Department History

While the intellectual roots of anthropology are known to date as far back as Herodotus' curiosity about “strange” cultures, the first academic Department of Anthropology in an American university was at Columbia. It began in 1896 under the leadership of Franz Boas, who was committed to the idea of the uniqueness of each culture, and to the observation and recording of those cultures “in the field”, in all aspects and as much detail as possible. The faculty at Columbia trained many of the most influential American anthropologists, who went on to establish departments and train others, passing the Columbia anthropological tradition down through generations of students.

Anthropology is a comprehensive discipline, studying all peoples, and their ancestors who contributed to the genetic and cultural diversity of the human species. There are four sub-fields within American anthropology: cultural/social anthropology, physical anthropology, archaeology, and linguistics. A few early scholars, notably Boas, did research in all of these fields, but contemporary anthropologists are more specialized. The diversity among the subfields is unified, however, by a central interest in understanding the variability and development of humans, as both cultural and physical animals.

In this exhibit we present six (among many) important individuals who represent the founding of an anthropological tradition at Columbia: Dr. Franz Boas, Dr. Margaret Mead, Dr. Ruth Benedict, Dr. Edward Sapir, Dr. Harry Shapiro, and Dr. William Duncan Strong—three cultural anthropologists, a linguist, a physical anthropologist, and an archeologist. Dr. Boas, Dr. Shapiro, and Dr. Strong served only as faculty members, while Dr. Benedict and Dr. Mead were graduate students and then teachers. Dr. Sapir was a Columbia student who went on to teach elsewhere.

Fieldwork is the methodological core of anthropology. As complete a body of information as possible is recorded, brought back from the field, and interpreted, whether focus is on socio-cultural phenomena, an archaeological site, a language, or fossil material. Photographic, sound, and written records (diaries, field notes, and quantitative data) are essential, and typewriters, trowels, calipers, tape recorders, video cameras, and lap-top computers are some of the tools used today by anthropologists to preserve information and impressions.

All the anthropologists in this exhibit were involved in extensive fieldwork, Boas and Mead being the most active. All six did fieldwork among North American Indian people, even if their major research areas were elsewhere. Dr. Boas and Dr. Sapir worked among Northwest Coastal tribes (and Dr. Boas with the Eskimo as well), Dr. Benedict with several Native American groups, mostly in the southwest, Dr. Mead with the Omaha of Nebraska, Dr. Strong on the Great Plains (as an archeologist) and Dr. Shapiro with his forensic work. For all, fieldwork served as a “laboratory”, and they went from classroom to lab frequently, to get information, to train students, and to record disappearing lifeways.

Part of the “culture” of the Columbia Department of Anthropology was the commitment to the use of anthropological findings and insight in the world outside the academy. Three of the six people in this exhibit (Boas, Shapiro, and Benedict) worked to counter racist ideas wherever they appeared. Dr. Boas is now recognized as having had a crucial role in banishing “scientific racism” from the American intellectual community. Others were involved in different practical applications of their knowledge: Dr. Shapiro in the identification of the remains of American soldiers buried abroad; Dr. Benedict in her work on education in New York City and her study of Japanese character; Dr. Mead’s writing on American adolescence; and Dr. Mead, Dr. Benedict, and Dr. Bunzel in post-war studies of the introduction of new concepts to underdeveloped countries.