Skip to main content
Select Source:

Frobenius, Leo

Frobenius, Leo



Leo Frobenius (1873–1938) was one of the last of the great explorers that the nineteenth century turned out in such profusion; he was also one of the first ethnologists who did not confine himself to an ethnographic description of the facts but elaborated a method for organizing in space and time the confused welter of discrete observations about the world’s nonliterate peoples.

Frobenius was born in Berlin. In his early youth, he devoted his time to the ethnology of Africa, at the age of 21 publishing a bulky volume on African secret societies (1894). As a scientist, he was selftaught. And although he combined an intuitive mind with tremendous industry, emotional involvement with his material often led him to lapse into pathos.

His works on cultural morphology grew out of a profound knowledge of primitive cultures. In 1893 he began a collection of photographs and other ethnographic materials that later formed the basis of the Africa Archives. Frobenius made 12 expeditions to Africa from 1904 to 1935, devoting himself to ethnological field work and the photographing of rock pictures. He also made a trip to India. The holdings of the Africa Archives were greatly expanded by his expeditions, and in 1922 the archives became the Forschungsinstitut fiir Kulturmorphologie. In 1932 he was invited to teach cultural anthropology at the University of Frank furt am Main as an Honorarprofessor. In 1934 he was appointed director of the Municipal Museum of Ethnology in Frankfurt am Main. He died in Biganzolo on Lago Maggiore.

As a historian, Frobenius endeavored through his research to provide historical background for the civilizations that had formerly been regarded as having no history because their past was not illuminated by any written records, and thereby to in corporate them into world history. This work stimulated an expansion of the historical perspective, which at the turn of the twentieth century had been almost exclusively confined to the advanced and literate civilizations of Europe and the Near East. The historical field of vision was expanded not only in spatial-geographical terms, by the inclusion of previously neglected parts of the world, but in eth nologicalterms as well; many primitive cultures have preserved forms of thought, of behavior, and in general, of cultural patterns that are obviously much older than those of the earliest advanced and literate civilizations of the Near East. In his works on the philosophy of history and civilization, Fro benius sought to comprehend not only a particular culture, but culture as such, and therewith the entire history of the world. He tried to grasp and to explain the forces and motives that lead to the origin of a culture, the laws governing its course, the relationship between man and culture, and the meaning and goal of historical development. The broad scope of his research contributed insights and findings of fundamental importance to historically oriented ethnology.

Kulturkreise. ” At the close of the nineteenth century, there were two conflicting doctrines in ethnology, represented in the German-speaking world by Adolf Bastian on the one hand, and by Richard Andree and Friedrich Ratzel on the other. Both doctrines proceeded from the same set of facts, i.e., the observation that elements of mental and material culture identical in form and function may be found in regions of the world that are far apart, frequently separated by oceans, and among peoples speaking different languages and often belonging to different races. The doctrine advocated by Bastian in Der Mensch in der Geschichte: Zur Begrilndung einer psychologischen Weltanschauung (1860) explained such occurrences by assuming that the evolution of mankind has always, and in all parts of the world, been subject to the same laws; that this evolution has been a linear one; and that, consequently, upon reaching a certain stage of development, all societies are independently compelled by the rigid law of evolution to create and shape the cultural objects that correspond to the given stage of development.

This evolutionary view was opposed by the doctrine advocated by Andree in Ethnographische Parallelen und Vergleiche (1878) and by Ratzel in “Geschichte, Volkerkunde und historische Perspective” (1904), who attributed the occurrence of identical elements of culture in different regions of the world to the migrations either of entire cultures or of individual cultural elements and to direct or indirect cultural contact. Frobenius was always a convinced champion of this latter doctrine, which is known as the diffusion or migration theory.

