Book Review: ‘Before Boas: The Genesis of Ethnography and Ethnology in the German Enlightenment.’

This book valuably complements the existing bodies of work dealing, on the one hand, with German-language contributions to the development of physical anthropology, and, on the other, with the history of British and American ethnology. Historians of science, scholars of Enlightenment thought, and those interested in the peoples of Siberia are the obvious target audience, but 'Before Boas' also has much to offer to anthropologists, ethnologists, geographers, and historians, each of whom will learn a great deal about the history of their own discipline.

Han F. Vermeulen, Before Boas: The Genesis of Ethnography and Ethnology in the German Enlightenment. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015, $75.00. xxiii + 718 pages, ISBN: 978-0-8032-5542-5


Hilary Howes

The central argument of Han F. Vermeulen’s Before Boas, which checks in at an impressive – indeed, somewhat daunting – 718 pages, is presented with admirable conciseness at the very beginning of the first chapter.  Both ethnography, ‘conceived as a program for describing peoples and nations in Russian Asia and carried out by German-speaking explorers and historians’, and ethnology, developed by ‘historians in European academic centers dealing with a comprehensive and critical study of peoples’, ‘originated in the work of eighteenth-century German or German-speaking scholars associated with the Russian Academy of Sciences, the University of Göttingen, and the Imperial Library in Vienna’ (pp.1-2).  The formation of these studies, Vermeulen adds, ‘took place in three stages: (1) as Völker-Beschreibung or ethnography in the work of the German historian and Siberia explorer Gerhard Friedrich Müller during the first half of the eighteenth century, (2) as Völkerkunde and ethnologia in the work of the German or German-speaking historians August Ludwig Schlözer, Johann Christoph Gatterer, and Adam František Kollár during the second half of the eighteenth century, and (3) as ethnography or ethnology by scholars in other centers of learning in Europe and the United States during the final decades of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century’ (pp.1-2).  Building particularly on existing research by Hans Fischer and Justin Stagl into the importance of Göttingen as a locus of early ethnographic work, Vermeulen pushes the earliest uses of the German terms Völkerkunde, Ethnographie, ethnographisch, and Ethnograph back by several years, and the concept, as Völker-Beschreibung (description of peoples), by several decades.  In the process, he also raises several significant overarching points, including the interconnectedness of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century science in Western Europe and in Russia; the need to distinguish between ‘colonial anthropology’ and ‘anthropology developed in colonial contexts’; and the emergence of the ethnological sciences as part of global history (dealing with peoples and nations, defined primarily by their languages), rather than as part of anthropology (dealing with human varieties or ‘races’, defined primarily by their physical features).

Before Boas is divided into eight substantial chapters.  Chapter One, ‘History and Theory of Anthropology and Ethnology: Introduction’, and Chapter Eight, ‘Epilogue: Reception of the German Ethnographic Tradition’, usefully contextualise the real ‘meat’ of this study, namely Vermeulen’s exhaustive examination of little-known primary sources.  I particularly enjoyed Chapter Two, ‘Theory and Practice: G.W. Leibniz and the Advancement of Science in Russia’; Chapter Three, ‘Enlightenment and Pietism: D.G. Messerschmidt and the Early Exploration of Siberia’; and Chapter Four, ‘Ethnography and Empire: G.F. Müller and the Description of Siberian Peoples’.  As their titles suggest, these three interlinked chapters examine, respectively, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s (1646-1716) development of a strict methodology in what would now be called comparative or historical linguistics; the itinerary, methods, and results of Daniel Gottlieb Messerschmidt (1685-1735), ‘the first scientifically trained explorer of Siberia’ and the first to ‘systematically conduct ethnographic research’ there (115); and the inauguration of ‘ethnography as a descriptive study of peoples’ by the historian Gerhard Friedrich Müller (1705-1783).  In all three cases, Vermeulen points out, the general neglect by historians of these individuals’ contributions to the development of ethnography can largely be attributed to the ‘lack of published works’ (p.131).  An accurate assessment of Müller’s ethnographic work, for example, has only become possible with the very recent publication (in 2003, 2009, and 2010) of German and Russian editions of two of his manuscripts.

In addition to examining the published and unpublished writings of these three individuals – their correspondence, memoirs, reports, manuscripts, and maps – Vermeulen pays careful attention to their education and training, employment, contacts, and scholarly networks.  This approach emphatically underscores the remarkable mobility of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century savants, as well as the resulting interconnectedness of Western European and Russian science.  Vermeulen’s in-depth discussions of particular individuals and specific expeditions add valuable detail and nuance to existing scholarly work on Tsar Peter the Great’s ‘Petrine reforms’; the lower-level interactions he traces help flesh out contacts between figures at the top of the food chain.  For example, the establishment of an academy of sciences in Russia, which resulted in a significant influx of foreign scholars, is not described simply as a result of Leibniz’s meetings and correspondence with Tsar Peter the Great; rather, Vermeulen presents it as a multi-player process facilitated in large part by the Scottish head of the Apothecary Chancellery in Moscow, Robert Areskine (Erskine), and the Tsar’s main science adviser, Yakov Vilimovich Brius (Jacob Daniel Bruce).

