John Victor Murra was born Isak Lipschitz on August 24, 1916 in Odessa, Ukraine. He spent his childhood and adolescence in Bucharest, Romania where he passed his baccalaureate examinations in 1933. Following high school, he worked as an apprentice in paper factories in Romania and Croatia.
In December 1934, Murra immigrated to Chicago, Illinois, where his uncle lived, to escape the worsening political turmoil in Romania. Shortly after his arrival in the United States, Murra enrolled at the University of Chicago where he completed a Bachelor of Arts in sociology in 1936. He then enlisted in the International Brigade and served as an infantry corporal in the 58th battalion, 15th brigade in the Spanish Republican Army. At the end of the Spanish Civil War, he spent almost six months (February-June 1939) in refugee internment camps, most notably the camp at Argèles-sur-Mer, France. In 1939, Murra returned to Chicago to continue his studies and it was about this time that he started to use the name Murra in official documents. He completed his Master of Arts degree in Anthropology at the University of Chicago in 1942.
The war injuries sustained by Murra during the Spanish Civil War exempted him from military service during the Second World War. Between 1941 and 1942, Murra traveled to Ecuador as the assistant to Donald Collier, Conservator at the Field Museum of Chicago, on an archaeological project sponsored by the Institute of Andean Research. His work with Collier ultimately led him to contribute to the Handbook of South American Indians. Between 1942 and 1943, he worked as an interviewer for John Dollard and Ruth Benedict in their work for the United States Department of War to survey Abraham Lincoln Brigade veterans. In 1943, Murra was appointed Instructor in Anthropology at the University of Chicago to fill in for Fred Eggan, who entered military service. In addition to instructing at the University of Chicago during the mid-1940s, Murra also served as editor on the topic of anthropology for the Encyclopedia Britannica (1945-1946).
The decade or so following the Second World War was often extremely frustrating for Murra as he pursued his quest for American citizenship. In 1946, the U.S. government denied his applications for naturalization and travel papers on the grounds that he had served in the Spanish Republican Army. Consequently, Murra was unable to accept a fellowship from the Social Science Research Council that would have funded his travel to Ecuador to pursue his doctoral research. Although he finally won his lawsuit for citizenship in 1950, Murra did not receive a passport until 1956 and was ultimately forced to change thesis topics in order to continue his doctoral studies without field work. To support himself during this difficult period, Murra taught at several American institutions—most notably at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras (1947-1950) and Vassar College (1950-1961), and supervised a number of field work programs in the Caribbean for Columbia University, Vassar College, Yale University and the University of Montreal. He also served briefly as a regional specialist on African land tenure for the United Nations.
In 1955, Murra defended his Ph.D. dissertation, The Economic Organization of the Inca State and he was awarded a Ph.D. in Anthropology the following year from the University of Chicago. Shortly thereafter he took a sabbatical from Vassar College to teach in Peru (1958-1960) at the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, Lima and pursue research at the archives of Cuzco.
In the 1960s, Murra turned his attention towards pursuing research interests and cultivating the anthropological training of South American graduate students. He left Vassar College in 1961 and spent time teaching as a visiting professor, first for the Organization of American States at the Escuela Nacional de Antropología y Historia, Mexico (1961) and then at Yale University (1962). Murra received in 1963 a three-year National Science Foundation grant for his well known study of Huánuco, Peru. During his fieldwork for this project, he continued to teach at the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos in Lima, Peru (1965-1966) and the Universidad de Chile (1965). He also worked to improve the educational opportunities for South American students by supporting efforts to establish a graduate school at the Universidad de La Plata. Upon returning to the United States, Murra was a National Academy of Sciences postdoctoral associate at the Smithsonian Institution (1966-1967).
From 1968 to 1982, Murra served as Professor of Anthropology at Cornell University. He continued to travel extensively to archives in Spain and South America during this period and held a number of academic posts at other institutions including Yale University (1970-1971), the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University (1974-1975), l'Université Paris X Nanterre (1975-1976), the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia in Mexico (1977) and John Hopkins University (1981). He also served as the president of the American Society of Ethnohistory (1970-1971), the American Ethnological Society (1972-1973), and the Institute of Andean Research (1977-1983). Murra's efforts to cultivate educational opportunities for South American graduate students and promote international dialogue among students from different nationalities produced three well known programs: the comparative seminar on the Andes and Mesoamerica that he organized with Angel Palerm (1972), the Lake Titicaca field project he ran with Luis G. Lumbrebas (1973) and the Otoño Andino held at Cornell University (1977). In 1969, he received the honor of being the Lewis Henry Morgan Lecturer at the University of Rochester.
