After Maria Czaplicka had eased herself into a sledge in the furthest, frozen wastes of Siberia in 1914, one question popped into her mind as her party got under way without even attending to supper: ‘What about the reindeer?’ ‘All my thoughts were absorbed by one regret; now I should not get my draught of warm, delicious blood!’
Czaplicka did not record this thought with any vampiric intent. She was in Siberia, surrounded by local tribespeople, with only reindeer to provide transport, food and (when needed) warming draughts of blood to drink. Her purpose in going there was to study the little-known indigenous hunters who lived north of the Arctic Circle. Czaplicka was one of the first, remarkable graduates of an equally unusual new course: a diploma programme in anthropology at the University of Oxford, many of the graduates of which became pioneers in the then-young discipline. It was an attractive option for women denied places on the more conventional academic courses of the era. Frances Larson’s absorbing new collective biography tells the story of five of them. It is as much about the changing mores of British intellectual life as it is about the remote locations – Easter Island, New Guinea and, of course, Siberia – that the fledgling scholars visited.
Oxford began to offer its diploma in anthropology in 1906. Over the next decade, 27 women (and 103 men) would take it. Some of Larson’s subjects were from middle-class English families. One such, Winifred Blackman, went on to do twenty years of in-depth fieldwork in Egypt; another, Barbara Freire-Marreco, lived