As academic disciplines go, anthropology is nothing if not ambitious. The clues are in the name, derived from ánthrōpos, the ancient Greek for ‘person’ or ‘humankind’, and logía, a derivative of the Greek verb to ‘speak’ and a suffix commonly used to mean ‘study of’. So, the ‘study of humankind’, no less. Yet anthropology remains uncertain of its place within the social sciences – the classical roots of its name shouldn’t disguise the fact that its inventors were, to all intents and purposes, winging it. Its origins in the pith-helmet world of imperialism only add to its insecurity.
The story of anthropology’s early pioneers lies at the heart of this joyfully narrated history of a scientific field that, at its best, opens our minds to the rich kaleidoscope of human experience. Focusing on a dozen seminal anthropologists, from Franz Boas, who began his work in the 1880s, through to the discipline’s 20th-century titan, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Lucy Moore charts the ups, downs and sideways shifts of this maverick social science.
Much of anthropology’s early impulse derived from the desperate plight of the world’s remote indigenous communities in the late 19th century. What colonialism had not already destroyed (through disease as much as despotism), industrialisation was casually diluting. Step forward the likes of William Rivers, Alfred Haddon, Bronisław Malinowski and