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The origins of anthropology: between racism and colonialism

At the end of the 20th century, anthropologists began to recognise the involvement of their discipline in the domination of other peoples through slavery, imperialism and colonialism. In what way could a discipline that aims to study Man participate in the domination and discrimination of the latter? How could anthropology, in the early stages of its formation, have served a colonial ideology? It is on these questions that this article aims to reflect. But first of all, we need to understand what 'anthropology' means and what the roots of this discipline are.

When you hear the word anthropology, what does it mean to you? Anthropos comes from the Greek and means 'human being'. Logos corresponds to language, to the discourse that is carried on an object, but also designates the science that is developed around what is spoken of. Anthropology would therefore be, etymologically speaking at least, the discourse on Man, the science of Man. As the study of Man, anthropology is thus part of the 'Human Sciences', just like sociology, which is concerned with social phenomena and the relationships between individuals. Now we understand the origin of the term. But why did Man need to develop this study of Man? And which Man is designated as the subject of study in the first place?

This article could attempt to provide answers by drawing examples from all periods and from various regions of the world. However, we have chosen to focus on Europe, in order to give an overview, through a few examples, of the origins of the discipline, its motives, the impact of the Great Discoveries and the Enlightenment on the theorisation, categorisation and domination of the 'Other'.1 

As early as antiquity, man became aware of the existence of differences between his own person, his environment, the people who speak his language, and the rest of the world around him. For example, the Greek Herodotus2, while travelling outside his native region, observed diversities between the languages and cultures he encountered, compared to his own knowledge and habits. He then explained this by geography, climate, in short the surrounding natural world. Herodotus adopted an ethnocentric point of view, i.e. he analysed the Other in relation to his own people, the Greek people.

According to St. Augustine, a fourth century theologian, there were no Antipodes, i.e. there was no other part of the world, diametrically opposed to the known world, where other people lived. It was thought at the time that most of the world had been discovered. However, this assumption was challenged by the Great Discoveries3 and the explorations, preceded as early as the 11th century by the crusades in Africa and the Middle East. These were followed in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries by the 'discoveries' of Asia, such as the voyages of Marco Polo around 1254-1324, and then by Christopher Columbus, who 'discovered' the 'New World' in the last quarter of the fifteenth century, until Magellan completed the first circumnavigation in 1522.4 These explorations were a major element in the development of the European anthropological discipline, since the discovery of the 'Other' led to the realisation that what had previously been considered natural was in fact different in each people, and of the cultural order, such as eating habits, the link with nature, sexual practices, etc.

These peoples with their strange and inexplicable practices were then considered - especially in the case of the 'Indians' native to the 'New World' - as too 'savage' and 'primitive' to belong to the same family of divine creation as Europeans. According to the 13th century philosopher and theologian St Thomas Aquinas, these peoples were too imperfect to be human and were therefore natural slaves for the European, since they were not his equal.5 Such considerations gave legitimacy to the practice of slavery at the time. Although a fascination for these people also developed, it was a tool for criticizing a European society that was considered decadent: these foreigners were not considered in themselves but as opposed to European society.

Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, there was a gradual awareness of a link between the peoples living in these distant lands and Europeans. Certain similarities between these societies began to be observed, similarities that were then sought in history. Several theories flourished, such as that the natives were descendants of ancient sunken continents. The famous example of Atlantis was used to explain similar cultural elements between Incas, Aztecs and Europeans.6 It was theories such as these that would later lead to the doctrine of monogenesis in anthropology, i.e. the theory that human 'races' are a common species, but have physical differences linked to the environment. This theory is opposed to the theory of polygenesis, which states that the 'races' have varied origins and therefore their differences are innate. The theory of polygenesis has a heavy legacy: in addition to being instrumental in the formation of the discipline of anthropology, it is also the foundation of so-called positivist racism, i.e. racism that claims to have its sources in science.


Map of Atlantis according to Plato and Diodorus, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, 1775. ©

But in order to talk about 'race' and racism, we must first return to our discussion of the Great Explorations. Beyond the initial economic appeal, colonial rivalries, and control over navigable routes, voyages to distant lands were also motivated by a certain scientific curiosity. Throughout the 18th century - the Age of Enlightenment - some expeditions showed an encyclopaedic character in defining the world and what it contained. This was the case, for example, with the expeditions of Bougainville in 1768 and Cook in 1769 and 1778. Bougainville perceived in the people he met, particularly in Polynesia, what he considered to be a simplicity of life, a purity of spirit, and an idyllic society. This vision of the 'good savage' was also fed by Rousseau, in his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality among Men published in 1755, where he describes the morals of the 'good savage'. This is a simple man who has remained in the state of nature. According to Rousseau, Man was born good, but was then perverted, corrupted by society. Therefore, it is this simple Man that the European Man must have resembled in the past, before the decadence brought about by civilisation. In this sense, and in contrast to the vision of St. Thomas Aquinas, the indigenous Man of some distant countries became a model of virtue.