Building on the ideas of Andree, Ratzel, and his own teacher, H. Schurtz, Frobenius made a giant step through his two pioneering works “Der westafrikanische Kulturkreis” (1897) and “The Origin of African Civilizations” (1898a), which cleared the way for a new scientific approach in ethnology. He demonstrated that many elements of material and mental culture are by no means scattered at random over the world but are always densely concentrated in certain areas and always occur in a characteristic combination with other cultural manifestations. Frobenius inferred from the identical geographical distribution of certain elements of culture that these could not be fortuitous combinations, but that there had to be a close relationship among several of the elements. He therefore grouped areas of identical distribution into what he called Kultur kreise; these, in turn, he arranged in relative chronological order so as to provide a historical back ground for nonliterate cultures. The core of this method was cultural comparison, and its technical tool was cartography. As the creator of the theory, Frobenius became the trail-blazer of the historical approach in ethnology, for even today, cultural comparison constitutes an important means to the construction of historical accounts of cultures with out written traditions. Later on, the theory of Kulturkreise was extended by Fritz Graebner and Bernhard Ankermann, and it finally became part of the theory of the “Vienna school” of Wilhelm Schmidt. However, this school did not develop the concept of Kulturkreise as Frobenius understood it but instead allowed it to become static, thus im pairing its effectiveness.

Although the concept of Kulturkreise continued to play a major role in Frobenius’ work, he soon came to realize clearly the methodological shortcomings of his own early works that dealt with it. He sharply attacked the use of statistical methods to establish Kulturkreise—methods which amounted only to a summation of isolated and often quite heterogenous elements, often totally unrelated and of different historical significance. What he had described as Kulturkreise in his initial works were in fact bloodless, empty constructions, mere accumulations of data. Frobenius demanded a morphological mode of considering cultures—a meaning ful combination of individual elements into an organic whole and the comprehension of a culture in its complexity and its historical context. As Frobenius saw it, Kulturkreise obtained from a cartographic picture of distribution were not cultures in the real sense of the term, but merely starting points for further research, skeletons that must be fleshed out, or auxiliary constructions that might enable him to penetrate to the core of the problem: the question of the nature of culture. The provisional nature of his Kulturkreise becomes especially manifest when they are compared to the Kultur kreise of Graebner and the Vienna school, which were by no means intended to have a provisional, skeletal character. The latter were of a definitive nature and of fixed, rigid magnitudes; arranged chronologically and combined, they were even sup posed to furnish an outline of the history of mankind.

Development of culture. Frobenius’ intellectual objective was to understand the essential nature of culture. His first book devoted to this problem was Die naturwissenschaftliche Kulturlehre (1899, Probleme der Kultur, vol. 1). It foreshadowed the concepts of his subsequent theory of paideuma (1921), in which he endeavored to provide an answer to the question of the nature, the morphology, and the development of a culture. Frobenius regarded the several cultures as living organisms in the biological sense that every culture is subject to the laws of the organic world, springing up like seed, growing, and attaining its apogee at maturity, after which it begins to age and finally dies. He used the terms Ergriffenheit (emotional involvement), Aus-druck (expression), and Anwendung (application) to characterize the stages of youth, maturity, and age traversed by a culture, comparing them to a life curve.

Frobenius regarded the Ergriffenheit of man as the crucial event in the emergence of a culture. Once man is gripped by the world about him, the particular nature of the things in his world and the existential order within which he lives are revealed to him. In this process, man plays a rather passive role, being object rather than subject, affected by the phenomena that overcome him, move him, and shake him to his innermost being. It would be wrong, however, to exaggerate his passivity: in the last analysis, only alert, active, and creative spirits are open to the phenomena of the world around them; only they are capable of reproducing these phenomena and putting together a comprehensive and valid picture of the reality that surrounds them.

Frobenius attributed decisive importance to the creative qualities of man. In his eyes, Ergriffenheit and creative will are the motive forces that give rise to the emergence of a culture. The emergence of culture occurs almost exclusively in the realm of ideas, for the process begins not simply with objects but with the inner nature of the objects and phe nomena in man’s environment. Therefore the Er griffenheit, the youth stage, of a culture is always characterized by fundamental and magnificent spiritual-religious creations. More simply stated: Religion stands at the beginning of a culture. Because the rise and formation of the spiritual-religious foundations generally take place quietly and without any visible indications, it is very difficult to establish precisely the emergent phase of a culture; in the case of nonliterate peoples, precision is almost impossible. As a rule, the historian can identify and describe only those fully developed cultures that already possess a stamp of their own and have reached the stage of maturity, while the decisive mental processes that form a culture are not accessible to observation; at best they can be reconstructed from its mature state.

