Lehmann-Nitsche, Robert

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(b. Radonitz, Posen, Prussia, 9 November 1872, d. Berlin, Germany, 9 April 1938),

physical anthropology, paleoanthropology, ethnology, folklore.

Lehmann-Nitsche lived in La Plata, Argentina, from 1897 to 1930. He worked as head of the anthropological department of the museum of the city, which in 1906 became part of the new Universidad de La Plata. There, as well as at the Universidad de Buenos Aires, he held the first South American university professorships in anthropology. He undertook numerous journeys through Argentina and worked on anthropology, mythology, and ethnology, as well as folklore and Creole ethnic studies in the River Plate (Río de la Plata) region.

Early Years . Paul Adolf Robert Lehmann-Nitsche was born in Radonitz, Posen, where he attended primary school. Only his mother’s name, Ida, is known. He obtained a PhD in philosophy and another one in medicine. He completed his dissertation, “Über die langen Knochen der südbayerischen Reihengräberbevölkerung,” in July 1893 at the Ludwig Maximilian Universität of Munich, Germany. This “study on the long bones found in aligned burials in Southern Bavaria” was awarded half of the Ernest Godard Prize established at the Societé d’Anthropologie of Paris (Paupillault, 1897). For many years this work stood as one of the standard references on the significance of indices and the measurements of femora in the field of comparative anthropological studies (Hrdlicka, 1912).

Argentinean Studies (Museo de La Plata) . In 1897, Lehmann-Nitsche arrived in Argentina, where he had been appointed head of the anthropological section of the Museo de La Plata, established in 1884. He proceeded to arrange the collections gathered in the expeditions of Francisco P. Moreno (1852–1919) and his collaborators. With that purpose he classified the collections following the geographical and political regions of Argentina as established by the head of cartographic section of the museum. This system was later adopted by the anthropological and archaeological collections of all Argentinean museums (Podgorny, 1999).

As a member of the staff of the Museo de La Plata (the Museum of La Plata), Lehmann-Nitsche undertook several anthropological journeys in Argentina. He traveled to Tierra del Fuego in 1902 and to the Argentinean Northwest in 1906. There he proceeded to record measurements and qualitative characteristics of 160 individuals.

University Teaching . Lehmann-Nitsche taught the first Argentinean university courses in physical anthropology (University of Buenos Aires, 1903). His syllabus presented anthropology as the comparative study of humankind on the basis of physical characteristics such as pigmentation and skull and head shape in various human groups. He also analyzed “fossil and contemporary aborigines.” In 1904, he taught another course on paleoanthropology, devoted to the evidence of Argentinean fossil man, the Neanderthal hominid, and the issue of Pithecantropus erectus. Lehmann-Nitsche defined “paleoanthropology” as the “physical and psychological anthropology of fossil man, i.e. man from past geological ages” (1907, p. 193-194, fn.). In 1905, he was appointed professor of anthropology in Buenos Aires, where he organized his course of “physical anthropology of the human races.” He taught the same syllabus in his courses given at the new University of La Plata, established in 1906. In this capacity, he directed several doctoral dissertations on topics such as fossil man and the analysis of collections of crania.

Contribution to South American Fossil Man . In 1907, Lehmann-Nitsche compiled “Nouvelles recherches sur la Formation Pampéenne et l’Homme Fossile de la République Argentine,” an important summary of the evidences relating to man of the so-called Pampean Formation in Argentina. This work was a reaction to Florentino Ameghino (1854?–1911), who postulated the Tertiary age of both that formation and the fossil humans supposedly found in those deposits (Podgorny, 2005). The “Nouvelles recherches” was the first work in Argentina that gathered together professionals from several disciplines (geologists, physical anthropologists, and mineralogists) to analyze such a contested issue. In this work Lehmann-Nitsche accepted the conditions of the modern practices of paleoanthropology: that it was necessary to agree upon both the association of the human bones with geologic deposits of well-determined age and the significance of the morphologic characteristics defining a clear stage of evolution. Contrary to Ameghino, Lehmann-Nitsche concluded that part of the Pampean Formation was of Quaternary age. He analyzed a humanlike atlas (the first vertebra of the neck) of small size, found in the 1880s, which for many years was left unattended in the collections of the La Plata Museum. By comparing this bone with sixteen atlases of native people from South America and with those of orangutans and gorillas, he defined Homo neogaeus, a Tertiary South American species of humankind that “must have approached very closely the Pithecanthropus” (LehmannNische, 1907, p. 399). He concluded that the Pampean fossil man was of Pliocene age (Middle Pampean).

