Founder of Modern Anthropology Franz Boas Celebrated

ICTMN Staff
9/14/11
Franz Boas

“Proud of his wonderful achievements, civilized man looks down upon the humbler members of mankind. He has conquered the forces of nature and compelled them to serve him. He has transformed inhospitable forests into fertile fields. The mountain fastnesses are yielding their treasures to his demands. The fierce animals which are obstructing his progress are being exterminated, while others which are useful to him are made to increase a thousand-fold. The waves of the ocean carry him from land to land, and towering mountain-ranges set him no bounds. His genius has moulded inert matter into powerful machines which await a touch of his hand to serve his manifold demands,” begins a collection of essays by Franz Boas called The Mind of Primitive Man (The Macmillan Company, 1911).

Words that still ring true for Indigenous Peoples the world over who deal with the razing of their land for economic development and the trampling of their rights.

Boas— born in Minden, Germany in 1858—is considered the founder of modern and American anthropology. According to c250.Columbia.edu, he was responsible for “discrediting the then-dominant scientific theories of racial superiority.”

His 1911 publication was banned in Hitler’s Germany for its assertion that there is no such thing as a “pure” race.

Boas became enthralled with the people of the arctic and their culture after an 1883-1884 expedition, and so began his love of anthropology. But Boas brought natural science and methodology to a practice in which the gathering of information was haphazard and “riddled with an assortment of bias,” reported NNDB.com.

“He taught that theories should be treated as works in progress, until proven beyond the shadow of a doubt,” the website says.

“Boas felt that one could only begin to understand a culture by taking on a complete survey of its mythology and tribal lore, religion, social taboos, marriage customs, physical appearance, diet, handicrafts, means of obtaining food, and so on…anthropology became divided into a four-fold profession: human evolution, archaeology, language, and culture.”

Boas died in 1942, but left behind an unfinished manuscript Kwakiutl Ethnography (University of Chicago Press, 1966), which chronicled his time with the Kwakiutl Indians of British Columbia.

Beginning September 15, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the publication of The Mind of Primitive Man, which a press release called a “landmark treatise that emerged from Boas’ work among American Indian communities,” a symposium— Indigenous Visions: Rediscovering the World of Franz Boas—will be held at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.

Two dozen scholars will gather to investigate the role of interactions between peoples in the development of global society, Boas’s influence, and the impact of indigenous thought on the revitalization of democracy.

Topics include “Anticipating Boas: Lewis Henry Morgan’s Love of ‘Aptitude’ and ‘Hierarchy’,” “Boas, Race, and ‘Primitive Man’ in Modern America,” “Language, Culture, and Philosophy in the American Century,” “Franz Boas and the Problem of Skin Color in the Era of Jim Crow,” and “Right or Wrong: Boas and Hunt’s Work on the Social Organization of the Kwakwaka’wakw.”

The event will take place at Beinecke Library, 121 Wall St., and Luce Hall, 34 Hillhouse Ave. For a full list of speakers and event times visit Yale.edu.

To read the full text of The Mind of Primitive Man, visit Google Books.

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