Charvet Dufour

CHARVET Jean-Gabriel, manufacture Dufour. Les sauvages de la mer du Pacifique ; les voyages du Capitaine Cook. Début du 19e siècle. Impression sur papier. © Musées départementaux de la Haute-Saône.

The Enlightenment period7 overall attempts to define and achieve what is considered an ideal version of the human being. According to the thinking of the time, this is possible through progress and improvement. It was at the beginning of the 19th century that Charles Darwin made his entrance, influenced by this Enlightenment thinking. Darwin's thinking was revolutionary, not only because he placed Man within the animal kingdom, particularly following the studies of Charles Linnaeus8, but also because, contrary to Linnaeus, he stated that evolution takes place within species and that species are not fixed. Before such a theory was announced, the common belief was that God had created each species separately, and that these species had the same characteristics as the original pair. The theory of species evolution also led to the theory of selection: according to Darwin, only those organisms that are able to adapt to a given environment will survive; the others are destined for extinction.

Darwin beetles

Darwin's beetle collection. © University of Cambridge / Julieta Sarmiento Photography

So why are we talking about biology in an article devoted to the discipline of anthropology? For the simple reason that Darwin's theories had a great echo among observers of mankind, and that the latter began to apply this idea of stages of evolution to the various civilisations. This is what is known as evolutionism. It is no longer the biological environment, as with Darwin, that serves as the subject of study, but the different civilisations and their cultural traits that are classified. Data from different environments are compared in order to draw general conclusions. Indeed, with the discovery of the Other during colonial relations, the European man sought to understand and classify all these new cultures that he discovered. Still in this perspective of progress towards perfection, cultures were placed on a scale of evolution, according to the different stages through which each society passed. James Frazer, one of the theorists of this movement, considered, for example, that each society passed through three fundamental stages. First, the stage of magic, in which belief lies in natural laws, which Man tries to control to his advantage through ritual. Then comes the stage of religion. This stage is defined by the awareness that there are forces greater than nature, supernatural beings whose power is greater than that of Man. Finally, there is science, the achievement of all civilisation, based on experience, and indispensable for progress.9 But how then are the peoples classified and hierarchised on this ethnocentric scale, i.e. derived from the European man's view and understanding of the world? At the very bottom of the scale are the Africans and Aboriginal Australians, whose way of life is considered so 'primitive' as to be close to prehistoric European times. Then there are various peoples, especially the Far Eastern civilisations, who are considered more advanced. The extreme civilisational progress is, according to evolutionists, materialised in European culture.

In order to understand the impact of theories such as Frazer's, we need to make the link with the imperialism and colonialism imposed by Europe in the colonised countries. As Benoît de l'Estoile points out, 'The evolutionary scheme provides both a sense of history and a purpose for colonial policies'.10 Indeed, the assertion that the peoples encountered still needed to move up the evolutionary ladder legitimised colonial practices, defining them as 'altruistic' support on the road to progress. This is how the so-called 'civilising mission'11 of the European settler took shape. The study of these civilisations, considered as 'primitive', also became a valuable means of understanding the organisation of prehistoric European societies, unknown until then in the absence of any material evidence. For example, the material culture of Aboriginal Australian people, considered at the time by evolutionists to be among the most 'primitive', would thus come close to what the ancestor of the European was certainly. The study of the Other, as well as its presentation at the Colonial Exhibitions12, contributed to the construction of a positive image of the 'Us' as opposed to the 'Other'.13

