Before Boas

History of Anthropology and Ethnology


History of Science



Han F. Vermeulen

Han F. Vermeulen


Before Boas


The Genesis of Ethnography and Ethnology in the German Enlightenment.


Lincoln and London, NE: University of Nebraska Press

Critical Studies in the History of Anthropology

July 2015.

746 pp.


ISBN 978-0-8032-5542-5. - EUR 71,44

Bestsellers Rank: Top 20 in September 2015 (Fremdsprachige Bücher > Ethnologie)

Critical Studies in the History of Anthropology Series


The history of anthropology has been written from multiple viewpoints, often from perspectives of gender, nationality, theory, or politics. Before Boas delves deeper into issues concerning anthropology’s academic origins to present a groundbreaking study that reveals how ethnology and ethnography originated during the eighteenth rather than the nineteenth century, developing parallel to anthropology, or the “natural history of man.”



Han F. Vermeulen explores primary and secondary sources from Russia, Germany, Austria, the United States, the Netherlands, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, France, and Great Britain in tracing how “ethnography” was begun as field research by German-speaking historians and naturalists in Siberia (Russia) during the 1730s and 1740s, was generalized as “ethnology” by scholars in Göttingen (Germany) and Vienna (Austria) during the 1770s and 1780s, and was subsequently adopted by researchers in other countries.



Before Boas argues that anthropology and ethnology were separate sciences during the Age of Reason, studying racial and ethnic diversity, respectively. Ethnography and ethnology focused not on “other” cultures but on all peoples of all eras. Following G. W. Leibniz, researchers in these fields categorized peoples primarily according to their languages. Franz Boas professionalized the holistic study of anthropology from the 1880s into the twentieth century.


Han F. Vermeulen is a research associate at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle (Saale) and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin.


“This important book introduces the scholarship that underlies the development of modern ethnography and ethnology, especially that of Franz Boas. With exhaustive research Han Vermeulen demonstrates the significance of the German Enlightenment, the ethnolinguistics of Leibniz, and the ethnography of those inspired by Leibniz who undertook scientific descriptions of the peoples of Siberia.”—Herbert S. Lewis, author of In Defense of Anthropology: An Investigation of the Critique of Anthropology