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Bastian, Adolf


(b. Bremen, 26 June 1826; d. Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, 3 February 1905)

ethnography, cultural anthropology, comparative psychology, museums.

Though rarely mentioned in the early twenty-first century, Bastian was undoubtedly one of the preeminent German scientists of the nineteenth century trying to forge the new discipline of ethnology or socio-cultural anthropology, which still considers him a founding father, though the scope of his undertaking was closer to that of a polymath than of a disciplinary specialist. He endeavored to lay the foundations for an epistemology as well as for the empirical range of a science of culture by combining individual psychology with collective manifestations of the whole of human cultural productions (material as well as ideational), first outlined in his massive three volume publication of 1860, Man in History.

Overview of Career. Bastian may have inherited from his merchant father his administrative skills, as well as his love of encountering peoples all over the world. Adolf studied at five universities, including law at Heidelberg, and life sciences at Berlin and Jena. Before obtaining the MD from Prague in 1850 he read for medicine under the tutelage of Rudolph Virchow (Würzburg). In 1851 he signed onto a trip to Australia as a ship’s doctor; this and other voyages would occupy twenty-five of his remaining fifty-five years. He conducted fieldwork in almost every inhabited part of the globe, collecting material for a scientific study of comparative psychology.

He devoted 1865 to 1873 to helping organize ethnography in Germany. Beginning as an assistant director in the royal museums in Berlin; he reorganized and enlarged the ethnographic collection. For two years he and Robert Hartmann edited the Zeitschrift für Ethnologie, which became the official journal of the Berlin Society for Anthropology, Ethnology, and Prehistory, which Bastian established in 1869 (together with Virchow). In 1873 he became a director and an honorary professor at the university. In 1886 the Museum für Volkerkunde was inaugurated in a new building rivaling similar institutions in London and Paris; he continued to expand its holdings with results of his and others’ collecting expeditions. He also co-founded the German Society for Exploring Equatorial Africa (often just called the “African Society”) during his presidency of the Berlin Geographical Society (1871–1873).

Geography and Folk Ideas. Bastian drew upon the rapid advances of the natural sciences—from Fechner to Helmholtz—and combined the theories of plant physiology, plant ecology, cellular biology as well as psychophysics and research in sense perception with notions taken from the history of ideas on man’s place in nature, drawing upon pre-Socratic thinkers and church fathers as much as on Giambattista Vico, Johann Gottfried Herder, and neo-Kantianism. However he thought that a new, universal “science of mankind”, required the collection of evidence from concrete social life in all possible or existing (past and present) ethnic diversity. Of particular importance were for him those ethnic groups which were in his time labeled “primitive societies” as they would yield the “simplest” kinds of thought processes. His insight into the dire results of colonialism, which destroyed traditional cultures like a “forest fire,” as he put it (Bastian, 1881, pp.179–181; translated in Köpping, p. 107), was one of the driving forces behind his ceaseless and at times seemingly obsessive travels (seven times around the globe!). His intellectual mentor Alexander von Humboldt provided the other inspiration for collecting field data. Humboldt’s Kosmos of 1844 challenged the next generation of scholars to tackle organic and cultural phenomena and interdependencies in cultures all over the world.

Bastian took up this challenge (see Bastian, 1869; Köpping, pp. 157–162). Ethnographers had to accumulate as many examples as possible of collective representations (Gesellschaftsgedanken), which however had to be analyzed into folk ideas (Völkergedanken), the distinctive way a particular group looked at the world, which depended on environmental conditions as well as historical contingencies. In order to correlate the different folk ideas to geography, Bastian developed his arrangement of <pn,207>geographic culture areas where a range of ethnic groups (Völkerkreis) shared a range of folk ideas (Gedankenkreise, Vorstellungskreise). This aspect of his work resembled that of the anthropogeographer Friedrich Ratzel, with whom he engaged in long public polemical debates.

Only when the impact of geography and the historical development of ethnic idea systems had been sufficiently accounted for, could the uniformity behind them could be deduced and arranged into a set of elementary ideas (Elementargedanken) shared by all humanity. He believed that the psychic unity of humankind was responsible for elementary ideas. For Bastian, elementary ideas were an artificially post hoc abstracted notion, whereas folk ideas were the concrete expressions of ethnic groups.

