Before Boas. The Genesis of Ethnography and Ethnology in the German Enlightenment

Han F. Vermeulen, Before Boas. The Genesis of Ethnography and Ethnology in the German Enlightenment. . Critical Studies in the History of Anthropology, 23.
Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 2015 .isbn 978-0-8032-5542-5.
746 pp., 16 b. & w. illus. $75.
Journal of the History of Collections, fhx056,

In 1896, Franz Uri Boas arranged the dioramas of indigenous peoples of America that I admired as a child in the American Museum of Natural History in New York. With the aid of mannequins, he presented the utensils, weapons, clothing and religious objects, collected during research on the Northwest Coast, as they had been used. Boas was convinced that climate was the main determinant of people’s characteristics until the harsh winter of 1883–1884 spent with Inuits on Baffin Island made him change his mind. The experience led him to realize that it was not adaptations to climate that exerted a dominant influence over human societies, but social traditions.

Born in 1858 in Germany, Boas brought the (non-racial) Berlin school of anthropology to America, where he was appointed Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University in 1899. He guided his department at Columbia for forty-one years and introduced to American universities the four-field approach, incorporating cultural, biological, archaeological, and linguistic studies within one single discipline called anthropology.

This discipline had its origin in Europe. Because the Anglophone world has largely overlooked the unique contributions from German-speaking countries to the early history of ethnography and ethnology due to a language barrier, Han Vermeulen has decided to introduce us to the times Before Boas when German medical doctors, philosophers, naturalists and historians stood out by not dividing peoples in ‘civilized’ versus ‘savage’ or ‘barbaric’, were less speculative and less judgemental and took into account language instead of customs or institutions. Boas was a product of this German tradition.

Erudite and eloquent, Vermeulen explains the points of view of German scholars, and – when relevant – of other Europeans, in their studies of man from the times of the Primäraufklärung until the end of the nineteenth century. In 1710, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716) proposed the reconstruction of the history of peoples by their language. This ethno-linguistic approach was further developed by Russian and German physicians and historians in Russian service, who from the times of Tsar Peter the Great were sent on scientific expeditions across the Ural Mountains to collect ‘all things unknown’ for the Imperial Kunstkamera in St Petersburg. Their conclusions on natural history and history were published, but their notes on languages and customs of the many peoples in Siberia remained buried in Russian archives.

One of those Germans involved in the exploration of Siberia was Georg Friedrich Müller (1705–1783). Educated as a historian, his interest in Völker-Beschreibung was only piqued in 1728, when he handled collections brought from Siberia by Daniel Gottlieb Messerschmidt (1685–1735) for the Kunstkamera. Müller followed Messerschmidt’s methods when he himself travelled to Siberia’s remotest corners. When at last, in 1989, Wieland Hintzsche in Halle and Aleksandr Elert in Novosibirsk gained access to Müller’s manuscripts, they judged Müller’s descriptions of marriages and burials, ‘to a large degree’ to correspond to ‘modern ethnological fieldwork’ and found that his researches on Siberian peoples was conducted in an entirely systematic manner. Because Müller had proposed a research programme for comparative ethnography, Vermeulen credits him with introducing a new science, ethnology, brought to life after 1750.

Leibniz and Müller developed a scientific framework that was opposed by certain scholars, including Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778) and Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae raised the question of whether man and ape were of one species and whether people of a different colour had a different anatomy. According to Kant, ‘four germs corresponding to the four races had been implanted by providence in the original human beings to deal with differences of climate’. He saw racial traits as immutable and inheritable, preserved over generations.

Discussions between monogenesists (one human species, created by God) and polygenesists (several human species, several creations) were explored by the dissection of orangutans and black people. On 14 November 1764 Petrus Camper (1722–1789), a Dutch anatomist and the founder of anthropology in the Netherlands, dissected a black boy in an anatomy lesson, and proved to his audience there is no biological criterion distinguishing races: there is but one species.

Vermeulen has created a wonderful tool for historians, students of the history of collections, and keepers of ethnographical collections. He shows how German scholars introduced to Europe and America a non-racial approach to the study of peoples. He provides all the arguments needed to discuss the extensive history of ethnography, ethnology, and anthropology Before Boas. Vermeulen concludes his work with a 170-page bibliography, mainly in English.