'Whence came the American Indians?': American anthropologists and the origins question, 1880--1935

Juliet Marie Burba
Department of Earth Sciences, University of Minnesota
July, 2006


In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, American anthropologists repeatedly pursued the question of American Indian origins. For American anthropology, this same period constituted a formative stage for the discipline, as institutions for the practice of anthropology were founded and flourished, and the discipline cohered as a profession. This dissertation examines the work of a select group of United States and Canadian anthropologists, for whom American Indian origins research played a critical role in their efforts to shape anthropology into a particular set of ideas, practices, and institutions from 1880 to 1935. In turn, these anthropologists' professionalizing agendas, and their efforts to shape the intellectual and methodological scope of their discipline, also shaped the ways in which they framed American Indian origins as a research question, as well as the specific approaches they took to this work. Key figures in this historical study include Daniel Garrison Brinton (1837-1899), Franz Boas (1858-1943), Ales Hrdlicka (1869-1943), Edward Sapir (1884-1939) and Diamond Jenness (1886-1969). Two interrelated themes are highlighted throughout this project. The first concerns inter- and intra-disciplinary competition. As anthropologists sought to establish their discipline, they sometimes came into conflict with scientists from other disciplines and with one another. Tensions within the discipline were heightened as anthropologists became increasingly specialized and the discipline splintered into several well-defined sub-fields. The second concerns anthropologists' debates regarding the methods they should employ to gather and analyze their data, and the general theoretical notions underlying their particular methodological choices. American Indian origins research provided anthropologists with a common ground in which to work out their answers to these questions. This project provides an account of anthropologists' ongoing research and changing ideas about American Indian origins in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Attention to origins research also serves as a means to trace the changing concerns of anthropologists and the developing contours of their discipline during this critical period of professionalization for American anthropology.