AKA Alfred Louis Kroeber
Birthplace: Hoboken, NJ
Location of death: Paris, France
Cause of death: Heart Failure
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Pioneer in American Anthropology
Alfred Kroeber is remembered as one of the major figures in the history of American anthropology. A principal proponent of Boasian Anthropology, Kroeber (who was Franz Boas' first student) was also the second American to earn a PhD in Anthropology. Kroeber taught at U.C. Berkeley from 1901 to 1946, and served as both director of the university's Anthropological Museum as well as curator of Anthropology at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. His books and his lectures held a profound and definitive impact on both his peers as well as succeeding generations of anthropologists. Kroeber is also notable as the father of science fiction and fantasy author Ursula K. Le Guin, and the one-time caretaker of the famous California Indian Ishi. Kroeber's second wife Theodora was the author of the classic Ishi in Two Worlds.
Alfred Louis Kroeber was born on 11 June 11 1876, in Hoboken, New Jersey. His parents were of German-American extraction, with his father having come to the U.S. at age 10. The primary language of the home was German. His mother was born in New York, where young Kroeber himself was also raised. At the age of 16 he entered Columbia College where he would receive his B.A (1896) and his M.A. (1897) both in English. Taken with the teachings of resident professor Franz Boas, Kroeber entered into additional graduate study in anthropology, with a minor in psychology. After spending two years among the Arapaho Indians, he earned his PhD in 1901 with a doctoral thesis on their decorative symbolism.
Like his mentor Boas, Kroeber was very much a believer in the principal of cultural relativism, the idea that what is morally wrong or socially undesirable in one culture may be fine in another and that individual choices and actions must be understood in within the context of the individual's own culture. Thus he was part of the drive to not only understand the material culture (weapons, pottery, type of dwelling) of so-called primitive cultures, but also their symbolism, social roles, and moral beliefs. Also like Boas, Kroeber was extremely interested in recording the cultural of Native American tribes before their ways, and in many cases their last living members, disappeared forever. In time he came to be regarded as an expert in the field of Native American archaeology and ethnography.
But in 1901, newly graduated, Kroeber moved out to California where, one year earlier he had been appointed Curator of Anthropology at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco in an earlier visit. Koeber settled in at the University of California at Berkeley, the first member of the newly created Department of Anthropology at U.C. Berkeley. He began to teach and, with the help and financial backing of Phoebe Hearst, mother of William Randolph Hearst, to amass an impressive collection of artifacts for the university's museum.
In 1911 Kroeber became the caretaker of "Ishi" the last Yahi Indian. Unfortunately Ishi's arrival coincided with the worsening health of Kroeber's first wife Henrietta from tuberculosis. She finally passed in 1913. Soon after, Kroeber himself became afflicted with an inner ear ailment that left him deaf in the left ear for the rest of his life. He meanwhile studied Ishi, his tool making, his language, and recollections of tribal life, piecing together the tragic story of the extermination of his tribe by white settlers. In 1916 Ishi himself died of tuberculosis. He was buried with ceremony and reverence, but in recent years it has come to light that Kroeber, in keeping with the scientific attitudes of his day toward tribal peoples, not only had a cast made of Ishi's face, but also had his brain removed and shipped to the Smithsonian. This would later engender considerable discomfiture for later U.C. staff members, who have since launched a quest to have Ishi's brain found and returned.
In the year following, for reasons not quite clear, though perhaps triggered by the losses discussed above, Kroeber entered in psychoanalysis, and then in 1918 he became a practicing analyst himself. By 1922 his inner seeking had apparently diminished and he discontinued his psychoanalytic practice. He became increasingly involved with Theodora Krakow Brown and in 1926 they married. The couple had two children together, Ursula and Karl. In addition, Alfred Kroeber adopted Theodora's two sons from her earlier marriage, Ted and Clifton. Theodora Kroeber was deeply interested in the earlier plight of Ishi and, working from Kroeber's notes and recollections, authored his biography, Ishi in Two Worlds.
Alfred Kroeber retired in 1946 but continued to lecture and to publish new work. In 1960 he died of heart failure during a visit to Paris. Kroeber's work with preserving knowledge of indigenous American cultures includes, his work in California and other parts of the American West, as well as Mexico and South America. Much of Kroeber's knowledge about indigenous Californians was collected in Handbook of Indians of California (1925). He is additionally credited with contributing such concepts as Cultural Elements, Culture Area, and Cultural Configuration (all of which sought to apply a statistical approach to cross-cultural comparison), and for championing the significance and respectable inquiry into the phenomenon of the Native American berdache. A berdache is a biological male who assumes a female role. Along with fellow U.C. Berkeley faculty member Robert Lowie he is credited with developing the American "Cultural History" school of thought.
Wife: Henriette Rothschild (m. 1906, d. 1913)
Wife: Theodora Krakow Brown (m. 1926)
Daughter: Ursula K. Le Guin (author, b. 1929)
Son: Karl Kroeber
Father: Florence Kroeber
Son: Ted Kroeber (adopted, anthropologist)
Son: Clifton Kroeber (adopted, anthropologist)
University: MA English, Columbia University (1897)
University: PhD Anthropology, Columbia University (1901)
Professor: University of California at Berkeley (1901-46)
American Anthropological Association President (1917)
Linguistic Society of America President (1940)
American Folklore Society President (1906)
National Academy of Sciences
American Philosophical Society
American Academy of Arts and Sciences
Royal Anthropological Institute
Author of books:
Anthropology (1923, nonfiction)
Handbook of the Indians of California (1925, nonfiction)
Cultural and Natural Areas of Native North America (1939, nonfiction)
Configurations of Culture Growth (1944, nonfiction)
The Nature of Culture (1952, nonfiction)
Style and Civilizations (1957, nonfiction)
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