History and Anthropology Research Paper

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Through four distinct, often conflicting traditions—biological, archeological, sociocultural, and linguistic—anthropologists attempt to reconstruct human prehistory and the divergence of the human races. But because the traditions are filtered through vastly different paradigms, borrowing from anthropology can lead historians to a distorted historical model.

The global scope and trans-epochal sweep of anthropology bespeak close affinities with world history. Yet, just what anthropology has to offer world history is far from straightforward. In no small part, this is because anthropology, even more than most disciplines, is a sutured and unstable bundle of paradigmatic traditions, famously involving studies of human biology and primate origins (in biological anthropology), a significant focus on the Neolithic era across the globe (in archaeology), detailed studies of daily life, particularly in small-scale societies (in sociocultural anthropology), and formal analyses of language in all its known diversity (in linguistic anthropology). Work in these different quadrants has distinct, and in some cases antithetical, implications for world history.

Anthropology as a Discipline

Though no single starting point can be found for sustained inquiry into the questions asked by anthropology, anthropology coalesced as a discipline only in the final decades of the nineteenth century, as part of a larger process of disciplinary differentiation and institutionalization. Within this larger process, the composition of anthropology was shaped to a significant degree by “the revolution in human time,” itself located at the end of the 1850s and beginning of the 1860s. The new understanding of the length of human existence, as vastly greater than the biblical chronology of some six thousand years, undermined the then active scholarly project of reconstructing the complete family tree of humankind, from the first begat of the original hetero couple (Adam and Eve) to the distribution of peoples across the entire globe in the present.

In its place, scholars pursued a “conjectural” account of humanity’s “progress” over the vast expanse of human time, through a singular sequence of generalized stages, from primordial savagery to the telos of civilization. Within this new research program, living “primitives” and archaeological remains (both skeletal and artifactual) came to be seen as the best sources of evidence for reconstructing the prehistoric and precivilized segment of this sequence, given the absence of written records from this period of time-development.

In the earlier project of reconstructing the complete family tree of all the world’s peoples, the study of language had played a prominent role, in the form of philology. The latter’s great prestige positioned language as a significant focus of the new social evolutionary program as well. Within the new research program, however, the interest in language shifted from finding cognates that demonstrated a common source language (a node on the family tree) to establishing an authoritative basis for ranking all languages on a single scale of development.

The new understanding of human time contributed in one other important way to the formation of the new discipline of anthropology: it opened the door to a vast expansion of research on “the races of mankind.” Within the tight temporal confines of the biblical chronology, a coherent exposition of independent racial types required the doctrine of polygenism (the idea that each race had been created separately by God), but most scholars in Europe and North America had rejected this doctrine because it was held to contradict the biblical account of the creation of humankind. The new chronology, by contrast, offered no such barrier to the idea of independent racial types, and indeed it provided a span of time that seemed more than ample for the formation of racial divisions, even if all the races had a common origin.

Finally, this pair of new scientific pursuits—the reconstruction of human prehistory and the study of human racial differences—were linked in at least two important ways. First, they relied on common sources of evidence—archaeological remains and accounts of living “primitives.” This common (evidentiary) denominator did much to make these areas of research mutually intelligible, thereby facilitating their cohabitation in a single discipline. Second, these pursuits were linked by service to a common master: empire. What this facilitated was less scholarly communication between these areas of research than an ad hoc intermingling of racial and social evolutionary notions in the common cause of legitimating conquest and domination.

Given the breadth of anthropology as it coalesced in these ways, it is not surprising that few, if any, Victorian scholars were prepared to carry out original research in all of the discipline’s many branches. It is a great irony, moreover, that one of the very first scholars who was prodigious enough to do so—Franz Boas (1858–1942)—was also one of the last. That Boas made significant contributions to all four of anthropology’s “quadrants” is a commonplace of introductory courses in anthropology, but what is typically elided in these accounts is that his contributions to biological (or in his terms, physical) anthropology were primarily negative. Boas’s painstaking research on racial kinds produced results that, again and again, raised fundamental questions about the validity of the concept of race. So too, Boas’s work on social evolution ended up challenging the idea that living others could be seen as exemplars of prehistoric life. This critical response to social evolutionary theory was particularly strong in the case of language, with Boas and his students providing powerful demonstrations that all observable human languages were equally “evolved.” Thus, as much as Boas played a central role in the building of anthropology, he also animated the discipline’s characteristic centrifugal tendencies.

World History and Anthropology

In the last half century, as world history has emerged in tension with disciplinary history’s disproportionate focus on Europe and the West, world history has looked to anthropology for two primary reasons: (1) to bring into history knowledge of Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the indigenous peoples of the Americas, and (2) to gain a significant degree of temporal depth, by moving into prehistoric time. What has been insufficiently recognized, however, is that in consulting anthropology for these reasons, world history has drawn on bodies of “anthropological” knowledge that are shaped by quite different, and often antithetical, theoretical schemas or paradigms. Most Neolithic archaeology, for instance, relies upon and incorporates a social evolutionary framework; as such, this body of “anthropological” knowledge supports the perception of there being an overall trajectory to human existence through time. It thereby complements and reinforces disciplinary history’s entrenched assumption that the history of Europe exemplifies a universal passage from “traditional” to “modern” social forms: a passage that will sooner or later occur everywhere else, in much the same way. By contrast, most post- Boasian cultural anthropology incorporates and supports the rejection of social evolutionary models. This body of “anthropological” knowledge characteristically speaks against the validity of such analytic categories as “advancement” and “civilization,” while encouraging the provincializing of Europe and the West (cf. Chakrabarty 2000). When this knowledge is brought into disciplinary history, it becomes quite difficult to hold on to a single, coherent narrative of the human career through time. Similarly, if more abstractly, the radical relativizing that is characteristic of post-Boasian cultural anthropology—its insistent practice of doubting the absoluteness of the familiar—discomfits disciplinary history’s commonsense realism.

In sum, recognizing the complexity of the discipline we call anthropology should caution us against the view that anthropological knowledge can, in any simple way, be brought into history to provide greater coverage of human time and space. Such interdisciplinary borrowing must be alert to the diverse paradigmatic traditions at work in anthropology, as well as their quite different relationships to disciplinary history’s own theoretical schemas.


  1. Chakrabarty, D. (2000). Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial thought and historical difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  2. Segal D. (2004). Worlding History. In Graff, H. J., Moch, L. P., & McMichael, P. (Eds.), Looking forward, looking backwards: Perspectives on social science history (pp. 81–98). Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
  3. Segal, D., & Yanagisako, S. (Eds.). (2004). Unwrapping the sacred bundle: Essays on the disciplining of anthropology. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  4. Stocking, G. (1968). Race, culture, and evolution: Essays in the history of anthropology. New York: Free Press.
  5. Stocking, G. (1987). Victorian anthropology. New York: Free Press.
  6. Trautmann, T. (1987). Lewis Henry Morgan and the invention of kinship. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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