I was not prepared for that, and it made me rethink my research questions.

My first encounter with loss came while reading about discovery. The Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA produced a volume in 2000 titled Early Scholars’ Visits to Central America: Reports by Karl Sapper, Walther Lehmann, and Franz Termer. Together with translations of excerpts from those men’s writings, the editors brought together leading scholars in the fields of archeology, ethnology, and linguistics to reflect on the virtues and limitations of their predecessors’ work. Initially, I regarded this volume as a testament to the value those earlier scientific efforts continue to have for contemporary scholars, and thus as confirmation of those German migrants’ important place in a history of knowledge about Guatemala and neighboring countries from the 1880s through the interwar period. Only later did I recognize that the authorities represented in the Cotsen Institute volume had greeted these texts as revelations, as new, as knowledge not known, so to speak.

It took some time for me to understand the implications of the loss I had stumbled upon and to recognize its importance for my own scholarship—not just for the essay I was writing for the GHI project but for my broader understanding of Germans in Latin America and of migrants in the history of knowledge. Lehmann, Sapper, and Termer are not unknown names in either the history of German science or the history of science focused on Central America. Just the opposite—they have long been recognized as foundational figures. Yet in 2000 their writings could be regarded as new again because they had written primarily in German.

One of many publications by German migrants in Central America: Carl Sapper (pictured left), Das nördliche Mittel-Amerika nebst einem Ausflug nach dem Hochland von Anahuac: Reisen und Studien aus den Jahren 1888–1895 (Braunschweig, 1897), via the Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/b24882732.

The German language has not disappeared; yet while German was widely read by researchers in the Americas at the beginning of the twentieth century, that was no longer the case by its end. Geopolitical shifts, the World Wars, and the taint National Socialism had left on German science had combined with the fates of German migrants and immigrants in Guatemala during World War II to undermine the place of German as a scientific language in the Americas and cast suspicion on those who had worked with it. As a result, Theodore Guttmann’s translations of these foundational figures’ writings into English at the end of the twentieth century could be an important contribution to a history of knowledge that, in some ways, had already been written, but was then forgotten, misplaced, or lost in new narratives driven by postwar concerns.

In this case, migrant knowledge became a kind of “fugitive knowledge,”[5] not because of the actions of the migrants themselves but due to the shifting contexts in which they lived and in which the records of their knowledge production existed over time. We often associate the loss of knowledge with the destruction of libraries, most notably the library of Alexandria, or with the fall of civilizations, such as those Central American empires studied by the German migrants at the center of my text. But we spend less time focused on the books no longer read; on the misplaced collected papers; on the languages less frequently or no longer spoken in particular locations—unless those are indigenous languages that have been intentionally eradicated or undermined. Scholars are currently quite attentive to the last, but not to the others.

That recognition has led me to wonder about the loss of literacy in communities more generally, which might follow conquest or subjugation, ecological disaster, or simply neglect, that is, a failure to transfer skills across generations. When one thinks of the kinds of knowledge Peter Burke claims need of our attention, knowledge produced by doing as well as talking or collecting information, the loss of skills becomes coupled with the loss of knowledge. In a simple formulation, the declining use of German among English and Spanish-speaking scholars of Central America meant a declining ability to access German texts, even to know those texts and the transnational intellectual landscape in which they emerged. That is much like another common phenomena: a declining tendency to collect edible plants in a rural landscape often means a shifting relation to that landscape, as that skill is lost. There are different ways of knowing and not knowing such a landscape.

Reclaiming “well-cooked” knowledge produced from information lost to us today can thus require regaining literacies that often appear to be extant, but might, in fact, have been misplaced, lost, or purposefully forgotten. That insight has forced me to rethink what I thought I knew about the translations inherent in migrants’ transitions not only as they took up lives in new places but also in the decades and centuries that followed.

H. Glenn Penny is Professor of History at the University of Iowa.


  1. See Lisa Gerlach, “Report: Migration and Knowledge,” History of Knowledge, December 21, 2016, https://historyofknowledge.net/2016/12/21/report-migration-and-knowledge/.
  2. H. Glenn Penny, Objects of Culture: Ethnology and Ethnographic Museums in Imperial Germany. (Chapel Hill, NC, 2002); idem, “Material Connections: German Schools, Things, and Soft Power in Argentina and Chile from the 1880s through the Interwar Period,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 59, no. 3 (2017): 519–49, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0010417517000159.
  3. See H. Glenn Penny, “From Migrant Knowledge to Fugitive Knowledge? German Migrants and Knowledge Production in Guatemala, 1880s–1945,” in “Knowledge and Migration,” ed. Simone Lässig and Swen Steinberg, special issue, Geschichte und Gesellschaft 43, no. 3 (2017): 381–412.
  4. Examples of this contrast: Matilde González-Izás, Modernización capitalista, racismo y violencia. Guatemala (1750–1930) (México City 2014); Guillermo E. Alvarado and Percy Denyer, eds., Karl T. Sapper (1866–1945): Geólogo pionero en América Central (San José, Costa Rica, 2012).
  5. Andreas Beer and Gesa Mckenthun, eds., Fugitive Knowledge: The Loss and Preservation of Knowledge in Contact Zones (New York, 2015).
Suggested citation: H. Glenn Penny, “Insights into Loss from the History of Knowledge,” History of Knowledge, October 18, 2017, https://historyofknowledge.net/2017/10/18/insights-into-loss-from-the-history-of-knowledge/.