Aleš Hrdlička

views updated Jun 11 2018

Aleš Hrdlička

American physical anthropologist Aleš Hrdlička (1869-1943) made important contributions to the study of human origins and variation, as well as playing a major role in shaping the professional contours of the discipline in the United States.

Aleš Hrdlička was born in Humpolec, Bohemia (now the Czech Republic), on March 29, 1869, the first of seven children born to Maximilian and Koralina (Wagner) Hrdlička. In 1881 the family moved to the United States, settling in New York City, where young Hrdlička completed his secondary education and in 1889 began his medical studies at the New York Eclectic Medical College. On graduating with honors from this school in 1892 he entered general practice on the Lower East Side, while at the same time continuing his medical education at the New York Homeopathic College (1892-1894).

In 1895 he secured a position as a junior physician at the State Homeopathic Hospital for the Insane at Middletown, New York. It was while in this position that he became interested in the application of anthropometry to medicine, and as a direct result of his researches at the Middletown asylum he was invited in 1896 to join a multi-disciplinary team being assembled to staff the newly created Pathological Institute in New York City. Under the direction of the neurologist and histochemist Ira Van Gieson this institute had been charged with the task of investigating the "modus operandi" of insanity. To prepare for this work, Hrdlička spent the winter of 1896 at the Ecole de Medécine in Paris studying anthropology under Léonce Manouvrier, who exerted an important and enduring influence on his intellectual development.

Hrdlička remained at the Pathological Institute until 1899, when he was invited by Frederic Ward Putnam to join the Hyde Expeditions of the American Museum of Natural History as a "field anthropologist." In this capacity Hrdlička conducted four intensive surveys among the Native Americans of the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico between 1899 and 1902. A summary of these and later surveys (1903-1906) can be found in his monograph Physiological and Medical Observations among the Indians of Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico (1908). In 1903 he was selected to head the newly created Division of Physical Anthropology (DPA) at the National Museum of Natural History (Smithsonian Institution) in Washington, D.C., a position he held for the next 40 years.

During his tenure at the National Museum, Hrdlička built the DPA into a major research center housing one of the finest human osteological collections in the world. He also did much to promote physical anthropology as a legitimate academic discipline in the United States. In this regard, he endeavored to organize the then-nascent profession along the lines Paul Broca had taken French anthropology. Although his ambition of founding an American Institute of Physical Anthropology was never realized, he did succeed in launching the American Journal of Physical Anthropology in 1918 and the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in 1930, both of which were fundamental elements of his particular vision of the future of American physical anthropology. He also did much to promote physical anthropology in his native country. Besides making substantial donations that launched and sustained Jindrich Matiegka's journal Anthropologie (published at Charles University in Prague until 1941), he donated money to the Czech Academy of Arts and Sciences for the exploration of prehistoric sites in Moravia and also to Charles University for the foundation of the Museum of Man that is now named in his honor.

Throughout his long career Hrdlička received many awards and honors which indicated appreciation for his prodigious labors in the discipline. He was elected to membership in the American Philosophical Society in 1918 and in the National Academy of Sciences in 1921 and served as president of the American Anthropological Association (1925-1926), the Washington Academy of Science (1928-1929), and the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (1930-1932). He was also a recipient of the prestigious Huxley Medal (1927).

Although Hrdlička's research interests ranged over almost every aspect of modern physical anthropology, the primary focus of his scientific endeavors was on the question of the origin and antiquity of the American aborigines. He commenced this work with an exhaustive study of all the available evidence attributed to early humans in North and South America, the results of which are summarized in two major publications: The Skeletal Remains Suggesting or Attributed to Early Man in North America (1907) and Early Man in South America (1912). These studies indicated the presence of only anatomically modern humans in the Western hemisphere, which led him to reject the view that the Native Americans had either evolved in the New World or had entered the continent in early glacial or preglacial times. Following this he began orchestrating evidence to support a case for hominid origins in the western sector of the Old World and the subsequent peopling of the New World from Asia during the late Pleistocene-early Holocene period.

