Junod, Henri Alexandre

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Junod, Henri Alexandre



Henri Alexandra Junod (1863–1934), missionary and anthropologist, was born of Swiss Protestant parents in the canton of Neuchatel, Switzer-land. He spent 26 years as a missionary among the Thonga tribes of southern Africa, and his book, The Life of a South African Tribe (1912–1913), has been universally acclaimed as one of the greatest monographs in African ethnography.

Although his professors at the College Latin and the Gymnase in Neuchatel expected him to have a brilliant career in science and natural history, Junod decided to dedicate his life to the service of God. He was ordained in 1887, following theo-logical studies in Neuchatel, Basel, and Berlin. At the request of the council of the Mission Romande he left on his first missionary tour of Africa in 1889, returning to Switzerland in 1896. After three other tours—1899–1903, 1904–1909, and 1913–1920—Junod spent the last 14 years of his life as agent for the Mission Romande in Geneva. During that time he also wrote up his anthropological material and participated in scientific discussions.

Soon after his arrival in Africa, Junod began to apply his scientific skills to the study of the life around him. With the help of an illiterate instructor he made a systematic analysis of Ronga, one of the numerous Thonga dialects (see 1896). While giving religious instruction at the school for evangelists in Rikatla and later in Shilouvane, Transvaal, he kept careful records of the tales his students told him and of the customs they described, and he analyzed these records. In his early years in Africa his interest in natural history persisted, and he collected plant specimens, insects, and butterflies. (His collection of southeast African butterflies is preserved in museums in Lausanne, Lourengo Marques, and South Africa; various specimens bear his name.) It was not until 1895 that he seriously shifted from entomology to ethnography.

Junod was familiar with the work of his major contemporaries in anthropology, that of Frazer, Tylor, Herbert Spencer, Gobineau, Frobenius, Schmidt, Boas, and Levy-Bruhl, and he corresponded with many of these men. He used Frazer’s questionnaire, designed especially for collecting ethnographic material on matters of taboo. His use of van Gennep’s framework for analyzingrites de passage remains a model for many students. While he did not explicitly acknowledge men like Durkheim, Rene Hubert, and Marcel Mauss, their influence is evident in his major book on the Thonga.

Junod’s aim was to test general theories against the body of factual material that he was accumulating: he analyzed and interpreted the customs and religion of the Thonga in the light of prevailing evolutionary theory. Compared to more recent students of the Thonga, Junod wrote extensively on religion and ritual to the neglect of political structure and institutions, law and legal institutions, and economic systems.

In his approach to field observation Junod was a pioneer. He was among the first Africanists to concentrate on the details of the life of a single people and so came to hold in south African ethnography an esteemed position similar to that held by R. S. Rattray in west African ethnography. It was his conviction that to be truly scientific, ethnographic description must be limited to one well-defined tribe and that the data must be related only to a limited locality, since in a single tribe there are different clans, and customs vary among these clans. He felt, therefore, that the geographical classification of facts is of the greatest importance.

Junod desired to “write the facts carefully and to describe them accurately.” He had an eye for what was significant to the people in a particular society and vividly described such customs as the moving of a village, and such rituals as the destruction of a hut after death. At the time and in the area of south Africa that he was studying, traditional aspects of culture had as yet been little touched by the advent of the white man and could therefore be isolated and precisely defined. He never shrank from recording customs that were morally repugnant to him, He was not satisfied with simply reproducing verbatim the description of customs by his informants but always attempted to set the described custom in its place in the dynamic processes and trends of social life, knitting it into what Malinowski called the “all-embracing manifestation” of that social life.

On the evidence of his field material Junod questioned many widely held anthropological theories. In an article entitled “Le noir africain: Comment faut-il le juger×” (1931) he suggested that Gobineau’s treatise on racial inequality might have been modified had he known that Africans share the dolichocephalic characteristic with the “noble Aryan.” He suggested also that denigrators of African languages might well profit from memorizing ten of the Bantu’s loveliest proverbs, and he cast doubt on the validity of Levy-Bruhl’s theory that primitive man has a “prelogical and magical mind.”

Junod was concerned with more than his avocation—the scientific study of the Thonga; he also devoutly desired to help them. He realized that in order to achieve this vocational goal it was necessary for him to understand the meaning behind the observable facts he was recording. Facts isolated for scientific ends had to have coherence in moral and religious terms: all items of a people’s culture or social life must be seen in their inter-relation, and all have a purpose. His approach is admirably illustrated in his article “Le sacrifice dans I’ancestolatrie sud-africaine” (1932). He at-tacked those scholars, notably Alfred Loisy (1920), who claimed that sacrifices are meaningless and without value; that a ritual sacrifice is nothing but a “sacred action…lost in the void” and never more than “magical action at the point of departure.” Fundamental to Junod’s attack was his religious theory of life, which held that man, whether primitive or civilized, eternally reaches for God and continuously expresses this sentiment of absolute dependence. Junod argued that ritual sacrifices are primitive man’s way of satisfying his need to ex-press child-father dependency, extending it through time in the worship of his gods—his ancestors. To Junod the ancestor cult is but a phase in the evolution of religion toward the notion of God and is not antithetical to this notion. Ritual sacrifices are thus a meaningful and necessary element of a stage of evolution. The scientists of Junod’s time had little use for the transcendental dimensions he constantly introduced into scientific discussions, and Junod was well aware of their views. More recently, his departure from the largely mechanistic analysis of human phenomena has acquired great relevance for social science.

Violaine Junod



1896 Grammaire ronga suivie d’un “Manuel de conversation et d’un vocabulaire ronga-portugais-francaisanglais.” Lausanne (Switzerland): Bridel.

1897 Les chants et les contes des Ba-Ronga de la bate de Delagoa. Lausanne (Switzerland): Bridel.

1898 LesBa-Ronga: Ėtude ethnographique sur les indigenes de la baie de Delagoa. Neuchatel (Switzerland): Attinger.

(1907) 1932 Elementary Grammar of the Thonga-Shangaan Language. 2d ed. Lausanne (Switzerland): Mission Suisse dans FAfrique du Sud.

1911 Zidji: Ėtude des moeurs sud-africaines. Saint-Blaise

(Switzerland): Foyer Solidariste.

(1912–1913) 1962 The Life of a South African Tribe. 2 vols. New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books.→Volume 1:Social Life. Volume 2: Mental Life.

1931 Le noir africain: Comment faut-il le juger?Africa (London) 4:330–342.

1932 Le sacrifice dans I’ancestolatrie sud-africaine.Archives de psychologic 23:305–335.


Chatelain, C. W. (compiler) 1909 Pocket Dictionary: Thonga (Shangaan)–English, English–Thong a (Shangaan). Preceded by an elementary grammar by Rev.H. A. Junod. Lausanne (Switzerland): Bridel.

Junod, Henri Philippe 1934 Henri-A. Junod: Mission-naire et savant; 1863–1934. Lausanne (Switzerland): Mission Suisse dans 1’Afrique du Sud.

Loisy, Alfred 1920 Essai historique sur le sacrifice. Paris: Nourry.

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Junod, Henri Alexandre

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