If the Ergriffenheit of man is the crucial event in the origin of a culture, man’s environment must be of decisive importance, for it alone is able to move him. That is why Frobenius regarded environment as a factor of overriding significance and recognized the primary bond between every culture and its location, while the factor of race seemed to him unimportant. He attributed differences between various cultures largely to the differences in environmental conditions. The cartographic method he employed in mapping Kulturkreise and the pat terns of distribution he obtained greatly aided him in reaching this conclusion. Thus, he believed that the extensive rain forests of the equatorial regions, with their uniformity of scenery and climate, give rise to a different form of Ergriffenheit than that of the savanna and steppes, with their pronounced alternations of drought and rainy periods.

The second stage that a culture must pass through is that of Ausdruck, maturity, the apex of the life curve. At this point of development, men continue to be affected by things, but they have now assimilated the experience of their environment and mastered it in the philosophical sense. They are able to express the essential nature of things and of the existential order, as well as of their own existence, in religious, artistic, and social constructs. Only when man has risen above the level of things can he make them completely his own and shape them creatively. In the period of the ma turity of a culture, ideas take on visible shape; they are manifested in religious rites, in the forms of social order, in artistic creations, as well as in the complexity of daily life and the economy. A culture in the stage of maturity is in a state of harmony and draws on abundant resources.

Frobenius’ researches were always aimed at comprehending the spiritual center of a culture, from which its impulses proceed and all actions of the culture are controlled. He called this spiritual center the paideuma, the soul of the culture, which permeates man and gives his action a direction and goal. Every movement and every expression of a culture, even the simple implements of daily use, are related to the spiritual center and bear the stamp of the particular paideuma. All elements are conceived as intimately interrelated in function, which is not true of the elements of the early conception of Kulturkreise; this is why Frobenius refused to regard the early Kulturkreise as true cultures in the paideuma sense.

The last stage is called by Frobenius Anwendung (application) because in this phase he saw the rational aspect of reality and the question of the usefulness and possible applications of a cultural asset coming increasingly to the fore. An implement or a social institution is no longer evaluated solely as the expression of a central spiritual idea but is regarded only from the standpoint of its utility. The rational utilitarian aspect of many cultural assets, especially of the material objects, is no doubt in herent from the very outset, but in the Anwendung phase it predominates over ideal values. The bonds linking the individual elements of culture to the spiritual center become ever looser, and their pro gressive isolation finally results in the disintegration of the entire culture. The Anwendung stage of a culture is characterized by overemphasis on technical-civilizing forces. The nonpurposeful striving for knowledge of the Ergriffenheit phase recedes, and creative spiritual ideas are “applied” and “turned to account” according to their usefulness. An increasing semantic depletion makes itself felt in the religious field, and symbols and religious rites are dominated by routine. When the creative forces are paralyzed, meaningful content dwindles away, cultural forms become petrified, and the culture gradually dies away.

As Frobenius saw it, the various cultures are closed organisms, subject to the same law that governs all living things in this world. Every culture has a soul of its own, a unique character, and an individuality otherwise found only in animate nature. Frobenius therefore attributed to every culture an autonomous set of laws that determines its development, largely independent of its particular human members. This is an inevitable although often misunderstood conclusion if cultures are regarded as living organisms that are governed by the laws of life. Man cannot stem the natural development of a culture. For example, he cannot prevent the aging of a culture; all he can do is prolong or shorten the process. When Frobenius ventured the opinion that culture might exist even without human beings, he meant that culture is not a fiction but a reality that “takes hold of” men just as do the phenomena of their environment. This notion is supported by the historical fact that cultures tend to expand beyond the boundaries of their original centers, especially in the stage of maturity, and “seize,” as it were, people of alien cultures, putting them under their sway.