Following his retirement from Cornell University (1982), Murra served as a consultant to the Banco Nacional de Bolivia at the Museo Nacional de Etnografía, La Paz (1982-1983). He received a Guggenheim Fellowship (1983-1984), that enabled him to pursue research at the Archivo Nacional and the Academia de la Historia in Madrid and the Archivo General de Indias in Seville. During his time in Spain, he also taught at the Universities of Madrid and Seville and at the Institut Catalá d'Antropologi in Barcelonia (1985-1986). The following year, he was a Visiting Professor at the London School of Economics and was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of the Sun, Peru. He then pursued research at the Instituto de Antropologia de Buenos Aires (1988-1989) and then returned to Spain, where he was a fellow at the Archivo de Indias (1990-1991). In 1993, the Universidad de Barcelona awarded him the honor of Doctor Honoris Causa.
Murra was married and divorced twice; neither marriage produced any children. He first married Virginia Miller in 1936; the date of their divorce is unknown. His second marriage to Elizabeth "Tommy" Sawyer lasted thirteen years (1945-1958).
Bibliography of Selected Publications
Survey and Excavations in Southern Ecuador. Chicago: Field Museum of Natural History, Publication 528, Anthropological series volume 35, May 15, 1943. Co-authored with Donald Collier.
"The Cayapa and Colorado" in the Handbook of South American Indians. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office
Soviet Linguistic Controversy, translated from the Soviet Press. New York: King's Crown Press. Co-authored with Robert M. Hankin and Fred Holling.
The Economic Organization of the Inca State. Chicago: University of Chicago.
Cloth and its Functions in the Inca State.
Visita hecha a la Provincia de Chucuito por Garci Diez de San Miguel en el año 1567. Lima: Casa de la Cultura del Perú. Co-authored with Waldemar Espinoza Soriano and Frey Pedro Gutiérrez Flores.
New Data on Retainer and Servile Populations in Tawantinsuyu.
Visita de la provincia de León de Huánuco en 1562. Iñigo Ortiz de Zúñiga, visitador. Huánuco, Peru: Universidad Nacional Hermilio Valdizán, Facultad de Letras y Educación. Contains articles by several authors.
Current Research and Prospects in Andean Ethnohistory. Ithaca: Cornell University.
Formaciones económicas y políticas del mundo andino. Lima: Instituto de Estudios Peruanos.
American Anthropology, the Early Years. St. Paul: West Publishing Co. Edited for the American Ethnological Society
La organización económica del Estado inca. México: Siglo Veintiuno. Murra's Ph.D. thesis translated from English to Spanish by Daniel R. Wagner.
Formazioni economiche e politiche nel mondo andino: saggi di etnostoria. Torino: Giulio Einaudi.
Primer nueva corónica y buen gobierno Guamán Poma de Ayala (Waman Puma). Co-authored with Rolena Adorno and Jorge L. Urioste. Republished in 1987.
The Economic Organization of the Inca State. Greenwich, Conn.: JAI Press.
The "Vertical Control" of a Maximum of Ecologic Tiers in the Economies of Andean Societies.
The Mit'a Obligations of Ethnic groups to the Inka State.
Las etnocategorías de un Khipu estatal.
Los Olleros del Inka: Hacia una Historia y Arqueología del Qollasuyu. La Paz: Centrol de Investigaciones Históricas.
Anthropological History of Andean Polities. New York: Cambridge University Press. Edited with Nathan Wachtel and Jacques Revel. Originally published in French in 1978 as Anthropologie historique des sociétés andines by Editions de la Maison des science de l'homme in Paris.
La teoría de la complementariedad vertical eco-simbiótica. La Paz: Hisbol. Co-authored with Ramiro Condarco Morales.
Civilizatie inca: organizarea economica a statului incas. Bucharest: Editura Stiintifica si Enciclopedica. Murra's Ph.D. thesis translated from English to Romanian by Murra's sister, Ata Iosifescu.
Visita de los valles de Sonqo en los yunka de coca de La Paz (1568-1570). Madrid: Instituto de Cooperación Iberoamericana: Quinto Centenario: Instituo de Estudios Fiscales.
Las cartas de Arguedas. Lima: Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, Fondo Editorial. Co-authored with Mercedes López-Baralt.
Historia general de América Latina / 1. Las sociedades originales. Madrid: Editorial Trotta. Co-authored with Teresa Rojas Rabiela.
El mundo andino: población, medio ambiente y economía. Lima: Instituto de Estudios Peuanos: Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú.
Nispa ninchis/decimos diciendo : conversaciones con John Murra. Lima: IEP –Instituto de Estudios Peruanos and IAR – Institute of Andean Research. Edited by Victoria Castro, Carlos Aldunate and Jorge Hidalgo
Los esfuerzos de Sísifo, coversaciones sobre las ciencias sociales en América Latina. Heredia, Costa Rica: EUNA. A collection of interviews of John Victor Murra and others conducted by Fernando Calderón.