Between Anthropology and History

In the 1940s, the term ethnohistory came into frequent use as a reference to the writings of anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians on the history of North American Indians. Ethnohistory developed at a time when anthropologists as well as historians were increasingly interested in what the other discipline had to offer. The French Annales School of history (that coalesced around the scholarly journal Annales d'histoire économique et sociale in the early 20th century) brought anthropological and sociological concerns to the discipline of history. This method differed from thinkers who followed Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard, an English social anthropologist who pioneered a current within British social anthropology that emphasized the importance of history. An increased interest in historical sources stemmed from the belated realization that changes in Native cultures could no longer be kept out of ethnographic descriptions. Indeed, many early ethnohistorical studies were guided by the concept of acculturation. To answer more effectively some of the archaeologists' questions concerning Indian prehistory, they began exploiting the potential of the "direct historical approach," as formulated by American anthropologist Julian Steward in 1943, to start from the present and work "upstream" through time with the aid of documentary sources.

The American Society for Ethnohistory, which has published the journal Ethnohistory since 1954, has provided a forum for the discussion of the nature, definition, methods, and aims of the approach. Ethnohistory is not a discipline, but rather a set of methods that combine the diachronic dimension of history and the concepts of anthropology to investigate the past of peoples usually studied by anthropologists. Scholars increasingly stipulate that ethnohistorical studies should draw on as wide an array of sources as possible. Whereas many early ethnohistorical studies relied almost exclusively on written sources, oral sources are more widely taken into account. Researchers increasingly rely on data from archaeology, material culture, maps, photographs, language, sound recordings, and other ephemeral material.

The notion of ethnohistory itself has been criticized, chiefly because it might perpetuate an ethnocentric distinction between the study of literate and nonliterate societies. Indeed, the authors of many publications that focus on the past of Native peoples do not consider their writing as ethnohistorical. In an essay for Annual Review of Anthropology, Shepard Krech admitted that the corpus of publications, which he collectively calls ethnohistory, is comprised of a variety of genres, ranging from descriptive historical narratives to theoretically oriented analyses, the more positivistic of which deal with ecology and (political) economy, and others with ideational and emic aspects of cultural change (Krech, 1991). Bruce Trigger, who has written extensively on its nature and methods, remarks that ethnohistory as applied to the study of Native Americans peoples implicitly recognizes that these people do have a history. Trigger's argument represents a positive departure from the opinion, oft expressed by anthropologists and historians, that small-scale exotic societies resist change and experience time as cyclical, and that modifications in their way of life can in most cases sufficiently be explained by external factors such as long-term environmental change.

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