Anthropologists! Anthropologists!

This Gary Larson “Far Side” cartoon is a classic in anthropology. It does such a good job of conveying the history of Anthropology as a discipline over the past 150+ years. At least a handful of my professors in college and grad school referenced this cartoon in PowerPoint presentations, starting with the first anthropology course I ever took (Cultural Anthropology) back in 2004. 

The discipline originates with the ventures of European colonialists and government officials seeking to understand and document human variation, tradition and culture. In the early days, anthropologists used a salvage ethnography approach to harvest as much information as they could get from cultures all across the globe, some of whose life ways were being severely impacted by colonialism, imperialism, and globalization. Many of these cultures would end up going away altogether.

Anthropologists wanted to understand other people as they were “pre-contact”, which is why this cartoon shows natives running to hide their various electronic objects in order to present authentically to the gullible anthros in pith helmets and khaki cargo vests. In the late 19th century, cultural evolutionists like Lewis Henry Morgan and Sir Edward B. Tylor theorized about how cultures had unilinealy evolved throughout time by understanding present day “primitives” using the comparative method. They regarded “primitive” groups as static vestiges of the past. This was debunked in the early 20th century by the father of modern anthropology, Frans Boas.

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