It was Hrdlička's growing conviction that anatomically modern Homo sapiens had been derived from a basically Neanderthaloid population that had initially been restricted to Europe and Africa. As these early transitional hominids spread slowly eastward across the Old World, Hrdlička contended, they became separated into a number of discrete geographical breeding units that led to their subsequent differentiation into the various racial groups that characterize the modern human family. He first presented an outline of this hypothesis in a paper presented to the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia in 1921, under the title "The Peopling of Asia" (Proceedings, American Philosophical Society, 60 [1922]). This period of Hrdlička work culminated with the delivery of the 1927 Huxley Memorial Lecture in London in which he summarized his arguments for a "Neanderthal Phase of Man" (Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 57 [1927]), and the subsequent publication of his now classic work, The Skeletal Remains of Early Man (1930).

After 1926 Hrdlička pursued evidence to document the thesis that the first Americans had entered the New World from Asia. His work in the Yukon and Alaskan coast (1926-1930), Kodiak Island (1931-1935), and the Aleutian and Commander Islands (1936-1938) is summarized in two posthumously published volumes: The Anthropology of Kodiak Island (1944) and The Aleutian and Commander Islands and their Inhabitants (1945). One of the main objectives of his work in the Commander and Aleutian islands had been to investigate the possibility that they had served as stepping stones from Kamchatka to the American mainland. Excavations proved, however, that the Commanders had been uninhabited in pre-Russian times. Thus, on the basis of this negative evidence, he concluded that the earlier and later inhabitants of the Aleutians must have entered these islands from Alaska. After 1938 he had intended to initiate a program of research on the Siberian mainland in an effort to prove the Asiatic origins of the American aborigines. These plans, however, were scotched by the outbreak of World War II. Hrdlička died of a heart attack at his home in Washington, D.C., on September 5, 1943.

Further Reading

For further biographical details see Frank Spencer, Aleš Hrdlička M.D., 1869-1943: A Chronicle of the Life and Work of an American Physical Anthropologist (2 volumes, 1979); and Frank Spencer and Fred H. Smith, "The Significance of Aleš Hrdlička's "Neanderthal Phase of Man: A Historical and Current Assessment" in American Journal of Physical Anthropology (1981). □

Hrdlička, Ale

views updated May 14 2018

Hrdlička, Aleš

(b. Humpolec, Bohemia [now Czechoslovakis], 29 March 1869; d. Washington, D.C., 5 September 1943)

physical anthropology.

Hrdlička was the son of Manmilian Hrdlička, a joiner who immigrated to New York and became a factory worker, and Karolina Wajnerová. The oldest of seven children, Hrdlička went to work with his father at an early age, since the family’s financial circumstances did not permit him to attend the Gymnasium. After coming to America, he worked as a laborer, but simultaneously attended the evening courses that gained him a high-school equivalency diploma. A serious illness led him to decide to study medicine and he enrolled in the New York Eclectic College, from which he graduated in 1892. In 1894 he completed further training at the New York Homeopathic College and was certified by the Maryland Allopathic Board.

Hedlička practiced for a short time at the state hospital for the insane in Middletown, Connecticut; he left there in 1896 to study anthropology with L. P. Manouvrier in Paris. He returned to the United States in the same year and became associate in anthropology in the New York Pathological Institute, a position that he held until 1899. In the latter year, Hrdlička took charge of physical anthropology for expeditions sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History. From 1903 he was assistant curator of the physical anthropological collections at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and from 1910 curator; in this connection he traveled extensively and personally examined many of the sites where Pithecanthropus had been found, as well as the sites of contemporaneous Paleolithic man. Among his wide range of physical anthropological concerns, he became an expert on the Eskimos and Indians of North America and the Indians of Central America and on the problem of the origin of human races.

In 1918 Hrdlička founded the American Association of Physical Anthropologists and its organ, American Journal of Physical Anthropology. He was as active in Czechoslovakian anthropological affairs, raising money for the journal Anthropologie (published between 1923 and 1941) at Charles University in Prague and for anatomical and anthropological institutes, as well as for the Museum of Man that is now named in his honor.

Hrdlička published the first of his major theories in “The Neanderthal Phase of Man” (Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 57 [1927], 249–274). In this study he sought to prove that Homo sapiens had developed from Homo neanderthalensis and to show that all human races had a common origin. He presented supporting arguments drawn from anthropology, anatomy, and paleology. This work brought him the Huxley Medal of the Royal Anthropological Institute.