Contribution to Folklore and Ethnology . LehmannNitsche turned gradually to South American folklore and mythology. Attributed to him are the oldest sound ethnographic and folkloric documents recorded in Argentina on Edison cylinders between 1905 and 1909: 107 recorded in the Museum of La Plata (1907); 98 in the province of Jujuy (1906); 8 in Buenos Aires (1909), and 126 folk songs in La Plata (1905). Lehmann-Nitsche also recorded texts in the Araucanian language. These texts include narratives on historically important Indian leaders, myths, dialogues, letters, fairy tales, fables, and songs. In 1910 he published a collection of Creole riddles, later complemented with a volume devoted to scatological texts from the La Plata region. The latter was published in Leipzig in 1923, in a series of researches on the history of development of moral habits. Lehmann-Nitsche analyzed different objects and characters of the folklore of the La Plata region. His later years in Argentina were dedicated to the study of South American mythology and ethno-astronomy. In these works he classified the different topics of the legends, proposing connections throughout South America.

Lehmann-Nitsche’s collection of folklore was accomplished through the work of German immigrants who inhabited the Argentinean countryside and articulated as a network of observers. By the same means, Lehmann-Nitsche gathered archaeological and anthropological data from all over the continent. He maintained an epistolary exchange with archaeologist Max Uhle and ethnologist Eduard Seler, among others, which is of interest for research work concerning the history of the German Latin America investigations. During World War I, he was very engaged in defending the name of Germany as the main and real center of culture, science, and civilization (García and Podgorny, 2000). In the 1920s, he became an active opponent to the German Social Democratic government and became affiliated with the Argentine section of the Conservative German National Popular Party.

He returned to Germany in May 1930. In October 1934, he was appointed to lecture on Ibero-American cultures at the philosophy department of the University of Berlin. He died of cancer in Berlin-Schöneberg in 1938.

In Argentina, he had married his former student, anthropologist Juliane Dillenius. Lehmann-Nitsche’s bibliography includes more than 370 titles (Torre Revello, 1947).


The most complete bibliographical index of Lehmann-Nitsche’s is Torre Revello, José. “Contribución a la bio-bibliografía de Robert Lehmann-Nitsche.” Boletín del Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas 29, no. 101–104 (1947): 724–805 His correspondence, scientific, and political papers are kept in the archives of the Ibero-Amerikanisches Institut, Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin. Part of this entry is based on work done at Ibero-Amerikanisches Institut in 1994.


“Über die langen Knochen der südbayerischen Reihengräberbevölkerung.” Beiträge zur Anthropologie und Urgeschichte Bayerns 11 (1894).

“Antropología y craneometría. Conferencia dada en la sección antropológica del primer congreso científico Latino-Americano.” Revista del Museo de La Plata 9 (1899): 121–140.

“Quelques observations nouvelles sur les indiens Guayaquis du Paraguay.” Revista del Museo de La Plata 9 (1899): 399–408.

“Catálogo de las antigüedades de la provincia de Jujuy conservadas en el Museo de La Plata.” Revista del Museo de La Plata 11 (1904): 75–120.

“Études anthropologiques sur les indiens Takshik (groupe Guaicuru) du Chaco Argentin.” Revista del Museo de La Plata 11 (1904): 261–314.