In contrast to Chapters Two, Three, and Four, which blend seamlessly into one another, Chapter Five, ‘Anthropology and the Orient: C. Niebuhr and the Danish-German Arabia Expedition’, seemed to me to sit rather awkwardly within the structure of the book as a whole. Vermeulen introduces it by explaining that its ‘apparent lack of a colonial context … will give us occasion to further comment on the relation between ethnography and empire’, and that its ‘contributions to ethnological discourse were much less pronounced than Müller’s Siberian venture’, this being ‘a contrast that requires elucidation’ (p.218).  Perhaps it does, but 48 pages of elucidation struck me as excessive, particularly since Vermeulen’s main conclusion is essentially negative: the ‘new, “ethnic” principle’ introduced by German-speaking scholars in the Russian Empire, their ‘classification of “peoples” according to their languages’, was ‘not found in Niebuhr’s work’ (p.266).  As for Vermeulen’s insistence on the distinction ‘between “colonial anthropology” and “anthropology developed in colonial contexts”’ (p.28), I felt that this point, although undeniably important, was adequately made in Chapter Four.

Chapter Six, ‘From the Field to the Study: A.L. Schlözer and the Invention of Ethnology’, picks up where Chapter Four left off.  Having traced the concept of ethnography, in the form Völker-Beschreibung, to Müller’s research in Siberia (1740), Vermeulen concedes that the historian August Ludwig Schlözer (1735-1809) was ‘probably the man who invented the term Völkerkunde’ (270).  More importantly, Schlözer ‘was the first to initiate an “ethnographic method” into the study of history”; he employed the concepts Völkerkunde, Ethnographie, ethnographisch, and Ethnograph ‘in strategic passages that were central to his argument’, and ‘held a key position in the international network of scholars first applying the ethnos terms to designate a study of peoples’ (pp.270-271).  While I share James Urry’s (2016: 1) concern that the search for ‘points of origin for ideas and concepts … too often resembles that for the Holy Grail’, I could not help but be impressed by Vermeulen’s meticulously compiled table tracing the history of ‘Ethnological discourse in Asia, Europe, and the United States, 1710-1815’, from Leibniz’s historia etymologica in 1711-12 to B.G. Niebuhr’s Völker- und Länderkunde in 1815 (354-355).  A further valuable aspect of Chapter Six is the attention Vermeulen pays to the proliferation, in the final decades of the eighteenth century, of journals with Völkerkunde in their titles.  These were, in a sense, the first ethnological journals, but the phenomenon has largely been neglected by modern scholars.

Chapter Seven, ‘Anthropology in the German Enlightenment: Plural Approaches to Human Diversity’, offers an overview of anthropological studies in the German Enlightenment.  From a survey of major publications with the word ‘anthropology’ (or its French, German, Italian, and Latin equivalents) in their titles, Vermeulen concludes that anthropology was in fact a ‘polyvalent’ term, used not only for physical and biological approaches but for medical, theological, and philosophical ones (p.393).  He adds that anthropology ‘up until the eighteenth century … was very different from ethnology’; while the former ‘focused on human beings as individuals or as members of the human species’, the latter ‘dealt with particular kinds of human groupings, that is, peoples and nations’ (p.393).  This chapter, unlike the previous ones, is a summary rather than an in-depth study, and doubtless some historians of racial thought will feel that certain aspects or individuals should have been dealt with in more detail.  However, Vermeulen’s focus is on anthropology as an alternative approach to human diversity, and his main point – that ‘anthropology and ethnology developed in separate domains of learning’, and that ‘the distinction between civil (political) history and natural history remained very much alive in the eighteenth century’ (pp.392-393), despite various attempts to relate them – is an important one.