Hrdlička implemented this work with “The Skeletal Remains of Early Man” (Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, 83 [1930]). On the basis of his personal investigation of almost all the world sites in which Homo neanderthalensis had been found and of the fossils of Homo sapiens, Hrdlička concluded that mankind could have developed only in the Old World, since the narrow-nosed apes from which the anthropogenic series had originated were not to be found anywhere else.

Beginning in 1927 Hrdlička organized regular expeditions to Alaska and the Bering Strait. He conducted research on the contemporary population of these regions, as well as on human skeletal remains. Drawing upon ethnography, paleology, and linguistics, he formulated the theory (elucidated in The Question of Ancient Man in America [1937]) that America had been peopled from Asia, via the Bering Strait. He held the hypothesis that men had migrated from Kamchatka, either in primitive boats by way of the Aleutian and Komandorski Islands, or by foot across the Bering Strait itself (since the strait averages about fifty miles across, and freezes in particularly severe winters). From Alaska, then, this early population spread along the Pacific coast and large river valleys, gradually diffusing over all of North, Central, and South America.

Hrdlička was a member of all American anthropological societies and of many foreign ones. He lectured to a variety of audiences, published many scientific papers, and trained a number of subsequent workers. He died of a heart attack while preparing a new expedition to study the Indians of Mexico.


Hrdlička’s major works before 1938 include Anthropological Investigations of One Thousand White and Colored Children of Both Sexes, the Inmates of the N. Y. Juvenile Asylum (New York-Albany, 1900); “Divisions of the Parietal Bone in Man and Other Mammals,” in Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, 19 (1903), 231–386; “Brain Weight in Vertebrates,” in Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, 48 (1905), 89–112; “Contribution to the Anthropology of Central and Smith Sound Eskimo,” in Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History, 5 (1910), 175–280; “Early Man in South America,” in Bulletin of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 52 (1912), 1–405; written with W. H. Holmes, B. Willis, F. E. Wright, and C. N. Fenner; “The Natives of Kharga Oasis, Egypt,” in Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, 59 (1912), 1–118; “The Most Ancient Skeletal Remains of Man,” in Smithsonian Report for 1913 (Washington, D.C., 1914), 491–522; “Physical Anthropology of the Lenape or Delawares and of the Eastern Indians in General,” in Bulletin of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 62 (1916), 1–130; “Early Man in South America,” ibid, 66 (1918), 1–405; Physical Anthropology; Its Scope and Aims; Its History and Present Status in America (Philadelphia, 1919); Anthropometry (Philadelphia, 1920; 2nd ed.; 1938); The Old Americans. A Scientific Detailed Study of the Fathers of America and Their Children (Baltimore, 1925); “Catalogue of Human Crania in the U.S.,” in Proceedings of the United States National Museum, 69 (1927), 1–127; 71 (1928), 1–140; 78 (1934), 1–95; “The Neanderthal Phase of Man,” in Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 57 (1927), 249–274; “The Skeletal Remains of Early Man,” in Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, 83 (1930), 1–379; “Anthropological Survey in Alaska,” in Annuian Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 46 (1930), 1–374; “The Humerus: Septal Apertures,” in Anthropologie (Prague), 10 (1932), 31–96; “Ear Exostoses,” in Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, 93 (1935), 1–98; and “The Pueblos, With Comparative Data on the Bulk of the Tribes of the Southwest and Northern Mexico,” in American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 20 (1935), 235–460.

For his work after 1938, see the index to Smithsonian Institution publications. From 1918 Hrdlička edited the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

K. HajniŠ

Hrdlicka, Aleš

views updated Jun 11 2018

Hrdlička, Aleš



Aleš Hrdlička (1869–1943), a leading American physical anthropologist, was born in Humpolec, Bohemia (now Czechoslovakia), the oldest of seven children of Maximilian and Caroline Hrdlička. In 1882 he immigrated with his father to New York City where he first worked in a cigar factory while learning English in night schools. Later he attend ed the Eclectic Medical College in New York City, from which he graduated in 1892 at the head of his class. To improve his medical standing he then attended the New York Homeopathic Medical College and Hospital, also in New York City, graduating in 1894, and again topping his class. He immediately began interning in the State Homeopathic Hospital for the Insane at Middletown, New York. In 1896, after accepting a research position in the Pathological Institute of the New York State Hospitals, he went to Paris where, among other things, he studied anthropology under Leonce Manouvrier.

