Wissler, Clark

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Wissler, Clark



Clark Wissler (1870-1947) was a man of varied interests and activities: his contributions were in physical anthropology, ethnography and ethnology, museum administration, and teaching.

He taught in public schools before taking a college degree; then he obtained a PH.D. in psychology at Columbia University. His studies were encouraged by James McKeen Cattell, and he also became acquainted with Franz Boas; later he and Boas were associates on the staff of the American Museum of Natural History. From 1924 to 1940 Wissler taught at Yale.

Wissler’s early work was in physical anthropology. “The Hard Palate in Normal and Feeble-minded Individuals” (1908), a study coauthored with Walter Channing, is an analysis, based on plaster casts, which shows that no statistically significant differences can be established between the two groups considered. With Boas, Wissler measured the height, head length, and head width of school children in Worcester, Massachusetts, presenting the data by sex and by age level. Later Wissler dealt with metric changes during growth, includ ing in his study an analysis of Louis R. Sullivan’s measurements of children in Hawaii (1930). These anthropometric studies prepared the ground for new concepts of population dynamics and individual differentiation and came to replace earlier static classifications.

During this time Wissler was becoming acquainted with a variety of anthropological materials, descriptions, and interpretations. As curator of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History, he was responsible for collections and exhibits of tribal arts and handicrafts. Following Boas’ lead, he arranged exhibits by region and tribe, rather than by type. This represented an important change in museology, and it contributed to the development of the concept of culture area.

Wissler was especially interested in the North American Plains tribes, and carried out field work in that region. Within a decade or two the Great Plains was the most thoroughly studied region in North America, perhaps in the tribal world. His principal field work was with the Blackfoot. Wissler’s excellent descriptions of their culture reveal his very early interest in the psychological aspects of behavior and in values, and include accounts of myths and tales, material culture, and social organization. He was among the first to publish an account of so-called joking relationships. Among the tales recorded is an unusual one—the tale of a warrior who spared the occupants of an enemy tepee because a child in it had offered him food; Wissler noted that this tale often stimulated the Blackfoot to debate the ethics of the warrior’s behavior. Aspects of Plains culture which especially interested Wissler include the Sun Dance, accounts of which, for several tribes, were collated under his auspices; material culture, particularly moccasins and clothing; and art designs. He described the transformation of aspects of Plains culture as a result of the acquisition of the horse and traced, from documents, the spread of horseback riding among Plains tribesmen.

Wissler was among the first to emphasize and illustrate the importance of early historical records. Concurrent and continuing interests were the significance of regional clusterings of certain traits and the relation between physical environment and culture. In The American Indian (1917) he outlined the principal culture regions; as criteria for delineating areas he used mainly the characteristics of the physical environment and the distinctive elements of material culture. He indicated the distribution of certain traits and their regional adaptations. In Man and Culture (1923) and The Relation of Nature to Man in Aboriginal America (1926) he further discussed diffusion and adaptation, and adduced two principles: one has to do with the manner in which traits spread; the other, with the inference of the relative age of traits from the extent of their distribution.

Wissler suggested a patterning of diffusion: A trait spreads in all directions, as waves move out in circles when a stone is dropped into a quiet pool; hence, the greater the spread, the older the trait. A trait is most elaborated at and near its place of origin, and least at the periphery. As an example, he cited the Plains Sun Dance, which in some tribes had a greater number of constituent traits in the complex than it had in others. The most elaborate expression of the Sun Dance revealed its place of origin. Wissler recorded no exceptions to his patterns, nor did he indicate why diffusion could not have taken place from the periphery to the center. His age-area concept stimulated the compilation of trait distribution lists but never contributed to the formulation of historical or functional interpretations (Woods 1934).

Considering his penchant for scientific procedure, demonstrated in his work in physical anthropology, it is remarkable that Wissler did not test his hypotheses more carefully (see Wallis 1930, pp. 63-76). His findings regarding the introduction of the horse to North American tribes should have made him pause before placing so much reliance on nonhistorical data, since he surely knew that in many instances, about which there is documentary or other cogent evidence, the extent of distribution is not positively correlated with the age of the trait.

In spite of the outdatedness of Wissler’s theories, he is important for his wide-ranging activities in anthropology. As Murdock noted (1948, p. 295), Wissler, more than any other anthropologist of his generation “bridged the gap between the narrow isolationism of the Boas period and the rich and fertile vitality of the anthropology of today.”

Wilson D. Wallis

[See also Diffusion, article on Cultural diffusion; Physical Anthropology. Other relevant material may be found in the biography ofboas.]


1908 Channing, Walter; and Wissler, Clark The Hard Palate in Normal and Feeble-minded Individuals. Volume 1, part 5, in American Museum of Natural History, Anthropological Papers. New York: The Museum.

(1912) 1948 North American Indians of the Plains. 3d ed. Handbook Series, No. 1. New York: American Museum of Natural History.

(1917) 1957 The American Indian: An Introduction to the Anthropology of the New World. 3d ed. Gloucester, Mass.: Smith.

1923 Man and Culture. New York: Crowell.

1926 The Relation of Nature to Man in Aboriginal America. New York and London: Oxford Univ. Press.

1929 An Introduction to Social Anthropology. New York: Holt.

1930 Growth of Children in Hawaii: Based on Observations by Louis R. Sullivan. Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Memoirs, Vol. 11, No. 2. Honolulu, Hawaii: The Museum.

1938 Indian Cavalcade: Or, Life on the Old-time Indian Reservations. New York: Sheridan House.

(1940) 1949 Indians of the United States: Four Centuries of Their History and Culture. American Museum of Natural History, Science Series. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.


Dixon, Roland B. 1928 The Building of Cultures. New York: Scribner. → See especially pages 167-180.

Murdock, George P. 1948 Clark Wissler, 1870-1947. American Anthropologist New Series 50:292-304. → Contains an extensive bibliography.

Shapiro, Harry L. 1947 Clark Wissler, 1870-1947. Pages 300-302 in American Philosophical Society, Yearbook. Philadelphia: The Society.

Wallis, Wilson D. 1930 Culture and Progress. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Woods, C. A. 1934 A Criticism of Wissler’s North American Culture Areas. American Anthropologist New Series 36:517-523.

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