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Founder of modern anthropology

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Born in Germany 150 years ago, Franz Boas became professor of anthropology at Columbia University in New York City in 1899 and held the post until his death in 1942. He demolished the idea that humankind can be classified into three sequential stages of development: savagery, barbarism and civilisation.

Unlike many of his predecessors, Boas did not see culture as predestined towards the ultimate goal of the equivalent of European civilisation. He also rejected the corollary prejudice that those who differed from enlightened and sophisticated European society were inferior or less developed members of the human species.

Boas made dominant the view that all surviving human groups have evolved equally but in a multitude of different ways. Culture must be understood in its context and was a unique adaptation to a particular set of historical circumstances, and not merely generated by race, environment or genetics.

So-called primitives were a source of diversity with new ideas to offer. Boas has been credited as the first scientist to publish the view that whites and blacks are fundamentally equal, as are all people. Moved by the hospitality of Eskimos towards him, he said, “a person’s worth should be judged by the warmth of his heart.”

Many anthropologists relied on missionaries or traders for data collection. Racial bias and bigotry were rampant. Boas argued that these anthropologists, who pronounced on the nature of man from their armchairs, organised their second-hand data in unsystematic ways to support their preconceived ideas.

One could only understand a culture by going on location, learning the language and gathering sound evidence relating to the people’s lore, religion, physical appearance, marriage customs, diet and handicrafts.

His writings were used in the US to oppose immigration restrictions based on race in the 1920s and to influence the 1950s civil rights struggle. His hope was that people would learn to be tolerant of difference.

Other anthropologists were inspired by Boas to study and record the vanishing cultures of many tribal peoples. This work has gained in significance over time, as westernisation and globalisation continue to blot out more and more indigenous cultures.

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