Although Frobenius was the target of violent attacks, his thoughts and ideas fell upon fertile soil in the German-speaking world. His scientific work in the field of culture founded cultural morphology in ethnology, which is the special concern of the Frobenius Institute. The work of his disciple Adolf E. Jensen on comparative religion refined and advanced Frobenius’ description of the history of culture and increased its depth. All work in the cultural-historical aspects of ethnology has been profoundly influenced by Frobenius’ doctrines. For a time, he was closely associated with Oswald Spengler, who advocated similar ideas about the essential nature of culture. Outside of Germany, and especially in the English-speaking world, Frobenius was accepted only with reservations.

Helmut Straube

[For the historical context of Frobenius’ work, see the biographies ofBastianandRatzel. For discussion of the subsequent development of Frobenius’ ideas, seeCulture; Culture Area; History, article onCulture History; and the biographies ofGraebner; Koppers; Nordenskiold; Schmidt.]


1894 Die Geheimbiinde Afrikas: Ethnologische Studie. Hamburg: Actien-Gesellschaft.

1897 Der westafrikanische Kulturkreis. Petermanns Geographische Mitteilungen 43:225-236, 262–267.

(1898a) 1899 The Origin of African Civilizations. Smithsonian Institution, Annual Report [1899]: 637–650. → First published in German.

1898b Die Masken und Geheimbiinde Afrikas. Halle: Karras.

1898c Der Ursprung der Kultur. Berlin: Borntrager.

1899-1901 Probleme der Kultur. 4 vols. Berlin: Dümm-ler. → Volume 1: Die naturwissenschaftliche Kultur-lehre, 1899. Volume 2: Die Mathematik der Oceanier, 1900. Volume 3: Die Schilde der Oceanier, 1900. Vol ume 4: Die Bogen der Oceanier, 1901.

1907 Im Schatten des Kongostaates: Bericht über den Verlauf der ersten Reisen der D.I.A.F.E. von 1904–1906. Deutsche inner-afrikanische Forschungs-Expedition, No. 1. Berlin: Reimer.

1910 Der schwarze Dekameron: Belege und Aktenstücke über Liebe, Witz und Heldentum in Innerafrika. Berlin: Vita.

(1912–1913) 1918 The Voice of Africa: Being an Account of the Travels of the German Inner African Exploration Expedition in the Years 1910–1912. 2 vols. London: Hutchinson. → First published as Und Afrika sprach.

1916 Der kleinafrikanische Grabbau. Praehistorische Zeitaschrift 8:1–84.

(1921) 1928 Paideuma: Umrisse einer Kultur- und See-lenlehre. 3d ed., rev. & enl. Frankfurt am Main: So-cietats-Druckerei.

1921-1928 Frobenius, Leo(editor) Atlantis: Volksmarchen und Volksdichtungen Afrikas. 12 vols. Mu nich: Veroffentlichungen des Forschungsinstituts fur Kulturmorphologie. → Volumes 1-3: Volksmdrchen der Kabylen. Volume 4: Mdrchen aus Kordofan. Volume 5: Dichten und Denhen im Sudan. Volume 6: Spielmannsgeschichten der Sahel. Volume 7: Ddmonen des Sudan: Allerlei religiose Verdichtungen. Volume 8: Erzahlungen aus dem West-Sudan. Volume 9: Volkserzahlungen und Volksdichtungen aus dem Zen-tral-Sudan. Volume 10: Die atlantische Gbtterlehre. Volume 11: Volksdichtungen aus Oberguinea. Volume 12: Dichtkunst der Kassaiden.

(1921–1931) 1937 Frobenius, Leo; and Fox, DouglasC African Genesis. New York: Stackpole. → First published in German.

1922-1933 Frobenius, Leo;and Wilm, Ludwig von(editors) Atlas Africanus: Belege zur Morphologie der afrikanischen Kulturen. 8 parts. Munich: Beck.

