An Un-Boas Opinion On Humanity

“It is our task to inquire into the causes that have brought about the observed differentiation, and to investigate the sequence of events that have led to the establishment of the multifarious forms of human life.” 
-Franz Boas

Anthropology and archaeology take on similar but different forms all around the world. The type of anthropological/archaeological practices you’d see in the United States would be a bit different than what you would see in say Egypt or England. In the United States, archaeology falls under the sort of umbrella subject of anthropology. The Four Fields of Anthropology, as they are known, include linguistics, biological/physical anthropology, cultural anthropology, and archaeology. In college/university departments, these subject all usually fall within the Anthropology Department, although some colleges/universities do not offer a specifically archaeology based degree, often specializing on a certain type of cultural anthropology with a background of archaeology and other subjects. It is believed, and rightly so, that in order to even start to understand a culture, you cannot simply rely on one study to get the full picture. You can excavate a site, find artifacts, features, and even remains, to your heart’s content, you can interpret it all as much as you want, but what of the language left behind (If language is present in writing.)? What about the biological components? What of the culture, since faded away or still going on in a different location? Artifacts and features can only tell a person so much. It was of this thought process that a physicist/geographer from Minden, Westphalia, Germany who fell in love with the study of humanity in the United States, founded the Four Fields of Anthropology, Franz Boas.


Boas in 1895.

Born in Minden, Westphalia, Germany on July 9th, 1858, Franz Uri Boas, to later be known as the “Father of American Anthropology”, grew up a free thinker and taught not to take all things he heard and saw at face value. While religion was not overall a large part of his life, his parents were Jewish, but also more than willing to embrace Enlightenment ideas. Just as they installed in Boas a want to question everything, not take dogma at face value, Boas’ parents’ influence in religion was a factor on his opinions on the subject. Not considering himself Jewish, Boas didn’t feel the need to convert to Christianity either. His great dislike of anti-semitism, and not identifying as Jewish or any religion really, led people, including his eventual biographer, to eventually refer to him as an ‘ethnic’ German. He did not put much focus on religion, but was more than happy to uphold German traditions and culture wherever he lived, including the United States.

Boas received a PhD in physics, while minoring in geography in 1881, after his studies at  the Universities of Heidelberg, Bonn, and Kiel in Germany, at the age of 23. It was during a geological expedition to Northern Canada that Boas had his first foray into anthropology from his interactions with the Inuit at  the island of Baffinland (Baffin Island), Canada. He stayed in the area doing a continued study with the Inuit in the area, their language, and their culture. He later emigrated to the United States in 1887, and worked as a curator at the Smithsonian museum until he became an anthropology professor at Columbia University (A job he stayed at until his death.).

boas inuit

From the start, Boas was considered somewhat controversial for his, at the time, well, controversial thoughts on the world, race, and culture. Scientific racism was flaring in his time, and Boas was one of it’s most well known opponents. Using weak, hard to prove science and pseudo science, scientific racism was (And unfortunately, still is. Let’s face it, as far as we have come, it’s barely a step on the staircase to a racist free world.) used as a way to justify the criticism, bad treatment, and classification of some races as inferior or dumber than others (*coughs*threeguesseswhothe’superior’racewasconsidered*coughs*). Race is a social construct, not a biological one, (All humans, across the board, share 99.9% of the same genetics.) yet there were and still are alarmingly high numbers of people who either do not understand this or refuse to understand it, and insist on further isolating, classifying,  and treating people of different races as inferior, stupid, and sometimes entirely inhuman.


Inhuman? Like Daisy Johnson….? No, not this type of Inhuman, although three cheers for a Marvel reference!

“No one has ever proved that a human being, through his descent from a certain group of people, must of necessity have certain mental characteristics.”

-Franz Boas

It was in 1893 that Boas received the first of several hard blows to his faith in humanity in regards to anthropology and understanding. Director and curator of the Peabody Museum at Harvard, Fredric Ward Putnam, chose Boas as first assistant for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Boas, one of the strongest supporters of public archaeology/anthropology was delighted and excited to begin his work and educate people on a  different culture. Boas, looking north for his ethnographic research, eventually decided to arrange for fourteen people from the Kwakiutl tribes to come to Chicago and interact with and in a mock Kwakiutl village in order to show people, in context, the day to day activities of these people. It was only at the expobition that Boas realized, looking at the people who would come by, that they weren’t actually there to be educated, they had come to be entertained.


