Foundations of Anthropology at the University of California   Seal of The University of California
Section 5 composite

Section 5 Composite
McCown, Mohave music, Waterman

Cultural Anthropology

ultural anthropology studies customs, behaviors, and social institutions, attempting to explain similarities and differences in culture through comparison. Such data are collected using ethnographic methods like participant observation and face-to-face interviews with people engaged in cultural practice. At the University, most early research effort within this field was confined to study of the native peoples of California. Believing that traditional California Indian culture was being lost with the growth of non-native populations in the State, faculty and graduate student research focused on collecting information and objects to document such things as social relations, kinship, religion, music, and material culture before traditions were gone. Working with native informants, the Department’s anthropologists compiled notebooks recording observations of all kinds. Photographs were taken to illustrate traditional villages, activities, and dress. Items such as clothing, baskets, and other utensils were collected for the museum. As the Department grew, areas outside of California came within the scope of cultural anthropology research, including Mexico, India, Africa, and the Pacific.

Alfred Louis Kroeber: Chimariko Notebook

Alfred Louis Kroeber

Chimariko Notebook


Boas placed ethnographic field research among the most important objectives of the new department. Kroeber initiated it immediately after his arrival in California, detailing impressive progress in his first annual report. This notebook records vocabulary of the Chimariko of northwestern California.

BANC MSS C-B 925 Ctn 9:7

Thomas Talbot Waterman and Alfred Louis Kroeber: Sketches and Notes on a Yurok Village

Thomas Talbot Waterman and Alfred Louis Kroeber

Sketches and Notes on a Yurok Village


Sketch maps such as these depict the layout of dwellings and other features of traditional native villages. At this Yurok village, specific households and structure names are identified, indicating the spatial relationships within the community.

CU-23.1 #75

Lila O'Neale: Notebook on Yurok/Karok basketry designs

Lila O’Neale

Notebook on Yurok/Karok basketry designs


Material culture was documented by ethnographers from both technical and aesthetic perspectives. For example, these sketches indicate the colors and design elements used by traditional basketweavers in northwestern California, while notes elsewhere in the notebook describe the manufacturing process. From these researches, O’Neale produced a highly regarded work, Yurok-Karok Basketweavers (1932), praised for its detailed description and analysis of native and non-native weaving techniques and design elements, and “the relationship between the weavers and their craft…. Such documentation makes the museum’s Yurok and Karok basket collection unique,” according to the Hearst Museum website.

CU-23.1 #1.3

Letter from Julian Steward to A.L. KroeberLetter from A.L Kroeber to J. Steward

Julian Steward

Letter to A. L. Kroeber

26 July 1928


Alfred Louis Kroeber

Letter to J. Steward

31 July 1928

"…as I work, I get more the feeling that the interest of the people lay in their close relationships to nature rather than social activities."

The seeds of ideas that became very influential in anthropological method and theory were born during graduate student research in the Department. This exchange of letters foreshadows Steward’s important contributions to cultural ecology. Responding to Steward’s observation, Kroeber writes:

“I like very much your idea of throwing special emphasis on the relations to the land. In a subsistence area like the one you are in it is bound to be a fundamental aspect of life.”

CU-23 Ctn 141

Alfred Louis Kroeber: Ethnographic Map of California Native Peoples

Alfred Louis Kroeber

Ethnographic Map of California Native Peoples


At the time the Department was founded, virtually no ethnographic or linguistic studies had been undertaken in California. By the 1920s, however, sufficient field work had been completed to describe the variety of native cultures and present a complex picture of linguistic diversity unlike that found anywhere else in North America. Kroeber presented this information, based primarily on the work of his faculty and graduate students, in his monumental work, Handbook of the Indians of California published by the Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution, 1925.

E51.U6 no.78

Anna Hadwick Gayton: Yokuts Notebook

Anna Hadwick Gayton

Yokuts Notebook


Genealogical information was often recorded to indicate relationships between people and explore the kinship structures of various cultures. Here, these relationships are indicated graphically in a kinship diagram, while the traditional names of individuals are recorded to the right. These data are from the Wobonuch, a Foothill Yokuts group.

BANC MSS 79/6 c

Robert Harry Lowie: Somerton, Arizona Notebook

Robert Harry Lowie

Somerton, Arizona Notebook

December 1921

While the bulk of ethnographic research undertaken by faculty and graduate students prior to the 1940s focused on California, some work was conducted elsewhere. For example, Lowie recorded information on cultural practices, myths, and vocabulary while in Arizona in 1921.

BANC MSS C-B 927 Ctn 5:1

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