The Division of Anthropology was established at the AMNH in 1873, only four years after the founding of the museum. During its first 17 years, the department was concerned almost exclusively with the acquisition and display of artifacts. The division acquired material more or less at random; there was no basic philosophy or particular geographical emphasis that guided this activity. This stage of its history lasted until 1890 when the first professional anthropologist, Frederic W. Putnam, was appointed Curator of Anthropology. He immediately began to engage the best anthropologists of the day, such as Franz Boas and Clark Wissler, two of the most important early figures in American anthropology.
The Anthropology Division's African collection is extensive in terms of geographic coverage. It includes North Africa, West Africa, and Madagascar, although its greatest concentration of material is from central and southern Africa. The Douglas purchase from southern Africa (1905), the Starr collection from central Africa (1905-6), the Belgian government gift (1907), and the Lang-Chapin Congo Expedition collection (1909-15) together make up about one-third of the African ethnology holdings. Such concentrations of materials from particular localities provide a detailed artifactual record of African life before much of its material culture was altered by colonialism and Western material culture.
The Museum's holdings in Asian ethnology make up the finest collection in the Western hemisphere. A large part of the collection was made by early anthropologists, who gathered extraordinarily detailed documentation. The collection is comprehensive and includes virtually all object types made of every conceivable material. The objects in this collection span an immense range of diversity of cultures: form semi-sedentary agriculturalists in the rain forests of Malaysia, to Bedouin nomads, and to the peasants and poets, philosophers and statesmen of India and China, the world's oldest enduring civilizations.
North American Archaeological Collection is one of the largest and most significant such assemblages in the world. The artifacts are recovered from hundreds of museum excavations at key sites throughout the American Southwest (including Pueblo Bonito, Grand Gulch, Canyon de Chelley, the Galisteo Basin, and Aztec ruin), the Pacific Northwest, the Greater New York City area, the Great Basin (including Hidden Cave, Gatecliff Shelter, and Alta Toquima), Labrador, and the Southeast (including Poverty Point, Greenhouse, Jaketown and Menard)
Additional Resources: Curatorial Research
The Museum contains one of the world's great collections of archaeological materials from Mexico and Central America. The collection comprises approximately 50,000 catalog numbers, representing perhaps a half-million objects in all. The earliest accessions were made in the 1890's, during the tenure of Dr. Marshall Saville, the first Curator of Mexican and Central American Archaeology. The pace of accession has slowed considerably in recent years, and it is fair to say that almost the entire collection was accessioned prior to 1970. The collection is thus a relatively old one, making it a valuable resource for scholars who visit the Museum on a regular basis to study the materials.
The Division of Anthropology began its active participation in the study of South American archaeology in 1892 with Adolph Bandelier's expedition to Peru and Bolivia, under the patronage of Henry Villard. A large portion of the Museum's collections from Peru were acquired as a direct result of Bandelier's expedition between 1892-1903 and provided for many years of research in the Museum's laboratories.
First and foremost is an extensive collection of human osteology, that is made up of both archaeological and recent material representing some 12,000 individuals from over 50 countries, including the United States.
Second is a smaller collection of non-human Old World primate osteological materials (principally crania, with a significant postcranial component), consisting mainly of macaques, mandrills, chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas.
The third collection consists of an extensive representation of fossil hominid casts. Included in this collection are first generation casts of the Lower and Upper Cave hominids of Zhoukoudian, People's Republic of China, which were donated by Dr. Franz Weidenreich in the 1940's.
Additional Resources: Curatorial Research