The Peabody Museum's collection of Amazigh arts has grown over time and largely reflects the ideas and preoccupations of an earlier generation of anthropologists. Carleton S. Coon (1904-1981, Harvard Ph.D. 1928) was among those early scholars intrigued by the Berber-speaking peoples. Coon did his doctoral fieldwork in the mountains of the Rif in northern Morocco in the late 1920s, gathering physical and cultural data he hoped would explain the racial origins of the light-skinned inhabitants of the Rif. His conclusion, that the “true” Riffians were most closely related to northern Europeans, was based on racial categories and research methods that are now outmoded. As Coon’s work itself shows, the history of migration and settlement in the region meant that the inhabitants of the Rif were bound together more by language and tradition than by physical characteristics.
When Coon first visited the Rif in 1926, the Rif War, in which Berber tribes led by the legendary warrior Abd al-Krim faced overwhelmingly superior French and Spanish forces, had just ended with the brutal suppression of the Riffians. Foreigners were regarded with suspicion, and Coon could not have carried out his research without the help of the many Riffians who provided him and his wife Mary with shelter and protection. Coon was especially indebted to Mohammed Limnibhy, who served as his guide, translator, research assistant, and friend throughout his time in Morocco. Coon’s later research took him to many other parts of the world, but he always retained a special emotional attachment to the Rif and its people.
Like many anthropologists, Carleton Coon developed a close working relationship with one informant, to whom he was indebted for much of his information about the Rif. Mohammed Limnibhy was from the Aït Abdelmoumen, a Riffian tribe, and had served in the French army in World War I and under Abd al-Krim in the Riffian resistance. They met soon after Coon arrived, and Limnibhy quickly became an indispensable member of Coon’s research team. He was so indispensable, in fact, that when Coon returned to Harvard, he arranged for Limnibhy to come with him. Limnibhy lived with the Coons in Cambridge during 1928-1929 continuing to provide the material that Coon would use in his publications about the Rif. Not long after he returned to Morocco, Limnibhy died under mysterious circumstances, possibly the victim of poisoning.