Hrdlička’s program at the institute brought him into contact with F. W. Putnam of the department of anthropology of the American Museum of Natural History. This connection led to an invitation to accompany the explorer and author Carl Lumholtz on a trip to Mexico in 1898. The resulting experience with American Indians was a turning point in Hrdlička’s career; when the Pathological Institute closed in 1899, he turned his attention entirely to anthropology. From that time until the end of 1902, he participated in the Hyde expeditions of the American Museum to the South west and to Mexico.

In 1903 Hrdlička accepted an invitation from William H. Holmes to become assistant curator in charge of a new division of physical anthropology of the United States National Museum in Washington. In 1910 he was made curator, which position he held until his retirement in 1942.

One of Hrdlička’s first acts as assistant curator was to arrange for the transfer to the National Museum of human skeletal material found at archeological sites which the Smithsonian Institution had deposited at the Army Medical Museum. He then devoted his energies to extending the geographical, chronological, and racial coverage of the collection. At the same time he continued his studies of living peoples. The extent of these activities can best be seen in the record of his travels: 1905—southern Arizona and New Mexico (Apache and Pima); 1906—Florida; 1909—Egypt and Eu rope; 1910—South America and Mexico; 1912— Europe, Siberia, and Mongolia; 1913—Peru; 1915 —Minnesota and Missouri (Chippewa and Sioux); 1916—Florida; 1917—New England, Virginia, and Tennessee (Old Americans); 1918—Florida; 1920 —Japan, Korea, China, and Hawaii; 1922—Brazil and Europe; 1923—Europe; 1925—Europe, India, southeast Asia, Australia, and South Africa; 1926-1938—Alaska and Commander Islands (Eskimo and Aleut); 1939—Europe and Siberia.

Ultimately Hrdlička accumulated for the museum one of the world’s largest skeletal collections. By studying this material he was able to publish a large number of scientific reports, including catalogues of crania and monographs on the antiquity of man in America and on the most ancient skeletal remains from the Old World. He also published several reports on living American Indians, two books on the American white population (1925; 1931), and a book on anthropometry.

Hrdlička influenced anthropology through the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, which he founded in 1918 and edited until 1942, and through the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, which he founded in 1929, serving as president in 1930–1931. In these roles, unfortunately, he tried too much to control and dominate the thinking in the field.

Hrdlička also gave much of his time to general scientific organizations and international congresses. He was largely responsible for the organization of the 19th International Congress of Americanists held in Washington in 1919. He was elected a member of the American Philosophical Society in 1918 and of the National Academy of Sciences in 1921. In 1922 he received an honorary sc.d. from the University of Prague, in 1926 the same degree from the University of Brno, and in 1927 the Huxley Memorial Medal from the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.

On his way to Europe in 1939 Hrdlička suffered a heart attack but, after a month in a hospital in England, continued on to Siberia. He died of a subsequent heart attack in Washington.

T. D. Stewart

[For the historical context of Hrdlička’s work, seePhysical Anthropology.]


(1920) 1952 Practical Anthropometry. Edited by T. D. Stewart. Philadelphia: Wistar Institute of Anatomy and Biology. → First published as Anthropometry.

1925 The Old Americans. Baltimore: Williams & Wilklns.

1931 Children Who Run on All Fours, and Other Animal like Behaviors in the Human Child. New York: Mc Graw-Hill.


Dr. Aleš Hrdlička: Zivotopisny nastln. 1929 Anthro-pologie (Prague) 7:6–61.

Schultz, adolph H. 1945 Biographical Memoir of Aleš Hrdlička: 1869–1943. Volume 23, pages 305-338 in National Academy of Sciences, Biographical Memoirs. Washington: The Academy. → Contains a bibliography on pages 319–338.

Stewart, T. D. 1940 The Life and Writings of Dr. Aleš Hrdlička. American Journal of Physical Anthro pology 26:3–40.

Stewart, T. D. 1964 Aleš Hrdlička: Pioneer American Physical Anthropologist. Pages 505-509 in Czechoslo vak Society of Arts and Sciences in America, The Czechoslovak Contribution to World Culture. The Hague: Mouton.