Ethnohistory refers in general terms to the study of the history of a social group from an anthropological perspective. Frequently, this involves using a variety of sources, such as oral history, missionary documents, and travel accounts, to reconstruct the social history of the marginalized peoples who tend to form the subject matter of most anthropological accounts. Historians and anthropologists generally undertake ethnohistorical analysis, and the results are published not just in the journal Ethnohistory but also in a wide variety of other scholarly publications. Ethnohistorical research is often used in the legal system, particularly in cases regarding Native American property claims.
From its origins, ethnohistory has been an interdisciplinary endeavor. Anthropology and history are the primary contributors, both methodologically and theoretically, to the development of the field. From the perspective of history as a discipline, the interest of the Annales School in reconstructing social institutions, broadly speaking, prefigured the interest and development of ethnohistory within history departments. Within anthropology departments, a concern with historical analysis was evident, to a greater or lesser extent, in different kinds of anthropological research from early on (see below, particularly with respect to the Boasians).
Ethnohistory became a clearly demarcated field of inquiry in the 1940s. Initially, ethnohistory was conceived as a way to supplement archaeological research through the use of documentary evidence. As a concern with acculturation processes became more prevalent in the sociocultural anthropology of the 1940s and 1950s, ethnohistory increasingly fell under the rubric of cultural anthropology. Ethnohistory became a truly recognized field of study after it was institutionalized in the form of the 1954 Ohio Valley Historic Indian Conference, which became the American Society for Ethnohistory in 1966, and through publication of the journal Ethnohistory.
The Historical Axis in Sociocultural Anthropology
It is, in general, a mistake to argue that “time” or “history” never existed as operational concepts in sociocultural anthropology. The earliest anthropologists in the United States, the Boasians, were quite concerned to trace the diffusion of cultural, linguistic, or other traits over time among native populations. In this respect, they share the legacy of the German dif-fusionists, who performed the same type of reconstruction in the Pacific, India, and Africa. In general, the Boasians were interested in the study of human pasts to the extent they were interested in the holistic reconstruction of human societies.
However, it is also clear that the Boasians were not engaged in the study of history for its own sake. They never fully reconstructed the past of a culture, and they did not use extensive documentary evidence to aid in their research on the recent past. Indeed, many Boasians, as well as structural functionalists, felt that the documentary evidence would not support research into the cultural phenomena they hoped to study. This thinking ignores the incipient ethnohistorical research present since the “discovery” of the New World, in the work of Landa, Sahagun, and Las Casas. This theoretically subservient use of history characterizes most of the ethnography before the 1950s and not an insignificant amount of it since.
Nor was history of great relevance to the neoevolutionists. Edward Tylor, like the American Lewis Henry Morgan before him, viewed culture in a unilinear evolutionary paradigm. A straightforwardly develop-mental model that placed Western civilization at the end point of an inexorable cultural movement, Tylor’s anthropology and that of contemporary social anthropologists maintained little to no interest in the documentary evidence as a way into understanding the past of cultural groups. In contrast to Emile Durkheim’s mechanical/organic typology, which in principle allowed for variation and erratic movement between its end points, the unilinear view held that development proceeded through a series of already well-defined stages.
Those following in the Durkheimian paradigm also generated ahistorical analyses. Interested in the structure of primitive society, they were perhaps not as explicitly evolutionist as Tylor, but neither were they diffusionist Boasians. The Annee Sociologique tradition referenced the Durkheimian typology of mechanical/organic, which was also a typology of primitive/modern and thus implicitly evolutionist. The French tradition marks the beginning of the study of culture internally—largely free from contextualizing features such as time and place. The social body is understood to structure everything from totemic classifications to religious experience.
With the advent of functionalism and structural functionalism, the general disinterest in time and history continued. For example, Bronislaw Malinowski ignored the study of history in his attempt to elucidate the structure of Trobriand social life. Alfred R. Radcliffe-Brown’s biological metaphor of culture as organism naturally developed from Durkheim’s interest in social structure. And indeed, Radcliffe-Brown argued explicitly against historical research in anthropology.
Claude Levi-Strauss’s structuralism is the most clearly ahistorical of the models of culture discussed so far. Taking inspiration from de Saussure’s structuralist view of language, Levi-Strauss’s binarism effectively ignores the passage of time. Still, this is not to say that history does not play any role whatsoever in his thinking. Indeed, his massive Mythologiques series is devoted to tracing out myths of the Americas in a fashion that is not historical, though certainly implies the passage of time in the comparison of versions of myths. That is, Lévi-Strauss is primarily concerned with the binary mental processes revealed by the study of myth and so partially ignores the question of temporality at the same time that it is suggested in his analysis.