The fourteen Kwakiutl peoples at the Columbian Exposition in 1893.

Disheartened, in the back of Boas’ mind, the knowledge that things had to change began to form.

After a series of studies done in areas such as Pacific Northwest, focusing on the potential cross across the Bering Strait from Siberia, leaving (A forced leave.) the Field Museum in Chicago (That he had helped build with his ethnographic studies.), Boas was working for The American Museum of Natural History, another of Putnam’s places, when his patience with American museums and their treatment of public archaeology/anthropology (Or rather, lack thereof.) ran out. His views on the presenting of specimens, artifacts, and other materials at the museum, in context in order to further understand and appreciate what was being seen, and further a person’s learning  on the subject, seems like a no-brainer now, but it brought him to blows (Metaphorical ones.) with Morris Jesup, the president of the museum, and the director, Hermon Bumpus. Boas eventually left the Natural History Museum, and working for museums altogether, in 1905, and continued teaching.  Through his continued studies on  ethnography and the world, all still while working at the university, Boas went on to found the Four Fields of Anthropology, and be dubbed/nicknamed the Father of American Anthropology. Boas passed away on December 21st, 1942.

boas grave

Boas’ grave in Dale Cemetery, Ossining, New York.

But How Do His Contributions Affect Us Now?!

Seventy-four years after his death, Boas’ contributions to anthropology and ethnography are still talked about, respected, and followed (Although not exactly to a T.) .Clearly, his influence on how we in the United States approach anthropology is still firmly in place through the Four Fields and the thought process of including multiple disciplines in a research study in order to better understand a culture is considered almost a no-brainer. As an archaeologist, I could survey and excavate every inch of a site (Although that would require a lot of money, money I do not have, but that’s not the point.), analyze every artifact in a lab, every feature in the field, and come to as many conclusions my little hopeful heart and brain could muster, but in the end, my understanding of the people who occupied that site would still be limited.


One of the oldest, and still running strong, jokes in anthropology. Not sure what the artifact is used for? Ritual.

Are there pictographs? Any sign of language? I can only interpret so much, I’d need a linguist that specializes in that language/style to help. Food remnants? Remains? Biological samples? Again, I can only say as much as I know, time to bring in a physical anthropologist for help. What of the culture, gone or still living on in descendents? Cultural anthropologists to the rescue! It’s practically impossible to get a true grasp of what was once the home of, in the possession of, used by in any capacity, a people who are now gone without seeking the assistance of others who have specialized in the facts one needs to know to get a better understanding. Of course in the end, no one can be, without a doubt, 100% sure about any of these facts, in the end we’re speculating, even with every piece of evidence we could possibly collect. Often times, people don’t like the answer “I’m not sure.” or “I don’t know.”, or the fact that we can never be 100% sure on something, but that’s the basis of all scientific research, not just anthropology, and without that lack of knowing all, there would be nothing to study. It’s a life-long study of a part of the universe that interests you the most, and often times, all the answers will not come to you, but that’s where the drive is. If you knew all the facts, there would be nothing to research, nothing to see, nothing to hold interest.

Of course, like Boas’ disappointment in the lack of interest in the public back in 1893, we are experiencing another round of disinterest from the world, or rather, the material to attract the public to the subject seems to be fewer and far between than it has been in the past. Archaeologists, anthropologists, linguists, cultural and physical anthropologists all have their reasons to keep some of what they find under wraps. Sometimes artifacts are too delicate and/or too valuable, some sites are on private or federal/government land, to present to the public. It’s understandable. Funding is also an issue in several instances, there’s no money to properly and safely present some things. However, it is also the responsibility of the very people who are doing the studies to also help the public understand and respect these sites, artifacts, and features. There is a small surge in public archaeology/anthropology programs, blogs (Like this one.), and podcasts ( Several of which can be found on the Archaeology Podcast Network.), bringing  not only attention to archaeology here in the United States and other areas, but also helping to bring several of Boas’ ideas and views on how archaeologists and anthropologists should approach the study, to the 21st century. But the best kind of advertising and spread of knowledge is word of mouth, hands down, and we all have a responsibility to air the spark and turn it into a flame once more, and bring the public closer to the subject rather than push them away. After all, how can the public understand fully why some of these things need to be kept safe and sound, away from most, if they don’t know anything about the rest of it?



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