The Paradoxical Legacy of Franz Boas

By Holloway, Marguerite | Natural History, November 1997 | Go to article overview

The Paradoxical Legacy of Franz Boas


Holloway, Marguerite, Natural History


Friends: I am Mr. Boas who is speaking to you. I am he whom you called Heiltsaqoalis [he who says the right thing]. It is two winters since I have been with you, but I have thought of you often. You were very kind to me when I was with you, and I always think of your kindness. I am thinking of it, that it is difficult for you to show to the white man in Victoria that you[rfeasts and your potlatches are good, and I have tried to show them that they are good. My friend, George Hunt, will read this to you. He will also read to you what I have told the people in Victoria. I am trying to do the right thing. I am trying to show them that your ways are not bad ways.

Franz Uri Boas, the German immigrant known as the "father of American anthropology," wrote this letter to the Kwakiutl Indians of British Columbia in April 1897. That year marked the beginning of the Jesup North Pacific Expedition, one of the largest and most ambitious anthropological field research efforts of its time. Boas, who led the five-year study, directed his assistants to gather as many folk tales, costumes, artifacts, and observations as they could. Convinced that cultures on both sides of the Bering Strait were facing extinction-as native peoples succumbed to starvation, as well as to diseases carried by fur traders and missionaries-Boas urged an almost scattershot approach: collect and record anything and everything.

His directive also applied to the gathering of such human remains as bones and skulls. Like medical researchers and anatomists going at least as far back as Leonardo da Vinci, Boas saw no way around digging up buried bones in order to study human morphology-a practice contemporary anthropologists find troubling, to say the least. Boas wanted to use anthropometric data-body measurements such as head length and head width-to show that the physical types of the people in northeastern Asia resembled the physical types in northwestern America. He hoped that the Jesup North Pacific Expedition would demonstrate what he had long hypothesized: that Asians had crossed the ancient landmass of Beringia to the New World before water had closed this passage, leaving racially and culturally related populations on each side. (One popular theory of the late nineteenth century, espoused by the physical anthropologist Daniel G. Brinton, held that Native Americans originated in America. Still others seriously argued that they originated on the "lost continent" of Atlantis or were descendants of a lost tribe of Israel.)

Collecting the requisite physical dataincluding facial casts, photographic portraits, and particularly bones-was often difficult and "unpleasant work," to use Boas's own phrase. Yet the data on human variation gathered on the Jesup Expedition and other trips led Boas to become an influential spokesman for human biological unity during a period when many scientists believed in a rigid hierarchy of separate races. Early in his collecting, he determined that the skulls within one tribe varied so considerably that there was little hope of establishing "fixed racial characteristics." His later studies, which demonstrated great physical differences between first-generation European immigrants and their American children, reinforced Boas's conclusion that the "old idea of absolute stability of human types must . . . evidently be given up, and with it the belief of the hereditary superiority of certain types over others."

This egalitarianism, articulated in 1911, is one of the characteristic components of Franz Boas's legacy. It is a legacy that remains strong today, despite occasional scholarly attempts to reassert rankings of so-called races-almost always with Caucasians at the top of the ladder. Boas's deep respect for various cultures (unusual for its time) and the wealth of information he amassed continue to exert influence on anthropology and even on the descendants of the peoples he studied. The nature of the relationship between anthropologists and their subjects and the value of preserved artifacts-issues first raised by Boas-continue to engage anthropologists today. …

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