1923 Das unbekannte Afrika: Aufhellung der Schicksale eines Erdteils. Munich: Beck.

1925 Frobenius, Leo;and Obermaier, HugoHddschra Mdktuba: Urzeitliche Felsbilder Kleinafrikas. Munich: Wolff.

1925-1929 Erlebte Erdteile. 7 vols. Frankfurt am Main: Societats-Druckerei. → Volume 1: Ausfahrt: Von der Vblkerkunde zum Kulturproblem, 1925. Volume 2: Erschlossen Rdume: Das Problem Ozeanien, 1925. Volume 3: Vom Schreibtisch zum Aquator, 1925. Vol ume 4: Paideuma, 1928. Volume 5: Das sterbende Afrika, 1928. Volume 6: Monumenta africana, 1929. Volume 7: Monumenta terrarum, 1929.

(1929) 1938 Die Waremba: Trager einer fossilen Kultur. Zeitschrift fiir Ethnologie 70:159–175.

1931a Erythrda: Lander und Zeiten des heiligen Kbnigsmordes. Berlin and Zurich: Atlantis.

1931b Madsimu Dsangara: Siidafrikanische Felsbilderchronik. 2 vols. Berlin: Atlantis.

1932 Schicksalskunde im Sinne des Kulturwerdens. Leip zig: Voigtlander.

1933 Kulturgeschichte Afrikas: Prolegomena zu einer historischen Gestaltlehre. Zurich: Phaidon.

1937 Ekade Ektab: Die Felsbilder Fezzans. Leipzig: Har-rassowitz.

1937 The Story of Rock Picture Research. Pages 13-28 in New York, Museum of Modern Art, Prehistoric Rock Pictures in Europe and Africa. New York: The Museum.


Andree, Richard1878 Ethnographische Parallelen und Vergleiche. Stuttgart: Maier.

Bastian, Adolf1860 Der Mensch in der Geschichte: Zur Begriindung einer psychologischen Weltanschau ung. 3 vols. Leipzig: Wigand. → Volume 1: Die Psychologie als Naturwissenschaft. Volume 2: Psychologie und Mythologie. Volume 3: Politische Psychologie.

Leo Frobenius: Ein Lebenswerh aus der Zeit der Kulturwende, dargestellt von seinen Freunden und Schiilern. 1933 Leipzig: Kohler & Amelang.

Hahn, Eduard1926 Leo Frobenius. Preussische Jahr- bücher 205:205–222.

Jensen, AdolfE. 1938 Leo Frobenius: Leben undWerk. Paideuma 1:45–58.

Olwie, RobertH. 1913 Und Afrika sprach … A Book Review. Current Anthropological Literature 2:87–91.

Muhlmann, Wilhelm 1939 Zum Gedachtnis von Leo Frobenius. Archiv fiir Anthropologie New Series 25: 47–51.

Niggemeyer, Hermann1939 Leo Frobenius. Ethnologischer Anzeiger 4:268–272.

Ratzel, Friedrich 1904 Geschichte, Vblkerkunde un dhistorische Perspective. Historische Zeitschrift 93, no. 1:1–46.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Frobenius, Leo." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 14 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Frobenius, Leo." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (December 14, 2017).

"Frobenius, Leo." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved December 14, 2017 from

Frobenius, Leo

Leo Frobenius (lā´ō frōbā´nēŏŏs), 1873–1938, German archaeologist and anthropologist. An authority on prehistoric art and culture, especially of Africa, he organized 12 expeditions to Africa between 1904 and 1935. In 1922 he founded the Institute for Cultural Morphology, Frankfurt, where he established a noted collection of facsimiles of prehistoric paintings and engravings. He also dealt with living African cultures and their folklore. He wrote The Voice of Africa (tr. 1913) and was coauthor (in English) of Prehistoric Rock Pictures in Europe and Africa (1937).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Frobenius, Leo." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 14 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Frobenius, Leo." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (December 14, 2017).

"Frobenius, Leo." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved December 14, 2017 from