Bastian used a variety of scientific metaphors to express his notion of elementary ideas, sometimes comparing them to cells, sometimes to the most simple forms of plants such as the cryptogams (ferns, mosses and lichens), sometimes to crystals. Inherent in these comparisons is the notion of laws of cultural evolution. Just as the isolated smallest unit contained the potential for the growth of an adult individual, elementary ideas developed. But without further stimuli (geographical or historical changes) folk ideas would not develop further but stagnate. Many of these concepts Bastian took over from the psychophysics of Fechner as well as from the research of Helmholtz.

Besides material cultural productions being the repository of elementary ideas, the collective representations of a whole group, the folk ideas, are to be found specifically in myths and oral traditions, an area to which Bastian contributed extensively in his many works on a diversity of religious systems from the Hawaiian foundation myth of the Kumulipo to treatises on shamanism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. He attributed mental processes not only to the organic structure of the brain but also (decades before Freud) postulated that any disturbances (excitation or deprivation) of the genital system led to what he called delusional or religious aberrations (such as trances, vertigo, hallucinations, or mass hysteria). On the other hand he considered some of the manifestations of religious systems such as shamanism appropriate responses to specific environmental contingencies and correlated in several cases the appearance of new charismatic religious movements to sociohistorical disturbances.

Without doubt his demanding and often cumbersome style of writing hindered the adoption of his ideas, though twentieth-century anthropology has selectively picked up such notions as culture as superorganic, the culture area, diffusionism and cultural hybridity, or ethnicity as collective social formations. His ceaseless effort collecting evidence from all possible cultural repertoires led to some concrete foundations of anthropology as a university

discipline and of ethnographic collections in national institutions in Germany.

Bastian died—appropriately on his eighth world trip—while swimming off the coast of Trinidad in 1905.



Der Mensch in der Geschichte: Zur Begründung einerPsychologischen Weltanschauung. Leipzig: O. Wigand, 1860.

Festrede bei der von den Naturwissenschaftlichen Vereinen Berlins veranstalteten Humboldt-Feier: Gesprochen am Säkurlatage.

Berlin: Wiegandt & Hempel, 1869. Memorial oration.

Der Völkergedanke im Aufbau einer Wissenschaft vom Menschen: und seine Begründung auf ethnologische Sammlungen. Berlin: F.

Dümmlers, 1881.

Der Buddhismus in seiner Psychologie. Berlin: F. Dümmler, 1882.

Zur Kenntnis Hawaii's. Berlin: F. Dümmler. 1883. Controversen in der Ethnologie. 4 vols. Berlin: Weidmann,



Humboldt, Alexander von. Kosmos: Entwurf einer physischen Weltbeschreibung. 4 vols. in 2. Stuttgart: J. G. Cotta, 1844.

Translated by Elise C. Otté as Cosmos: A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe. New York: Harper, 1859.

Köpping, Klaus-Peter. Adolf Bastian and the Psychic Unity of Mankind: The Foundations of Anthropology in Nineteenth Century Germany. Münster: Lit Verlag, 2005. Re-edition of original edition with University of Queensland Press of 1983.

Penny, H. Glenn. Objects of Culture: Ethnology and Ethnographic Museums in Imperial Germany. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Tylor, Edward B. “Professor Adolf Bastian: Born June 26, 1826; Died February 3, 1905.” Man 5 (1905): 138–143. Lists his various journeys abroad and activities in Germany. Refers readers to other obituaries and a 16-page, “practically complete list” of Bastian’s writings.

Klaus-Peter Köpping

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Bastian, Adolf

Bastian, Adolf



Adolf Bastian (1826–1905), early ethnographer, was born in Bremen, the son of a wealthy merchant. He studied law at the University of Heidelberg and natural sciences and medicine in Berlin, Jena, and Würzburg. In 1850 he received a medical degree from the Charles University in Prague.

The following year Bastian began the first of the long series of voyages throughout the world that was not to end until his death. For several years he traveled as a ship’s doctor and visited Australia, Peru, the West Indies, Mexico, China, the Malay archipelago, India, and Africa. In 1860 he published his major work, the three-volume Der Mensch in der Geschichte. He spent the next five years exploring various Asiatic countries and produced as a result of these explorations Die Völker des östlichen Asien (1866–1871).

