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BEROSE ENCYCLOPAEDIA

Best, Elsdon (1856-1931)

The amateur ethnographer Elsdon Best (1856-1931), a man from New Zealand’s Frontier and a major representative of the salvage paradigm at the turn of the 20th century, is an essential reference in Maori studies. Influenced by divergent currents, from evolutionism to comparative mythology, he is especially interested in so-called pre-colonial spirituality and it is through his work that Marcel Mauss was led to discover the famous concept of hau. Best mastered the vernacular language, which he introduced extensively into his writings. In the 1890s, he undertook a delicate ethnographic mission to Urewera, a mountainous territory that was considered culturally preserved. The result was a colossal monograph: Tuhoe, Children of the Mist, the manuscript of which dates back to 1907. Best held a position at the Dominion Museum in Wellington from 1910. This new stage of his life, also marked by an abundant production of monographs and articles covering a wide variety of Maori cultural and historical themes, is still closely linked to the Polynesian Society, of which he became president in 1922.

Keywords: Evolutionism | Comparative mythology | Amateur ethnographer | Ethnography | Salvage ethnography | Colonialism | Second half of the 19th century | First half of the 20th century | Polynesia | New Zealand/Aotearoa | Polynesian studies | Maori | Mythology | Religion | Historical legends | Cultural diffusion and migrations | Vernacular archives | Myths | Oral tradition