Gifford, Edward W.

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Gifford, Edward W.



Edward Winslow Gifford (1887–1959), American anthropologist, was born in Oakland, California. His formal schooling ended with a high school diploma. From 1904 to 1912 he was assistant curator of ornithology in the California Academy of Sciences and a member of academy expeditions to the Revillagigedo Islands in 1903 and to the Galapagos Islands in 1905–1906. He was appointed assistant curator of the Museum of Anthropology at the University of California in 1912 and became, successively, associate curator, curator, and director of the museum. In 1920 he was appointed lecturer in the department of anthropology, in 1938 associate professor, and in 1945 full professor.

In addition to his early interests in natural history (particularly ornithology and conchology), Gifford’s range of anthropological interests and competence was very broad, including archeology, folklore, kinship, social organization, material culture, religion, and physical anthropology. In each of these fields he made both substantive and theoretical contributions.

Gifford’s major effort was directed toward the ethnology of California Indians. He wrote a number of monographs on tribal groups in California and a number of articles on special aspects of the culture of Californian aboriginal societies. With the exception of those of A. L. Kroeber, Gifford’s contributions to California ethnography are quantitatively larger than those of any other worker.

Archeology was a secondary interest, but in 1948, toward the end of his career, he began an investigation of Oceanian archeology that resulted in major excavations in Fiji, New Caledonia, and Yap. The archeology of northwestern Mexico attracted his interest in 1945 and 1946, and he made several important contributions to that field.

Gifford’s ethnographies are filled with detail. Informants who contributed information beyond that pertaining to the direct question were apparently allowed to continue, and these bits of volunteered data were usually noted and included. The result of this leniency with informants is that Gifford’s ethnographic accounts contain a multitude of data that does not occur in the published ethnographies of any other worker, and these data often provide some fact or allow some insight that cannot be obtained when only those data are reported that relate to generalizations.

Gifford was unusual in sensing the importance of recording individual experiences of aboriginal informants at a time long before this kind of information was considered important. Thus, his study of Clear Lake Pomo society stands as a pioneer attempt to determine the actual composition of local groups by the genealogical method (1922). His monograph on the Northfork Mono includes an extraordinarily detailed history of one informant, recorded in 1918, who could list no fewer than 23 settlements where she had lived in the course of her life, all of which were located within an area of approximately 150 square miles (1922). Such vignettes provide us with a means of viewing life in aboriginal California in terms of individual experience as well as impersonal customs and institutions.

Gifford did not hesitate to take on projects of synthesizing immense bodies of fact. Two of his largest works remain the main sources of primary data on two aspects of the California Indians: their physical characteristics (1926a) and their kinship terminologies (1922).

Beyond being a patient collector of facts, Gifford was competent at seeing and solving theoretical or terminological problems. In a paper on Euro-American culture contact in Tonga published in 1929, he became the first American anthropologist to use the term “acculturation” in the modern sense. The same is true of his use of the term “lineage,” which he proposed, in a broad survey of political organization (1926b), as the basic unit of aboriginal California societies.

In archeology he was the first to devise a method, which has since become important, for segregating the components of refuse deposits, identifying them, and deriving from the proportions of each component economic interpretations, indications of dietary change over time, and reflections of the relations of the occupants to local environment. Gifford was among the first to employ the weight, rather than the count, of potsherds from archeological excavations to assess chronological changes in the ceramic complex.

In addition to his field investigations, Gifford guided the Museum of Anthropology at Berkeley for 44 years and directed its development of one of the major anthropological collections in the United States. The importance of the Berkeley collections rests not so much upon their size as upon the fact that an unusually large proportion of the materials was collected in the field by scholars, including Gifford himself, and is accompanied by information on cultural context. Gifford organized the collections to make the context of the objects as explicit as possible and constructed a card index for cross reference. Consequently, it is possible that no other major research collection in anthropology is more accessible to scholars.

Robert F. Heizer

[For the historical context of Gifford’s work, see the biographies ofKroeberandLowie.]


1916 Composition of California Shellmounds. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology, Vol. 12, No. 1. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

1922 California Kinship Terminologies. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology, Vol. 18. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

1926a Californian Anthropometry. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology, Vol. 22, No. 2. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

1926b Miwok Lineages and the Political Unit in Aboriginal California. American Anthropologist New Series 28:389–401.

1929 Tongan Society. Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Bulletin No. 61. Honolulu, Hawaii: The Museum.

1939 The Coast Yuki. Anthropos 34: 292–375.

1949 Kroeber, Alfred L.; and Gifford, Edward W. World Renewal: A Cult System of Native North-west California. University of California Anthropological Records, No. 13. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

1951 Archaeological Excavations in Fiji. University of California Anthropological Records, Vol. 13, No. 3. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.


Foster, George M. 1960 Edward Winslow Gifford, 1887–1959. American Anthropologist New Series 62: 327–329.

Harvard University, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Library 1963 Edward Winslow Gifford. Volume 9, pages 243-247 in Catalogue, Part 1, Authors. Boston: Hall.