International Encyclopaedia
of the Histories of Anthropology

Frobenius, Leo (1873-1938)

Coordinated by Hélène Ivanoff

Institut für Kulturanthropologische Forschung an der Goethe-Universität Frankfurt

Richard Kuba

Frobenius-Institut für Kulturanthropologische Forschung, Goethe-Universität Frankfurt

Leo Frobenius is one of the most famous German anthropologists of the 20th century and one of the first to make systematic field research in Africa. He was born in 1873, the son of a Prussian officer. He left school without any formal qualifications, but was inspired at a very early age by the great German explorers of Africa (Heinrich Barth, Gerhard Rohlfs, Gustav Nachtigal, Georg Schweinfurth), as well as the most important ethnographic museums of that time in Bremen, Basel and Leipzig; these were his real “universities”, at which he worked as a volunteer. When his lecture on African secret societies – rather unorthodox for his time – was rejected by a German faculty, he resolutely distanced himself from university life and went his own way. Aged just 25, in 1898 he published his first scientific work, “Origins of African Cultures” (1898), and in that same year, with only minimal funding, he founded a research institute for Africa, the Afrika-Archiv, in one modest room in Berlin, containing a library, quite remarkable for that time, and his own collection. There he developed an historical-cultural approach marked by diffusionism, the Kulturkreislehre or theory of cultural circles, which exerted an influence on German and Austrian ethnology for more than half a century. In 1904 Frobenius undertook his first research expedition, which took him to the Kasai region (Congo). This was followed without interruption until the beginning of the First World War by trips to West Africa, including Nigeria, the Sudan and the Maghreb. In 1920 the Afrika Archiv moved to Munich, where it became the Institut für Kulturmorphologie. Only after the move to Frankfurt in 1925 did Frobenius finally obtain a secure financial basis for his institute, which until then had been maintained mainly by occasional private sponsors. In 1932 he was appointed honorary professor at Frankfurt University and in 1934 became joint director of the Städtische Museum für Völkerkunde. In his years in Frankfurt he organized five more research expeditions to Africa (the Sahara, South Africa), focusing mainly on the documentation of rock art. Frobenius died in 1938 in Biganzolo (Lago Maggiore, Italy). Since 1945 the Institute has borne the name of its founder. Frobenius was one of the most influential and eminent ethnologists of his time, already intensely controversial during his lifetime. His collection of ethnographic data and oral traditions enjoys general recognition, as well as the comprehensive documentation of African rock art, in which he saw a kind of “Picture Book of Cultural History”. One of the first Europeans to do so, Frobenius recognized the historicity of African cultures. He thus became a principal reference for the protagonists of “Négritude”, who aimed at re-establishing the cultural self-awareness of African peoples.

Keywords: Evolutionism | Diffusionism | Collectors and collections | Ethnography | Ethnographic expeditions and missions | Scientific Expeditions | Fieldwork | Intermediaries | Guides | Interpreters | South Africa | Benin | Nigeria | Africa | Morocco | Algeria | Cameroon | Mali | Togo | Libya | Zimbabwe | Namibia | Beledugu | Egypt | Mandinka | Bambara | Ife | Cultural diffusion and migrations | Cultural circles/Kulturkreise | Cultural morphology | Colonial situation | Ethnographic Collections | Henri Breuil | Amadou Hampâté Bâ | Wole Soyinka | Yambo Ouologuem

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