The Birth of Physical Anthropology in Late Imperial Portugal

Posted in Anthropology, Articles, Europe, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive on 2012-02-04 03:05Z by Steven

The Birth of Physical Anthropology in Late Imperial Portugal

Current Anthropology
Volume 53, Number S5, April 2012
13 pages

Gonçalo Santos, Senior Research Fellow
Max-Planck-Institut für Ethnologische Forschung

In this article I analyze the emergence of the field of physical anthropology in the metropolitan academic sphere of the Portuguese Empire during the late nineteenth century. I suggest that Portugal’s relatively peripheral position combined with a complex internal conjuncture of political instability and economic impotence gave early Portuguese physical anthropology a less explicitly “colonial” orientation than in other, more central Western European imperial powers. I describe the various national and international exchanges leading to the birth of this naturalist anthropological tradition at the University of Coimbra, drawing particular attention to the foundational role played by the technological assemblage of large osteological collections aimed at the study of the somatic characteristics of the metropolitan “white” population. I situate these technical developments in the context of wider sociocultural and politico-economic processes of both “nation building” and “empire building.” These processes had a strong effect on the kinds of questions asked and the kinds of answers that seemed compelling and acceptable to early physical anthropologists.

This article is about a long-standing tradition of scientific imagination concerned with “the systematic study of human unity-in-diversity” (Stocking 1983:5): the anthropological tradition. I focus on the emergence of a particular field of inquiry within this very broad scholarly tradition, but I analyze this process from the perspective of a peripheral arena of scientific production within the Western European core: the metropolitan academic sphere of the Portuguese Empire during the late nineteenth century. I suggest that this relatively peripheral condition combined with a complex historical conjuncture of internal political and economic crises gave early Portuguese physical anthropology a less explicitly “colonial” orientation than in other, more central Western European imperial powers. This started to change in the 1930s with the rise of a powerful dictatorial regime—Salazar’s Estado Novo—that supported the emergence of a “colonial anthropology” strongly oriented, at least until the 1950s, toward the field of physical anthropology.

The development of the discipline of physical anthropology started in Western Europe at the end of the eighteenth century and spread to other parts of the world during the second half of the nineteenth century. This process of discipline building produced a remarkable degree of international consistency, but it also engendered considerable variations, especially before the second half of the twentieth century (Blanckaert 2009; Dias 2005; Stocking 1988; Zimmerman 2001). As the editors of this supplemental issue of Current Anthropology note, these disciplinary variations remain poorly studied outside core Western European and North American areas, and this article joins recent calls to rethink the history of anthropology more inclusively (Handler 2000; Kuklick 2008) and to focus on diversity in world anthropological production (Cardoso de Oliveira 2000; Krotz 1997; L’Estoile, Neiburg, and Sigaud 2005; Ribeiro and Escobar 2006).

My contribution to this “world anthropologies” agenda is to bring to the surface a little-known Western European perspective on the origins of modern anthropology and the discipline of physical anthropology. In clear contrast to the American anthropological tradition and its four-field approach, the Portuguese anthropological tradition—as I show elsewhere (Santos 2005)—was built on two different but closely intertwined variants of anthropological research. One was more culturalist—focusing on “people,” “language,” and “customs”—and the other was more naturalist—focusing on “race,” “body,” and “fossils.” It was from within this naturalist camp that emerged in the late nineteenth century the first studies of “physical anthropology.” As in the French context (Jamin 1991; see also Blanckaert 1988, 1995, 2009), this early tradition of physical anthropology was so prominent that it was often labeled with the unmodified term “anthropology” (antropologia) and contrasted to its other half, “ethnology” (etnologia)—the ancestor of modern social-cultural anthropology and modern archaeology…

…Before plunging into an analysis of such disciplinary transformations in late nineteenth-century Portugal, I would like to give a brief account of what happened to the entire field of anthropological production from the early twentieth century onward so as to make more explicit the linkages between my “archaeological exploration” and the contemporary anthropological scene.

After a very short-lived First Republic (1910–1926), the dictatorial regime established in 1933 proved very stable and long-lasting but had a very negative effect in the academic sphere. This authoritarian regime repressed freedom of speech, rejected liberal economic reforms, and set out to build a Third Empire in Africa. Anthropologists did not oppose this enterprise and were called on to produce useful “colonial knowledge.” Physical anthropologists—most of whom still espoused a holistic conception of the discipline—played a salient role in this process. By and large, their work offered “scientific” support to the regime’s colonial rhetoric, which emphasized the civilizing mission of the Portuguese imperial expansion and opposed racial miscegenation (Pereira 2005; Santos 2005; Thomaz 2005).

This rhetoric started to change in the post–World War II period, and the major intellectual figure behind the new official ideology was the great Brazilian anthropologist Gilberto Freyre, whose work on the formation of Brazilian society praised the allegedly humanistic nature of the Portuguese colonial endeavor and civilizing engagement with miscegenation (Castelo 1999; Vale de Almeida 2002). This new official rhetoric again constrained the work of anthropologists, but it was more in tune with the liberal antiracialist and cultural relativist anthropology that became internationally dominant in the post–World War II period (Vale de Almeida 2002, 2008). Starting in the 1960s, there emerged increasing epistemological and institutional divides between physical-biological and social-cultural anthropologists, and the latter gained the upper hand in colonial affairs (Pereira 2005)…

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