Working on German communities in Latin America, I constantly encounter scholars engaged in the history of anthropology. They don’t always know it. Few of them claim to be adherents. Almost none are interested in shaping a field or subfield in a manner evoked in HAN’s 1973 opening statement. They are, however, interested in understanding people who devoted themselves to studying humans and their cultures over the last two centuries. Their efforts also contribute, whether they realize it or not, to our understanding of the history of that vocation. Or, better said, their efforts will contribute to it so long as we are aware of their work. Thank goodness for HAN.
Usually, my interlocutors’ interests stem from earlier practitioners’ impact on the world they study. Sometimes, however, they are moved by the information gathered by those practitioners, which helps them better understand their own findings. A recent volume on the works of Karl Theodore Sapper, Walter Lehmann, and Franz Termer, Early Scholars’ Visits to Central America, is a delightful, if less serendipitous, example of such interactions. The editors, Marilyn Beaudry-Corbett and Ellen T. Hardy, present English translations of these men’s German travelogues as revelations from times past, unearthed from dusty, old, foreign-language periodicals. To underscore that point, each essay is preceded by a reflection from a contemporary scholar, thrilled at the opportunity for comparative analysis and the chance to reflect on consistencies and changes over time.
The collection’s chief limitation is its focus on professionals. Sapper and the others are not unknown to scholars working on Central America, especially those who read German. Nor were they obscure in their time—just the opposite. Still, a cacophony of lesser-known names emerges when reading their reports, culling the periodicals in which they published, or exploring the indexes for the many meetings they attended. Those names are worth pursuing. The heroic professionals harnessed the efforts of many unsung authorities on tiny topics as they produced knowledge. Those authorities, as we have come to expect, came from a wide range of fields, including business and politics, not just science. Taken together, their impact was immense.
I am not disturbed by these historical figures’ mixed pedigrees any more than the varied backgrounds and disciplines of the scholars I encounter abroad. Nor would I seek to measure the depth of their interests. I welcome “one book forays,” fleeting interests, as well as persistent passions. There is plenty for everyone.
Indeed, the initial vision for HAN—to offer “information as to archival holdings, bibliographic aids, research in progress, recent publications” on the histories of anthropology strikes me as every bit as desirable today as it was then. Not because we need to mark “our” territory, but because we all benefit from an ongoing and broad exchange of information and a forum for quick queries and pithy reflections.
Read more from this series here.