The Golden Age of American Anthropology

The Golden Age of American Anthropology

The Golden Age of American Anthropology

The Golden Age of American Anthropology

Excerpt

Science knows no national boundaries and, however vivid sudden steps forward may be, is steadily cumulative. The task of selecting for a golden age of American anthropology might therefore seem to be an impossible one, for the very phrasing is national and suggests a time in the past to which later and lesser ages should look back with nostalgia. But the attempt to place this one of the human sciences in the same category with literature, history, and philosophy can be an occasion for delineating some of the peculiarities of anthropology as, in some respects, a science, and in others, a humanity.

Anthropology deals with human beings living in different societies, with the products of these societies--houses and parliamentary systems, temples and religious beliefs, pottery borders and art styles, poems and languages-- and with the processes--physical, mental, and social--through which these products are created. While anthropologists seek for ways of describing man that will apply to all cultures at all times in history, anthropology remains closely bound to the living detail of the way special men have lived at given times and places. However abstract the statement that is made about the diverse versions of the Sun Dance, the abstraction is never wholly separated from the description of a real Sun Dance among the Oglalla Sioux as Walker observed it or from Spier's analysis of its distribution. The precious concrete reference is never lost. Real Indians hunt real buffalo, or stare at the sun until they fall unconscious, or fast in the lonely wilderness seeking a guardian spirit for life. So anthropological theory has thrived upon accounts of the lives of particular primitive peoples studied at a given period by a given group of explorers, traders or missionaries, and, later still, professional anthropologists. American anthropology has been built on detailed studies of the living behavior, the buried remnants of earlier periods, the vanishing complicated languages, and the remembered customs of the American Indians. The huge edifices of Yucatan and Mexico, the unforeseeable combinations of bravery, savagery, and spirituality of the simpler tribes of the East Coast, the fantastic unexpectedness of the way a Kwakiutl artist slices up the image of a killer whale have all been part of the thinking of American anthropologists. Had there been no American Indians, anthropology ultimately would have been taught and perhaps elaborated in the United States on the basis of German . . .

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