Bastian then accepted a teaching position at the University of Berlin and founded the Königliche Museum für Völkerkunde in Berlin, for decades the most important ethnographical museum in the world. In collaboration with Rudolf Virchow he founded the Berlin Society for Anthropology, Ethnology, and Prehistory, which established the Zeitschrift für Ethnologic as its organ. Collecting exhibits for his museum, Bastian in 1875–1876 visited Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Guatemala, and the Antilles. Die Kulturländer des alten Amerika (1878) is his account of this voyage. His travels continued during the next 25 years: he revisited some parts of the world, such as India, Australia, and the Malay archipelago, and saw some for the first time, such as the Fiji Islands, Hawaii, California, Yucatan, Ceylon, and the Near East. At the end of his life he returned to the West Indies, and in Port of Spain, Trinidad, on the voyage home, he died.

Bastian’s concept of “elementary ideas.” Bastian’s life was dedicated to conquering the world ethnologically, to collecting materials from the greatest possible number of cultures. Despite the diversity of such cultures, he believed in uniform laws of growth and a general psychic unity of man-kind. Essentially it is this psychic unity that is responsible for the elementary ideas (Elementargedanken) that are common to all individuals. Karl von den Steinen (1905, p. 245), Bastian’s student, recalls Bastian’s comparing an elementary idea to a chemist’s element or a botanist’s cell. It can be abstracted from the religious and aesthetic concepts of primitive peoples and from their social institutions and techniques. The number of such elementary ideas is relatively small. They are the primary units of which the Völkergedanken (folk ideas) are composed. The Völkergedanken develop differently from each other under the influence of varying physical surroundings (geographische Provinzen) and historical events. Bastian thought that the Völkergedanken were conceptually identical with Weltanschauungen (Steinen 1905, p. 244).

Jensen (1963, p. 71) observes that the concept of elementary ideas assumes a mechanistic functioning of the human mind, an assumption that was common in the nineteenth century but has become generally unacceptable. However, Bastian argued that the individual could think only if he functioned in a social group (1881b, p. 169).

Bastian and evolution. It is not surprising that a nineteenth-century anthropologist like Bastian had modes of thought that have led some historians of ethnology to call him an evolutionist. However, unlike orthodox evolutionists, he did not think that the pattern of development of the elementary ideas was unilinear; rather, this pattern of development was that of a multiplicity of Völkergedanken developing in different physical surroundings. According to Mühlmann (1948, pp. 98–99), Bastian’s wide ethnographic experience was enough to pre-vent his ever becoming an evolutionist in the Spencerian sense. In fact, he differed sharply from the predominant view of his time in that he conceived of development as a spiral, an image that foreshadows modern concepts.

Predecessors, opponents, and successors. The influence of both Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt on Bastian is evident. Wilhelm von Humboldt’s influence can be seen in the theoretical aspects of Bastian’s work, whereas Alexander von Humboldt served him as a model of the explorer and scholar. Alexander von Humboldt also influenced Bastian through his Kosmos, the book in which he presented a synthesis of his observations and readings in various branches of science and which culminated in a universal law that harmonized the philosophy of idealism with the exact sciences.

Bastian’s views were strongly opposed by the famous biologist Ernst Haeckel. In antithesis to Bastian’s monogenetic view of human origins, Haeckel believed the main human races to be descended from different anthropoid species. The diffusionists also attacked Bastian.

Among those who were influenced by Bastian are a number of distinguished anthropologists, Alfred Cort Haddon, Franz Boas, Richard Thurnwald, A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, and Bronislaw Malinowski. C. G. Jung’s concept of a collective unconscious was directly derived from Bastian’s elementary ideas (Mühlmann 1948, p. 181). Finally, Bastian’s campaign to save data from cultures that are in the process of disappearing is being continued by the International Committee on Urgent Anthropo-logical and Ethnological Research, organized by Robert Heine-Geldern.

Herbert Baldus

[For the historical context of Bastian’s work, seeAnthropologyand the biography ofHumboldt. For discussion of the subsequent development of his ideas, see the biographies ofBoas; Haddon; Malinowski; Radcliffe-Brown; Thurnwald.]


