The recent revelation of the secret Nazi past of one of Colombia's best-known anthropologists, and a former visiting professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, has shaken academic circles to their core. To many scholars, the late Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff was a charismatic character, admired for his exploration of isolated Indian communities in the Andes, the jungles of the Panamanian isthmus and Colombia's Guajira Peninsula desert, places others had feared to tread. The native Austrian, who immigrated to Colombia in 1939, was famed for his influential studies of indigenous communities and for his highly readable books on the unusual stone statues of Colombia's most important archaeological zone, San Agustin. But Reichel-Dolmatoff, who died in 1994, apparently had a dark past to hide - as a member of the Austrian Nazi party and of Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler, the Fuehrer's private army and death squad, which killed scores of rival Nazis in a June 1934 purge known as the "night of the long knives'. According to a diary fragment that historians have identified as Reichel-Dolmatoff's, he was also stationed at the Dachau concentration camp near Munich, which set the template for Hitler's murderous gulag. "What this whole affair has shown us is that there were many things in his life we thought we knew but which now are not so clear," said Carlos Uribe, head of the anthropology department at Bogota's University of the Andes, a department that Reichel-Dolmatoff and his anthropologist wife, Alicia, founded in 1964. "He was an expert at covering his steps, a chameleon," Uribe said, adding that Reichel-Dolmatoff, as an academic, was a champion of cultural diversity and indigenous philosophies, and in the 1970s was a visiting professor at UCLA's Latin American Institute. The revelation about Reichel-Dolmatoff's past has provoked heated discussion among former students and colleagues, and letters to newspapers defending him. Some say those pursuing the matter were unnecessarily raking up the past and upsetting his aged widow, who has not commented on the scandal. One such defender is Michael Nauenberg, a physics professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, whose German-Jewish parents immigrated to Colombia a step ahead of the Gestapo in 1939 and were friends of the anthropologist. He said the diary must be more thoroughly analysed before Nazi claims could be confirmed. Until then, investigators should applaud his work, not cast aspersions "over his grave", Nauenberg said. Reichel-Dolmatoff was not as notorious as the Nazis who fled to South America after the second world war, such as Auschwitz doctor Josef Mengele or Holocaust overseer Adolf Eichmann. He apparently was a low-level rabble-rouser who was kicked out of the SS in 1936 for insubordination. But his SS activities in the early 1930s might have made him subject to deportation from Colombia had they become known, said University of Florida anthropologist Augusto Oyuela-Caycedo, a Colombian academic who exposed the eminent author in a paper presented in July at a conference in Vienna. "We cannot advance as a human society if we hide criminal actions of individuals, no matter how many books or inventions or contributions they have made," Oyuela-Caycedo said. "We should know the total reality of someone before evaluating those contributions." Once an admirer and friend who knew the author during his student days in Colombia, Oyuela-Caycedo began looking into Reichel-Dolmatoff's past intending to write his biography. The crucial finds in his research were excerpts from a diary Reichel-Dolmatoff apparently wrote after his SS expulsion and later published in a dissident journal in 1937.