“Estudios antropológicos sobre los Chiriguanos, Chorotes, Matacos y Tobas (Chaco occidental).” Anales del Museo de La Plata 1 (1907): 53–149.

“Nouvelles recherches sur la Formation Pampéenne et l’Homme Fossile de la République Argentine.” Recueil de Contributions Scientifiques de MM. Burckhardt, A. Doering, J. Fruh, H. von Ihering, H. Leboucq, R. Lehmann-Nitsche, R. Martin, S. Roth, W. B. Scott, G. Steimann et F. Zirkel. Revista del Museo de La Plata 14 (1907): 143–488.

“Patagonische Gesänge und Musikbogen.” Anthropos 3, 5–6 (1908): 916–940.

Catálogo de la sección antropológica del museo de La Plata. Buenos Aires: Coni, 1910.

Folklore argentino. Adivinanzas Rioplatenses. Biblioteca Centenaria 6. Buenos Aires: Universidad Nacional de La Plata, 1911.

“El Grupo Lingüístico Tshon de los Territorios Magallánicos.” Revista del Museo de La Plata 22 (1913): 217–276.

“La Bota de Potro.” Boletín de la academia nacional de ciencias de Córdoba 21 (1916): 183–300.

“Santos Vega.” Boletín de la academia nacional de ciencias de Córdoba 22 (1917).

“Texte aus den La Plata-Gebieten in volkstümlichem Spanisch und Rotwelsch.” Beiwerke zum Studium der Anthropophyteia 8 (1923).

“Mitología Sudamericana. La Astronomía de los Mocoví. La Astronomía de los Chiriguanos. La constelación de la Osa Mayor y su concepto como huracán o dios de la tormenta en la espera del Mar Caribe. La astronomía de los tobas. La astronomía de los Vilelas.” Revista del Museo de La Plata 28 (1924–1925): 66–79; 80–102; 103–145; 181–209; and 210–233.

“Arqueología peruana: Coricancha. el templo del sol en el Cuzco y las imágenes de su altar mayor.” Revista del Museo de La Plata 31 (1928): 1–260.

Studien zur südamerikanischen Mythologie, die ätiologischen Motive. Hamburg: Friederichsen, De Gruyter, 1939.


Bilbao, Santiago A. Rememorando a Roberto Lehmann-Nitsche. Buenos Aires: La Colmena, 2004.

Cáceres Freyre, Julián. “Homenaje al doctor Roberto Lehmann-Nitsche (1872–1972).” Cuadernos del Instituto Nacional de Antropología 8 (1972–8): 7–19.

Hrdlicka, Alex. Early Man in South America. In Collaboration with W. H. Holmes, B. Willis, E. Wright, and C. Fenner. Smithsonian Institution Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 52. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1912. Contains a good summary of Lehmann-Nitsche’s contributions to the debate on “early man.”

García, Susana, and I. Podgorny. “El sabio tiene una patria: La primera guerra mundial y la comunidad científica en la Argentina.” Ciencia hoy 10, no. 55 (2000): 32–34. Paupillault. “Rapport sur le Prix Godard.” Bulletin de la Societé d’Anthropologie (1897): 482–483.

Podgorny, Irina. “De la antigüedad del hombre en el Plata a la distribución de las antigüedades en el mapa: Los criterios de organización de las colecciones antropológicas del Museo de La Plata entre 1890 y 1930.” História, Ciências, Saúde-Manguinhos 6, no. 1 (1999): 81–100.

———. “Bones and Devices in the Constitution of Paleontology in Argentina at the End of the Nineteenth Century.” Science in Context 18, no. 2 (2005): 249–283. The most accessible discussion in English of the South American fossil man.

———. “La derrota del genio: Cráneos y cerebros en la filogenia argentina.” Saber y Tiempo 5 (20) (2006): 63–106.

Irina Podgorny

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