Strong, William Duncan

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Strong, William Duncan



William Duncan Strong (1899-1962), American anthropologist, was born in Portland, Oregon. The Strong family played an active role in the development of the Oregon and Washington territories. Strong‘s grandfather was one of the first federal judges of the Oregon- and Washington territories; his father, Thomas Nelson Strong, was a surveyor for the Northern Pacific Railroad and subsequently became an attorney for the Tshimsian and other Alaskan and Pacific Coast tribes. The early and deep personal involvement of young Strong with American Indian culture was further reinforced by his godfather, William Duncan, who was a well-known missionary to the Tshimsian.

Considering the “long and warm association” of his family with the American Indian (see “Knickerbocker Views . . .” 1961, p. 61), it was hardly surprising that Strong decided to major in anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley, where he received his PH.D. in 1926. It was at Berkeley that he came under the influence of Alfred Louis Kroeber. Kroeber‘s teaching was, without doubt, the major influence on Strong‘s career. The young graduate student had a deep interest in zoology and a keen sense of history, and hence he was particularly receptive to Kroeber‘s conception of anthropology as a strongly empirical discipline in which ethnology, linguistics, physical anthropology, and archeology all contribute to an understanding of the historical patterns of cultural phenomena.

Both Strong‘s early association with living Indian cultures and his graduate training formed the basis of his conviction that ethnological and archeological research should be closely associated. In his first major publications, which were based on his ethnological field work in southern California (1927; 1929), as well as in subsequent publications, Strong demonstrated that the ethnological present could never be satisfactorily explained without a knowledge of the past and that an understanding of prehistoric cultures of the American Indian should be based, when possible, on ethnological knowledge of the living cultures (1936; 1940).

The value of this approach was particularly well illustrated in “The Plains Culture Area in the Light of Archaeology” (1933) and in An Introduction to Nebraska Archeology (1935a). In these studies Strong combined ethnological, historical, and archeological data which led to a better understanding of the recent nomadic Plains Indian culture by showing that it had been largely agricultural and sedentary before the introduction of the horse.

Strong joined the Smithsonian Institution in 1931 and remained there until 1937. Under its auspices he carried out field work in Honduras (1935b; Smithsonian Institution . . . 1938) and continued his work in the Great Plains as well (1940).

Strong‘s next appointment was at Columbia University, where he taught until he died. He began to excavate in coastal Peru (Strong et al. 1943) and became particularly interested in the problems of the cultural relationships among pre-Columbian cultures. Strong first defined the scope of this problem in Cross Sections of New World Prehistory (1943), in which he evaluated the significance of the archeological work done in Latin America in 1941 and 1942 by the members of the first project of the Institute of Andean Research. In this publication Strong briefly outlined what were to become some of the major problems of archeological research after World War ii: the definition of an early, basic New World culture analogous to Spinden‘s hypothetical Archaic culture (Willey 1953, p. 375) and the delineation of the prehistoric patterns of cultural development as a basis for the comparative study of culture process and culture history (1943, p. 41).

This interest in the comparative study of developmental culture patterns became more sharply focused after further field work in the Viru Valley in northern coastal Peru, carried out in 1946 in collaboration with other participants in a new project of the Institute of Andean Research (Strong & Evans 1952). The project led to the development by several persons, more or less independently, of a sequential ordering of Peruvian prehistory. At the Chiclin conference (Willey 1946), Strong joined R. Larco Hoyle in proposing a developmental sequence for the economic, social, political, and artistic aspects of the successive prehistoric cultures of coastal Peru (1948, p. 100).

It is of interest to note that Strong insisted that these cultural epoch sequences, his own as well as those presented by Wendell C. Bennett, Julian Steward, and others, must be constantly re-evaluated on the basis of archeological field research (1948, p. 100; 1951, p. 273). He felt that these developmental classifications were temporarily useful to express the results of prehistoric field research in culturally significant and comparable terms.

As a teacher and a humanist, Strong‘s concern was for man as a living being, and he constantly stressed the significance of archeological data for anthropology as a whole. Because of his insistence on the need to combine ethnological and archeological data and on the complementarity of the functional and the historical approaches, he was in the mainstream of significant archeological research throughout his career (Willey 1953, pp. 372, 375, 378, 381, 383).

The increase in specialization which tends to separate archeology and ethnology is a serious problem. Strong‘s work stands as an eloquent reminder of the fruitfulness of an integrated anthropological approach.

Jacques Bordaz

[Directly related are the entries Archeology, article onthe field; History, article onculture history; Hunting and gathering, article onnew world prehistoric societies. Other relevant material may be found in the biography of Kroeber.]


1927 An Analysis of Southwestern Society. American Anthropologist New Series 29:1-61.

1929 Aboriginal Society in Southern California. University of California, Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology, Vol. 26. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

1933 The Plains Culture Area in the Light of Archaeology. American Anthropologist New Series 35:271-287.

1935a An Introduction to Nebraska Archaeology. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, Vol. 93, No. 10. Washington: Smithsonian Institution.

1935b Archeological Investigations in the Bay Islands, Spanish Honduras. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, Vol. 92, No. 14. Washington: Smithsonian Institution.

1936 Anthropological Theory and Archaeological Fact. Pages 359-370 in Essays in Anthropology in Honor of Alfred Louis Kroeber. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

1938 Smithsonian Institution-Harvard University Archeological Expedition To Northwestern Honduras, 1936 Preliminary Report on the Smithsonian Institution—Harvard University Archeological Expedition to Northwestern Honduras, 1936, by William D. Strong, Alfred Kidder, and A. J. Drexel Paul, Jr. Washington: The Institution.

1940 From History to Prehistory in the Northern Great Plains. Pages 353-394 in Smithsonian Institution, Essays in Historical Anthropology of North America in Honor of John R. Swanton. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, Vol. 100. Washington: Smithsonian Institution.

1943 Cross Sections of New World Prehistory: A Brief Report on the Work of the Institute of Andean Research, 1941-1942. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, Vol. 104, No. 2. Washington: Smithsonian Institution.

1943 Strong, William Duncan; Willey, Gordon R.; and Corbett, John M. Archaeological Studies in Peru: 1941-1942. Columbia Studies in Archaeology and Ethnology, Vol. 1. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

1948 Cultural Epochs and Refuse Stratigraphy in Peruvian Archaeology. Pages 93-102 in Wendell C. Bennett (editor), A Reappraisal of Peruvian Archaeology. Society for American Archaeology, Memoirs, No. 4. Menasha, Wis.: The Society.

1951 Cultural Resemblances in Nuclear America: Parallelism or Diffusion? Volume 1, pages 271-279 in International Congress of Americanists, 29th, New York, 1949, Selected Papers. Univ. of Chicago Press.

1952 Strong, William Duncan; and Evans, Clifford Jr. Cultural Stratigraphy in the Viru Valley, Northern Peru: The Formative and Florescent Epochs. Columbia Studies in Archaeology and Ethnology, Vol. 4. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

1957 Paracas, Nazca, and Tiahuanacoid Cultural Relationships in South Coastal Peru. Society for American Archaeology, Memoirs, No. 13. Salt Lake City, Utah: The Society.

1961 Knickerbocker Views of the Oregon Country: Judge William Strong’s Narrative, with a Foreword by William Duncan Strong. Oregon Historical Quarterly 62: 57-87. → See pages 57-62 for Strong’s Foreword.


Solecki, Ralph; and Wagley, Charles 1963 William Duncan Strong: 1899-1962. American Anthropologist New Series 65:1102-1111. → An obituary written by two of Strong‘s Columbia University colleagues; includes a detailed list of his positions and honors and a complete bibliography.

Willey, Gordon R. 1946 The Chiclin Conference for Peruvian Archaeology. American Antiquity 12:132-134.

Willey, Gordon R. 1953 Archeological Theories and Interpretations: New World. Pages 361-385 in International Symposium on Anthropology, New York, 1952, Anthropology Today: An Encyclopedic Inventory. Univ. of Chicago Press.