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11. Exploring Identity: Orinoco Expedition

Identity and Ancestral Influences

Glen O Downs Summer crop

Considering the relationship between mankind and nature

The ultimate objective of genealogy and/or family history is to discover our identity. But, how far back should we go when tracing our ancestors? As far as existing records take us? As far as DNA studies allow? In Shelter and Shadows author Raymond Keogh states: “I had to decide on a starting point. I was happy to probe back to a period … when my forefathers lived on land that they would have occupied since time immemorial.”[1]

What was so special about this selected ancestral starting point? Raymond explains: “Anthropologists recognise the fascination we have for the intimate relationship between man and nature. Writing about the Maasai, Thomas Spear and Richard Waller acknowledge that ‘… it is precisely the apparent ‘primordiality’ and ‘naturalness’ of ethnicity that provides its evocative power.’[2] 

Wexford Heritage Park

Human identity best understood in natural settings?

An extension of this concept is the view that these qualities reach their maximum expression within a pristine biological environment in which the primeval society is embedded. … In other words, we cannot attain a satisfactory understanding of ourselves until we uncover the essential links between mankind and nature, which must have reached their most intimate level of intertwining in early societies.”[1] It’s thereby implied  that human identity is best understood and defined in such settings. If so, it follows that “identity”, in all later cultures, has to be judged against this “basic natural standard” (article #10 GKIS).

In Harmony with Nature?

To investigation these theories, Raymond planned an expedition into the jungles of South America in 1975. “Before undertaking the journey I surmised that some of the oldest and most original cultures of Latin America were to be found where the natural environment was still conserved and where the local Indian populations were living in harmony with it. It followed that the authentic cultures of the region must still be preserved intact in areas of remaining tropical forests—the primary natural vegetation of much of the sub-continent.”[1]

Raymond was working in a United Nation’s mission in Central America at the time. His colleague and friend from Germany, Henning Flachsenberg, belonged to the same project and they decided to undertake the expedition together.


Dr. Leslie Holdridge

Dr. Leslie Holdridge, whose ecological mapping system is used widely in Central and South America, was a consultant on the project and advised the young foresters that the most interesting and productive approach would be to explore a tributary of the Orinoco or Amazon, rather than spend all their time travelling along the main arteries of these rivers where all they would see, for much of the journey, would be two banks of trees on either edge at a wide distance from each other. A tributary would offer the greatest experience of the natural forest at close range.

Destination Venezuela

In response, Raymond and Henning turned to an atlas of South America and picked out a river called the Ventuari in Venezuela, a tributary of the Orinoco, which seemed to fit what they were looking for. They put all their accumulated leave into the venture and set out for Caracas from El Salvador in Central America  without making any booking, beyond the return flights.

The pen-line on the atlas of South America that represented the Ventuari was soon translated into a gushing force of water against the bow of a hired local craft called a bongo – driven by a local boatman. It ploughed against the current between two riverbanks of tropical forest. Thus began a 300 km journey upriver. It was to become a life-changing experience for Raymond. Many of the views he held about identity were about to be challenged.


[1] Keogh, R. M. Shelter and Shadows. (To be published in September 2016 as part of The Gerald Keogh Identity Series).

[2] Spear, T. & Waller, R. (Eds.). 1993. Being Maasai; pp. 137-139. Eastern African Studies. James Currey Ltd. London; p. 137.

GKIS Gerald Keogh Identity Series

Coming Next

Identity: Idyllic Illusions here