It is scarcely possible, in a book of this scope, to avoid a few minor errors and omissions.  For instance, Vermeulen states that the remains of the ‘main ship, commanded by [Jean-François de Galaup de] La Pérouse’ during his 1785-88 expedition to the Pacific, ‘have never been retrieved’ (p.343).  In fact the wreck of the Boussole was located by Reece Discombe at Vanikoro, Solomon Islands, in the 1960s, while the final resting place of its companion ship, the Astrolabe, has been known since at least the 1950s (Coleman, 1987; Tryon, 2008).  Investigations conducted in 1986 and 1990 by the Maritime Archaeological Section of the Queensland Museum recovered substantial amounts of material from both wrecks (Stanbury and Green, 2004).  Nor is Vermeulen correct to describe it as ‘a mystery why Blumenbach labelled [his] fifth [human] variety “Malayan”’ (p.373); as Bronwen Douglas has pointed out, in the third (1795) edition of his De Generis Humani Varietate Nativa, Blumenbach explicitly justified his use of the name ‘Malay’ ‘on the linguistic grounds that this “variety of men” mostly spoke Malay’ (Douglas, 2008: 107).

These, of course, are mere quibbles.  I was rather more startled to find, in so thoroughly researched a monograph as Vermeulen’s, a passing reference to Gavin Menzies’ widely critiqued (if not debunked) 1421: The Year China Discovered the World (see Goodman, 2006; Henige, 2008; Melleuish et al., 2009; Rivers, 2004).  Any of the numerous credible studies outlined by Finlay (2004) could more effectively have been used to support Vermeulen’s essentially uncontroversial claim that ‘the Chinese sea voyages of Zheng He’, like ‘the Russian conquest of Siberia during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries’, have ‘rarely been included in the canon of Western exploration’ (p.87).

Vermeulen’s close reading and careful analysis of little-known primary sources far outweigh these few flaws.  Before Boas is a substantial piece of scholarly work on a topic of ongoing interest.  It valuably complements the existing bodies of work dealing, on the one hand, with German-language contributions to the development of physical anthropology, and, on the other, with the history of British and American ethnology.  Historians of science, scholars of Enlightenment thought, and those interested in the peoples of Siberia are the obvious target audience, but I believe Before Boas also has much to offer to anthropologists, ethnologists, geographers, and historians, each of whom will learn a great deal about the history of their own discipline.

Hilary Howes is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Archaeology and Anthropology at The Australian National University, working on Professor Matthew Spriggs’ Laureate Fellowship project ‘The Collective Biography of Archaeology in the Pacific: A Hidden History’ (CBAP).  Her current research, which addresses the German-speaking tradition within Pacific archaeology and ethnology, builds on her PhD dissertation, published in 2013 as The Race Question in Oceania: A.B. Meyer and Otto Finsch between metropolitan theory and field experience, 1865-1914.  Following various stints as a research assistant, tutor, co-lecturer, guest lecturer, and associate course co-ordinator, she was employed most recently as Executive Assistant to the Ambassador at the Australian Embassy in Berlin, where her responsibilities included facilitating the repatriation of Australian Indigenous ancestral remains from German collecting institutions.



Coleman, R. (1987) ‘Missing: Explorer’s Disappearance Creates a 200-year-old Puzzle’, Australian Geographic 8: 86-99.

Douglas, B. (2008) ‘“Novus Orbis Australis”: Oceania in the Science of Race, 1750-1850’, in B. Douglas and C. Ballard (eds) Foreign Bodies: Oceania and the Science of Race 1750-1940. Canberra, ACT: ANU E Press, pp. 99-155.

Goodman, D.S.G. (2006) ‘Mao and the Da Vinci Code: Conspiracy, Narrative and History’, The Pacific Review 19(3): 359-384.

Finlay, R. (2004) ‘How Not to (Re)Write World History: Gavin Menzies and the Chinese Discovery of  America’, Journal of World History 15(2): 229-242.

Henige, D. (2008) ‘The Alchemy of Turning Fiction into Truth’, Journal of Scholarly Publishing 39(4): 354-372.

Melleuish, G., Sheiko, K. and Brown, S. (2009) ‘Pseudo History/Weird History: Nationalism and the Internet’, History Compass 7(6): 1484-1495.

Rivers, P.J. (2004) 1421 Voyages: Fact and Fantasy. Ipoh: Perak Academy.

Stanbury, M. and Green, J. (eds) (2004) Lapérouse and the Loss of the Astrolabe and the Boussole (1788): Reports of the 1986 and 1990 Investigations of the Two Shipwrecks of the French              Explorer at Vanikoro, Solomon Islands. Fremantle, W.A.: Australasian Institute for Maritime   Archaeology.

Tryon, D. (2008) ‘Vale Reece Discombe (1919-2007)’, Pambu: Pacific Manuscripts Bureau Newsletter 24: 10-11.

Urry, J. (2016) ‘Book Review: Before Boas: The Genesis of Ethnography and Ethnology in the German Enlightenment’, TAJA: The Australian Journal of Anthropology 0 (Early View): 1-2, accessed 2     December 2016, accessible @: