‘Before Boas’ by Han F. Vermeulen

Han F. Vermeulen. Before Boas: The Genesis of Ethnography and Ethnology in the German Enlightenment. 746pp., illus., notes, refs. cited, index. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2015. $75 (hardcover)

You will not find much curiosity among the Norse settlers in Greenland to observe, describe, and understand the clothing, tools, rituals, and legends of the skraelings. This derogatory term for the Greenlandic Inuit practically bracketed curiosity, signaled that there was nothing there to learn at all, but only a people to be feared and, one hoped, defeated. This has been the default stance toward other peoples, particularly peoples at an apparently lower stage of social and technical development, throughout most of human history, with classic works such as Tacitus’s Germania, in which the northern heathen tribes are described in some detail, standing more as an exception than a rule.

Attention will become focused however in the epoch of early modern globalization, as the more astute missionaries come to appreciate the need to know the beliefs of the people they encounter, if there is to be any hope to convince them to change these beliefs. But while there are many clear-cut cases of proto-ethnography, reaching back to antiquity, scholars have been unable to agree as to when exactly this scholarly discipline sensu stricto emerges. In Before Boas: The Genesis of Ethnography and Ethnology in the German Enlightenment, Han F. Vermeulen makes a comprehensive and fully convincing case that the site of ethnography’s first appearance was Russia in the 18th century.

More precisely, it was the interest of mostly German and Russified German historians and naturalists to epistemically absorb the far northern and eastern territories incorporated into the Russian Empire beginning with the conquest of the Khanate of Sibir in the 1580s, and to do so by identifying and classifying the natural diversity in these territories of resources, plants, animals, and, indeed, of people. More precisely still, this scientific undertaking may be understood, without exaggeration, as a sort of ‘applied Leibnizianism.’ That is, over the decades following his death, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s (1646-1716) abstract philosophical vision of a world of ‘diversity compensated by unity’ developed into a concrete program for advancing the sciences in the Russian Empire. In its philosophical essence this program might be thought of as a ‘rationalist empiricism’: we know on a priori grounds that the human species is a unity, and that the order of nature is a unity, and the more we penetrate into the apparent diversity of nature and of cultures, the more this unity reveals itself.

Leibniz himself worked hard to apply his philosophical vision in the Russian Empire. From the late 1690s until his death he maintained a busy correspondence with Peter the Great and with a number of his councillors, seeking to help the tsar to cultivate the natural sciences beyond the art of shipbuilding in which he, Peter, had an intense personal interest, and to better govern his vast empires by better knowing the cultures it contained. In 1712 Leibniz himself is made a privy councillor to the tsar, with the express charge of “contribut[ing] to the advancement of the mathematical and other sciences, and to be of service to the investigation of history.”[1] This latter undertaking includes for Leibniz both natural and civil history, which are part of a common project not in that they both investigate the past, as we tend to think of history today, but in that they are both concerned with res singulares, singular things, such as this or that particular plant or this or that garment of Samoyed clothing, rather than with the eternal laws of nature.

Prior to his death in 1716, Leibniz had also laid out a plan for the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences, to be officially founded in 1724. The Academy would be the home base for many of the naturalist-explorers involved in the First and Second Kamchatka Expeditions (1725-1730, 1733-1743). It was on the second and vastly larger of these expeditions that applied Leibnizianism truly began to bear fruit, and that ethnography emerged as a distinct science. In the New Essays on Human Understanding of 1704, Leibniz had argued that the languages of the world are the true repositories of cultural wealth and tradition, and thus that oral cultures, too, have their own great literatures that will keep us busy long after the textual cultures of the world have been exhaustively studied.

In letters to Peter’s councillors from the same period, Leibniz advanced a technique for collecting language samples, as one might collect plants by pressing them into a book: “I have long wished to have specimina linguarum that are in the Tsar’s territory,” he writes to a certain Lubenetskii c. 1705, “and of those bordering it, in particular I would like to have the Our Father written with interlinear translations.”[2] This precise request would be carried out, as Vermeulen shows, in Kamchatka in the 1730s, by such figures as Daniel Gottlieb Messerchmidt, Philipp Johann von Strahlenberg, Vasilii Tatishchev, Gottlieb Siegfried Bayer, and Gerhard Friedrich Müller.

It was the last of these men, Vermeulen thinks, who did the most to expand and enrich Leibniz’s ethnolinguistic project, with his own project of Völker-Beschreibung (‘description of peoples’). Müller’s approach was “systematic and exhaustive” (168). It included both external, visible features of culture such as dress, and internal features such as beliefs and lore. It also, importantly, involved both a field-work component as well as an archival and library-based one, in which the researcher places their field-work data within a comparative context that includes other cultures of the world. As Müller writes in 1740, one must “‘present all peoples as interconnected. The advantage is that, because in many respects many people are so much alike, repetitions can be avoided and their similarities and differences become clearer than when each people would be described individually’” (170).

Vermeulen goes on to describe ethnographic research in other parts of the world, by figures more familiar than Müller and the others, such as Alexander von Humboldt, and indeed Franz Boas himself. But it is clear that for Vermeulen, rightly, the most important moment in the birth of modern ethnography is the flurry of activity in the Russian Far East of the 1730s, carried out under the banner of Leibnizianism. If this great and important work is to be criticized, it is perhaps to the extent that the political dimension of knowledge programs, such as that carried out in Kamchatka, is not emphasized nearly as much as the scientific dimension. It seems reasonable to suppose that these two are always perfectly intertwined: to come to dominate a territory is, in no small part, to come to know it, and to be able to represent it, cartographically, zoologically, botanically, and ethnographically is to come to know what special sort of administration is best adapted to the local lay of the land. In this respect, the scientific knowledge project of the 1730s in Kamchatka seems rather more continuous than discontinuous with, say, Jesuit proto-ethnography in New France in the previous century. And when we perceive this continuity, we might reasonably wonder about the very possibility of positing a precise moment for the birth of ethnography. But there is no question that Vermeulen has achieved something monumental in this work, by tracing the particular shape that modern ethnography would take to the knowledge project that German historians and naturalists brought with them to the remotest corners of Russia at the height of the Enlightenment.

[1] See ‘Der zarische Erlass über die Aufnahme Leibniz’s in den russischen Dienst,’ in Leibniz in seinen Beziehungen zu Russland und Peter dem Grossen, ed. V. I. Guerrier (St. Petersburg and Leipzig: Commissionäre der Kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1873), 269-70.

[2] G. W. Leibniz, Sbornik pisem i memorialov Leïbnitsa otnosyashchikhsya k Rossii i Petru Velikomu, ed. V. I. Guerrier (St. Petersburg: 1873), 51.

Justin E. H. Smith: contributions / website / jehsmith@gmail.com / Département Histoire et Philosophie des Sciences, Université Paris Diderot (Paris 7)


  1. Excellent review of an important book. The last paragraph here is particularly worth pondering.

  2. Han F. Vermeulen

    April 2, 2017 at 4:56 pm

    Many thanks for endorsing my book and its central conclusion that ethnography was first practiced as a comprehensive and systematic “description of peoples” in Siberia, Northern Asia, during the third and fourth decades of the eighteenth century. While most scholars involved in the Second Kamchatka Expedition never made it to Kamchatka in the Russian Far East, much research was done in Western, Central, and Eastern Siberia which resulted in many such descriptions. However, there is no evidence that these texts were ever used by the Russian administrators, who weren’t happy with the explorers and their critical attitude anyway. For this reason, the political dimension of the expedition cannot be fully outlined until more research has been conducted in Russian archives. By contrast, the scientific dimension stands out in the recent publications of Gerhard Friedrich Müller, who addressed a scholarly audience in aiming at what he in 1744-45 called a “most general description of peoples of the earth.”

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