Dixon, Roland B.

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Dixon, Roland B.



Roland Burrage Dixon was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1875 and died at his bachelor home in Harvard, Massachusetts, in 1934. He was appointed assistant in anthropology in the Peabody Museum at Harvard upon his graduation from that institution in 1897, thereupon beginning a career of anthropological teaching and research at his alma mater that continued until his death. While a graduate student there he engaged in archeological field work in Ohio and later, as a member of the Jesup North Pacific Expedition of the American Museum of Natural History, in ethnological field work among the Indians of British Columbia. In 1899 he spent the first of six field seasons among the California Indians. The following year, upon completion of his thesis dealing with the language of the Maidu Indians, he was awarded the ph.d. degree. Thus, Dixon became one of the first Americans to receive a doctor’s degree in the emerging discipline of anthropology. Interestingly enough, Harvard’s other doctorate in anthropology in 1900 went to John R. Swanton, a man whose anthropological orientation was very similar to Dixon’s. Following a year spent in research and travel in Germany, Siberia, and Mongolia, Dixon returned to Harvard in 1901 as an instructor in anthropology. He advanced through the various academic grades to full professor and was for a long period chairman of the division of anthropology. His Harvard service was briefly interrupted during World War I, when he did special work in Washington, d.c.; he was sent to Paris with the American Commission to Negotiate the Peace.

Dixon brought to anthropology a marked natural-history orientation. He enjoyed outdoor life, and his early interest in geography was deepened by intensive reading combined with travel and research in New Zealand, Australia, Tasmania, the Himalayas, Burma, Malaysia, Indonesia, China, Japan, and Central America. No student ever took a course with Dixon without becoming aware of the interrelationship between culture and the natural environment. This geographic interest was combined with a historical approach. Dixon was well-read in French, Italian, German, and Russian and in the Scandinavian languages. The range and depth of his anthropological knowledge were reflected in his writings and his classroom lectures.

Dixon was a generalist at a time when such virtuosity was still possible in anthropology. Following his brief introduction to mound archeology, he concentrated for some years on California ethnology, and his many publications on this culture area cover the fields of descriptive ethnography, folklore, and linguistics. Although he was not a trained linguist, his work on California languages provided the guidelines for future work in this field. Some of his California publications were done jointly with Alfred L. Kroeber. The linking of the names of these two men is appropriate, since they not only were contemporaries (Kroeber received his ph.d. from Columbia in 1901), but both also did extensive ethnographic work in California and took a basically historical approach to anthropology. Dixon lacked Kroeber’s philosophical overview and theoretical interests, but the two were similar in the range and depth of their scholarship. They held each other in mutual esteem, and Kroeber’s obituary of Dixon is unusually perceptive (Tozzer & Kroeber 1936).

After completing his California work, Dixon turned from ethnography to a wide range of other problems. In connection with the thirteenth census of the United States he compiled the most complete and accurate enumeration of the Indian population by stocks and tribes, and after tabulating the sterility and fecundity of pure Indian marriages in comparison with mixed marriages, he concluded that the latter produced both more and healthier offspring (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1915). Some years later he published his most ambitious work, The Racial History of Man (1923). Utilizing three basic indices, Dixon analyzed all the anthropometric data then available and classified men into racial types. Although this methodology was criticized by physical anthropologists, the book did demonstrate the morphological diversity of many populations, particularly the American Indians and Polynesians. In The Building of Cultures (1928) Dixon attempted to deal with theory and with cultural dynamics. The real contribution of the book, however, lay in its meticulous discussion of the diffusion process.

In the final analysis, Dixon was not so much a theoretician as a culture historian who combined vigorous scholarship with geographic understanding. His study of the early migrations of the New England Indians (1914), for instance, illustrates his interest in movements of peoples, reinforced by an understanding of ecological factors and a mastery of ethnohistorical sources—all features that came increasingly to characterize his later writings. Insofar as it was possible for one man to do so, Dixon mastered the ethnography of the world, particularly in the field of material culture. He was less interested in details of social organization.

During most of his years at Harvard, Dixon served as librarian of the Peabody Museum. He brought to this task the same bibliographic expertise that characterized his scholarship, with the result that the library catalogue eventually became an index of all anthropological literature, listed not only by author but also by geographical area and by topic. This great research tool, invaluable to generations of Harvard graduate students, has since been updated and made available to institutions all over the world (1963).

Dixon’s greatest contribution to American anthropology may well have been the building up of an outstanding program at Harvard—broad in scope and designed for both the undergraduate and the graduate student. Dixon’s work at Harvard is in some ways comparable to that of Boas at Columbia and Kroeber at California, the three institutions that trained the bulk of American anthropologists during the first third of the twentieth century. Dixon founded no “school” and left no disciples; but his students gained from him a tremendous body of carefully organized ethnographic information and a training in rigorous scholarship. Many of these students in turn became professional anthropologists, including such early Viking Medalists as A. V. Kidder, J. O. Brew, Hallam Movius, Ralph Linton, I. H. H. Roberts, Carleton Coon, W. W. Howells, and S. K. Lothrop, together with many other eminent teachers and researchers active in anthropology throughout the world.

Robert A. Mckennan

[For the historical context of Dixon’s work, see the biography ofKroeber, For discussion of the subsequent development of his ideas, seeRaceand the biography ofKidder.]


(1900) 1911 Maidu: An Illustrative Sketch. Part 1, pages 679–734 in Franz Boas (editor), Handbook of American Indian Languages. U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin No. 40. Washington: Government Printing Office.

1914 The Early Migrations of the Indians of New England and the Maritime Provinces. American Antiquarian Society, Proceedings New Series 24:65—76.

1916 Oceanic [Mythology]. Boston: Marshall Jones. → Volume 9 of Mythology of All Races.

1923 The Racial History of Man. New York: Scribner.

1928 The Building of Cultures. New York: Scribner.


Harvard University, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Library 1963 Catalogue. 53 vols. Boston: Hall. → Part 1: Authors. Part 2: Subjects.

Tozzer, Alfred m.; and Kroeber, Alfred L. 1936 Roland Burrage Dixon. American Anthropologist New Series 38:291–300. → Contains a comprehensive bibliography of Dixon’s writings.

U.S. Bureau of the Census 1915 Indian Population in the United States and Alaska: 1910. Washington: Government Printing Office. → Prepared under the supervision of William C. Hunt, Roland B. Dixon, and F. A. McKenzie.