Department History

The Department of Anthropology was founded in 1938 by Melville Herkovits as one of the second generation of anthropology departments. Herskovits, a student of Frank Boas, was an early builder of four-field American anthropology. Read below for highlights of the department’s long history.

Foundation in Africanist anthropology

Unlike most other American anthropologists of the 1930s, Herskovits focused on Africa and the African Diaspora. He recruited other prominent Africanists and trained an impressive Africanist cadre of anthropologists that include William Bascom, Joseph Greenberg and Harold Schneider. In 1948, Herskovits also founded the Program of African Studies and he encouraged the development of what has become the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies, the largest separate Africana collection in the world. The Department’s primary strength continues to be in African ethnography, with broad African coverage that includes West, South, and North Africa, Anglophone and Francophone Africa, Islamic and non-Islamic groups, and urban and rural populations.

Establishment of New Archaeology

In the 1960s and 70s, Northwestern archaeologists were central to the emergence and establishment of the New Archaeology. Lewis Binford’s students, Jim Brown and Stuart Streuver, joined by bioarchaeologist Jane Buikstra, formed a long-term and continuing archaeological project in Kampsville, Illinois that became an incubator and training ground for a generation of procedural archaeologists. Standard archaeological field techniques, like flotation sampling for botanical remains, were developed here. 

Biological Anthropology’s new focus

During the 1970s, Jane Buikstra focused on human skeletal biology as a means to study prehistoric disease, nutrition and genetic relations. Her work was reinforced by the quantitative approaches of James Cheverud, Brian Shea and Donald Sade, who focused on primate skeletal evolution and behavior, as well as the mathematical anthropology of Malcolm Dow.

In 1996, the Department committed itself to rebuilding biological anthropology with a focus in human biology that would closely articulate with specialties in the other subfields. In February 2001 the department opened the Laboratory for Human Biology Research (LHBR), a state of the art laboratory for the study of human population biology (focusing on growth and development, nutrition, immune and reproductive function and work capacity). The lab supports primary research as well as the teaching/training of advanced undergraduate and graduate students.

The department today

Our current faculty continues to expand the Department’s strengths:

  • In the Americas, we have now established a concentration in urban United States (di Leonardo, Schwartzman, and Shankar) that complements our urban focus in Africa.
  • Economic anthropology (di Leonardo, Hansen, Launay, and Weismantel) continues as a strong concentration in cultural anthropology and links to our strengths in this area in other subfields, especially archaeology. Cultural anthropology faculty members (Aparicio, di Leonardo, and ShankarHansen, and Weismantel) focus on gender and race with a comparative perspective.
  • Northwestern archaeologists are studying the ancient Maya, the historic/colonial Caribbean (Hauser), and medieval and historical Europe (Johnson). 
  • We specialize in comparative study of complex societies with research covering the globe: North America (Brown), North Africa (Winegar), Mesoamerica (Robin) and Europe, South America and the Pacific (Earle). A focus on complex societies and urbanism, in subsistence and political economies, and in gender identity connect unusually well with the strengths of the other subfields. The Geography Program (Hudson) is embedded within the Department and provides key resources on environment studies, settlement patterns, geographic information systems, and map making.
  • Members of the Laboratory for Human Biology Research (Leonard, McDade, and Kuzawa) have ongoing research in Bolivia, Kenya, Siberia, Samoa and the Philippines. Work in urban US is beginning to develop.
  • A program in Linguistic Anthropology comprises graduate and undergraduate training.  Students working in this concentration have access to the Linguistic Anthropology Lab, the home for broader initiatives around campus and the Chicago area including a research workshop for advanced students and faculty.