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Matthew Stirling and Tres Zapotes Monument G. Tres Zapotes, 1939. stirling_19. Photograph by Richard H. Stewart, National Anthropological Archives

Matthew Williams Stirling
1896 - 1975

Portrait of Matthew Stirling
wetmore_577 (detail), Photograph by Alexander Wetmore. A. Wetmore Collection, Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Matthew Stirling was born on August 28, 1896, in Salinas, California, and spent his childhood living on his grandfather's ranches in the Salinas Valley. He graduated from the University of California in 1920 after spending two years as an ensign in the U.S. Navy during World War I. He was hired as Assistant Curator of Ethnology in the U.S. National Museum not long after graduation, and remained in that position until 1924. Stirling received an M.A. in anthropology in 1922, attending night school at George Washington University.

He directed a joint Smithsonian Institution-Dutch Colonial Government expedition to Dutch New Guinea from 1925 to 1927. In 1928 he was named the new Chief of the Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE), a position he held until 1958. In 1933 he married Marion Illig, his lifelong companion and collaborator.

Stirling's introduction to Latin America was in the mid-1920s when he explored the upper Amazon in Campa Indian territory, acquiring a large textile collection. As a member of the Donald C. Beatty Latin American Expedition, he went to Ecuador in the early 1930s. Stirling's attention turned toward Mexico when he led the joint Smithsonian - National Geographic archaeological expeditions from 1939 to 1946, excavating sites such as Tres Zapotes, Cerro de las Mesas, La Venta, Izapa, and San Lorenzo. Some of his discoveries include Stela C at Tres Zapotes, the Cerro de las Mesas jade cache, the offerings at La Venta, and the largest Colossal Head - Monument 1 at San Lorenzo. From 1948 to 1954, Stirling began doing research in Costa Rica, Panama, and Ecuador looking for links between Mesoamerican and South America pre-Columbian cultures.

In addition to considerable fieldwork, Stirling was chief organizer of the seven volumes Handbook of South American Indians edited by Julian Steward, which included the works of 96 specialists. He also started the BAE's Institute of Social Anthropology, an autonomous unit to promote cooperation in anthropological training and research throughout the Americas.

His achievements were substantial and his contributions to Mesoamerican and Latin American scholarship remain crucial to the continued growth of those disciplines today.

Matthew W. Stirling died on January 23, 1975.

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