Lévi-Strauss’s dominance in the discipline of anthropology in the 1950s and 1960s is usefully seen as the general theoretical background to which many of the first ethnohistorians were responding. It should not be surprising that just as a particular conception of anthropology (as the synchronic study of cultural structure) takes hold, there would be some reaction. This is particularly true of anthropology in the Boasian tradition, which was interested in history and the temporal perspective (if only nominally) from its inception. Hence, ethnohistory, if viewed against the intellectual history of anthropology, is a logical development.
The Practice of Ethnohistory
Ethnohistory, as a subfield of sociocultural anthropology, developed out of, and in reaction to, strands of anthropological encounters with historical method. This is why it could be claimed, in the first issue of Ethnohistory, that anthropologists needed to incorporate history into their descriptions, whether through the use of archival work or archaeological analysis. Soon, ethnohistorians began to grapple with the use of other types of information as well, such as oral histories. Jan Vansina and others working in Africa had made persuasive arguments that oral history is a genuine type of history and should be accorded a great deal of importance in reconstructing a group’s past, although one did need to question the details of the storytelling event—who was telling the story, for what purpose. This example highlights a major difference with the (U.S.-conceived) ethnohistorical approach outlined above, because initially, members of the newly founded subdiscipline were interested more in documentary evidence than in oral history. It is worth noting the similarity between Vansina’s and Boas’s approach. Ultimately, Vansina’s goal was a more complete picture of the past than Boas, the latter using discrete myths in order to trace diffusion, but both accepted that there is truth in an oral narrative.
In addition to documentary evidence, archaeological reconstruction played an important role in ethnohistorical analysis. Perhaps due to the greater presence of archaeological research efforts in North America (and the Americas generally) than in sub-Saharan Africa, the written and material records were combined to yield rich, diachronic pictures of ethnic groups. Another striking characteristic of ethnohis-tory is that it was conceived in a consciously political environment: the fight for Native American rights. The drafting of the Indian Claims Commission Act (ICCA) of 1946 allowed groups of Native Americans to sue the U.S. government for compensation for land that was taken illegally (see Indian Claims Commission Act, 25 U.S.C.A. sec. 70 et seq.). The journal Ethnohistory was a forum in which scholars, who were occasionally called as expert witnesses in these ICCA cases, could present their material, although the practice does not seem to have been frequent (but see Otoe and Missouria Tribe of Indians v. The United States, 1955; Sioux Tribe of Indians v. The United States, 1985).
The legal background to ethnohistory likely explains the ethnohistorian’s initial predilection for documentary evidence, where written evidence is held up to closer scrutiny in a court of law. Even before the ICCA, individuals, often trained by Boas or in the Boasian tradition, completed extensive reports on the Northwest Coast, Siouan and Muskohegean (Southeast), and Cherokee (Southeast) Indians on behalf of the Bureau of American Ethnology. These reports, some of which remain classic statements even today, were used not just to support theoretical arguments but also to demonstrate migration routes and to document Native American ownership of land.
Studies on acculturation have been influenced by the development of ethnohistory. As discussed above, there was always a conscious temporality in anthropological theory, but it was of time as a series of self-contained stages of cultural development. Only in the research on acculturation did diachrony as an active process begin to appear in anthropological analyses. World system theorists and others, such as Immanuel Wallerstein and Eric Wolf, elaborated further methods of acculturation insofar as they analyzed processes by which European politico-economic forces have influenced societies typically seen as isolated—an inherently temporal approach. Still other anthropologists (for example, Marshall Sahlins) have argued for the mutual dependence of (cultural) structure and history by insisting that only through the historical reproduction of cultural structure is structure understood by the observer and altered by those living within it. Put more generally, culture makes sense of history just as history causes the reproduction and reorganization of culture. Thus, ethnohistory has helped to refashion our understanding of the relationship between history and anthropology.
Modern Ethnohistorical Approaches
Ethnohistory demonstrates the fruitful engagement of anthropology and history. Historical scholarship contained a critique of anthropology, at least the kind of anthropological work that theorizes culture as a synchronic whole, such as structural functionalism, structuralism, and even some semiotic approaches. Historically nuanced studies of anthropological topics have shown that things as they are (in the ethnographic present) fit the logic of history just as well as, if not better than, any cultural constraint. At the same time, anthropology has broadened the scope of many historical analyses to include not just descriptions of kings and wars but also investigations of social history and cultural patterning as well. Today, ethno-historical approaches are used almost instinctively by many historians and anthropologists, as well as scholars in related fields, such as cultural studies.
- Fogelson, R. D. (1989). The ethnohistory of events and nonevents. Ethnohistory, 36(2), 133-147.
- Shepard, K. III. (1991). The state of ethnohistory. Annual Review of Anthropology 20, 345-375.
- Trigger, B. (1982). Ethnohistory: Problems and prospects. Ethnohistory, 29, 1-19.