During these exhibitions, comparisons are made between the different 'races', according to various physical criteria, and with the help of measurements taken with instruments specially created for this purpose. This is what is known as physical anthropology, or biological anthropology, also linked to the discipline of archaeology in a biological approach to human groups. The development of this aspect of the anthropological discipline was also made possible by the very existence of the Colonial Exhibitions. These exhibitions brought in 'specimens' from all over the world: the anthropologist then only had to visit the various sections of the exhibition, take measurements and draw conclusions, without even travelling to the region of the world in question. Beyond simple theorisation, Colonial Exhibitions used the racialist discourse to legitimise colonial expansion on the one hand, but also for educational and pedagogical purposes. Visitors to these exhibitions were therefore also 'educated' about this racial hierarchy and the differences between them and the 'Other', as well as about the progress that Europe proposed, in all its 'generosity' to bring to these peoples in order to bring them into civilisation. Do you understand the impact of such theories on the development of popular racism, and its rooting in the common imagination? A common imagination, moreover, invaded at the time by advertising journalistic and satirical images depicting the 'Other' as a prehistoric Man, sometimes hypersexualised, sometimes as a bloody cannibal. The diffusionist current was the object of numerous criticisms. One of these criticisms was the lack of historical and empirical data behind such assertions, which were ultimately 'futile efforts of the imagination'14: it is worth noting that the Scotsman Frazer spent most of his life at his desk, and did not travel further than Greece. The British functionalist movement, for example, whose most prominent figure was Bronislaw Malinowski, expressed doubts about the speculations of the evolutionists. The functionalists then developed a new method of investigation, designed to verify their theories. This was to include the observation of social facts directly in the society under study. CASOAR will undoubtedly examine this method and its contribution to the discipline of anthropology in a future article.

Margaux Chataigner

Featured image: Phrenology. Determination of Camper's facial angle. © PURIG VERLAG VOLKER/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES

1 The 'Other' refers to everything that is not oneself and one's own culture, everything that is not 'Us'. We are aware that it may be reductive to focus on Europe, however, this article is intended as an introduction to the discipline of anthropology, its institutionalisation, and its link to racism and colonialism, and we do not wish to lose the reader with too much information.

2  Herodotus was a Greek historian and geographer who lived in the 5th century BC.

3  We use the generic term 'discovery' to refer to these explorations, but it is necessary to take into account that these were discoveries from the point of view of the Europeans, and that the indigenous peoples knew the territory well before their arrival. This notion of discovery was sometimes used to legitimise the taking of possession of a territory that was already inhabited but which Europeans claimed for themselves by 'discovering' it.

4 A circumnavigation is a voyage by boat around the Earth.

5 ERICKSON, P.A., MURPHY, L.D, 2017. A History of Anthropological Theory. Fifth Edition. Toronto, University of Toronto Press, p. 37.

6  Ibid., p. 38. According to the myth of Atlantis, an entire continent with an ancient civilisation, an idyllic and exemplary society, disappeared under the waters.

7 This period of the 18th century corresponds to a literary and cultural movement in Europe during which a thirst for knowledge and a desire to educate the people were illustrated. Science then became the mode of knowledge of the world par excellence, seeking to overcome the hold that religion had until then on the understanding of the world.

8  Charles Linnaeus was a Swedish naturalist who lived in the 18th century.

9 James Frazer lived between 1854 and 1941. He was a Scot and it seems that he travelled no further than Greece. His theory of the three stages of humanity has been widely criticised, and no longer has a strong following in contemporary anthropology. Criticism focused on his overly simplistic and reductive view of religion and magic as illusory worldviews, and also on the fact that religion and science could not be analysed on the same level, and that one had not replaced the other, but that they answered completely different questions.

10 DE L’ESTOILE, B., 2007. Le Goût des Autres. De l’Exposition coloniale aux Arts premiers. Paris, Flammarion, p 55.

11 Ibid, p 54.

12 Colonial Exhibitions took place mainly in the 19th and first half of the 20th century. Beyond the desire of each country represented to show the wealth of its colonies and the extent of its power beyond its own borders, it was also an opportunity to exhibit women and men from these colonised territories, in a grand display of their customs and traditions.

13 DE L’ESTOILE, B., 2007. Le Goût des Autres. De l’Exposition coloniale aux Arts premiers. Paris, Flammarion, p. 63.

14 DELIÈGE, R., 2006. Une histoire de l’anthropologie. Écoles, auteurs, théories. Paris, Seuil, p. 54.


  • BANCEL, N., BLANCHARD, P., et al, 2004. Zoos humains. Au temps des exhibitions humaines. Paris, la Découverte.
  • DELIÈGE, R., 2006. Une histoire de l’anthropologie. Écoles, auteurs, théories. Paris, Seuil.
  • DE L’ESTOILE, B., 2007. Le Goût des Autres. De l’Exposition coloniale aux Arts premiers. Paris, Flammarion.
  • DUCROS, A., 1992. « La notion de race en anthropologie physique : évolution et conservatisme ». Mots. Les langages du politique, n°33 pp 121-141.
  • ERICKSON, P.A., MURPHY, L.D, 2017. A History of Anthropological Theory. Fifth Edition. Toronto, University of Toronto Press.
  • ZEITOUN, C., 2011. « Quand la biologie parlait de races humaines ». CNRS, Le journal, n°263,, dernière consultation le 12 novembre 2019.

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