1860 Der Mensch in der Geschichte: Zur Begründung einer psychologischen Weltanschauung. 3 vols. in 1. Leipzig: Wigand. → Volume 1: Die Psychologie als Naturwissenschaft. Volume 2: Psychologie und Mythologie. Volume 3: Politische Psychologie.

1866–1871 Die Völker des östlichen Asien. 6 vols. Leipzig: Wigand.

1868 Das Bestd¤ndige in den Menschenrassen und die Spielweite ihrer Veränderlichkeit: Prolegomena zu einer Ethnologie der Kulturvölker. Berlin: Reimer.

1870 Sprachvergleichende Studien mit besonderer Berücksichtigung der indochinesischen Sprachen. Leipzig: Brockhaus.

1874 Offner Brief an Herrn Prof. Dr. E. Häckel, Verfasser der “Natürlichen Schöpfungsgeschichte.” Berlin: Wiegandt.

1875 Schöpfung oder Entstehung: Aphorismen zur Entwicklung des organischen Lebens. Jena (Germany): Costenoble.

1878 Die Kulturländer des alten Amerika. 3 vols. in 4. Berlin: Weidmann.

1881a Die heilige Sage der Polynesier: Kosmogonie und Theogonie. Leipzig: Brockhaus.

1881b Der Völkergedanke im Aufbau einer Wissenschaft vom Menschen und seine Begründung auf ethnologischen Sammlungen. Berlin: Dümmler.

1881c Die Vorgeschichtcine Mussestundee der Ethnologic: Deutschland’s Denkfreunden gewidmet für eine Mussestunde. Berlin: Harrwitz & Gossmann.

1884 Allgemeine Grundzüge der Ethnologie: Prolegomena zur Begründung einer naturwissenschaftlichen Psychologie auf dem Material des Völkergedankens. Berlin: Reimer.

1886 Zur Lehre von den geographischen Provinzen. Berlin: Mittler.

1893–1894 Kontroversen in der Ethnologie. 4 vols. in 1. Berlin: Weidmann. → Volume 1: Die geographischen Provinzen in ihren kulturgeschichtlichen Berührungspunkten. Volume 2: Sociale Unterlagen für rechtliche Institutionen. Volume 3: Über Fetische und Zugehöriges. Volume 4: Fragestellungen der Finalursachen.

1895a Ethnische Elementargedanken in der Lehre vom Menschen. 2 parts in 1 vol. Berlin: Weidmann.

1895b Zur Lehre vom Menschen in ethnischer Anthropologie. 2 vols. Berlin: Reimer.

1898 Elementargedanken und Entlehnungen. Globus 74: 322–323.

1902–1905 Die Lehre vom Denken zur Ergänzung der Naturwissenschaftlichen Psychologie, für Überleitung auf die Geisteswissenschaften. 3 vols. Berlin: Dümmler.


Jensen, Ad. E. 1963 Mythos und Erkenntnis. Paideuma 9:63–75.

Kluckhohn, Clyde; and Prufer, Olaf 1959 Influences During the Formative Years. Pages 4–28 in Walter Goldschmidt (editor), The Anthropology of Franz Boas: Essays on the Centennial of His Birth. Memoir of the American Anthropological Association, No. 89. San Francisco: Chandler.

Lowie, Robert H. 1937 The History of Ethnological Theory. New York: Farrar & Rinehart.

MÜhlmann, Wilhelm E. 1938 Methodik der Völkerkunde. Stuttgart: Enke.

MÜhlmann, Wilhelm E. 1948 Geschichte der Anthropologie. Bonn: Universitäts-Verlag.

Steinen, Karl von den 1905 Gedächtnisrede auf Adolf Bastian. Zeitschrift für Ethnologie 37:236–249.

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Bastian, Adolf

Adolf Bastian (ä´dôlf bäs´tyän), 1826–1905, German anthropologist. Often called the father of ethnography, he recorded his observations of peoples and cultures in Der Mensch in der Geschichte [man in history] (1860). His concept of "elemental ideas" as common to mankind but varying in form according to "folk ideas" of a given area foreshadows the kulturkreis of Wilhelm Schmidt. His influence was transmitted through the works of Franz Boas and others. Bastian's important studies appeared in the Zeitschrift für Ethnologie, which he helped to found and edit, and in Ethnologische Forschungen (1871–73).

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