The Zero Anthropology Project

Webfolio for Maximilian C. ForteZERO ANTHROPOLOGY PROJECT






This is an edited and abridged version of an an article that appeared on Zero Anthropology.

SIR DANIEL WILSONWhen it comes to anthropology, Canada is the home of a number of “firsts”. The first courses in anthropology offered in any university in the world, were offered in Canada: they were taught by Sir Daniel Wilson at the University of Toronto (Van Esterik, 2006, p. 261)—in the photo at right. Daniel Wilson was also the world’s first professional, university-based anthropologist (Hancock, 2006, p. 36). The first PhD in Anthropology in all of North America was earned by A.F. Chamberlain, a Canadian (Cole, 1973, p. 40).

HORATIO HALESir Daniel Wilson—as Canada’s and the world’s first university-based professional whose teaching, research, and writing focused on explicitly anthropological topics—was responsible for first developing the very topics of Canadian anthropological study. Both Wilson, and then Horatio Hale (portrait, left) soon after, pioneered an intellectual tradition that was in some ways a precursor to what developed later in the US (thanks to Franz Boas who worked under Hale in Canada), but also remained relatively unique.

One can only guess what Canadian anthropology would have been, had there been continuity in development building on the foundations laid by Wilson and Hale. We might be exactly where we are today, where anthropology in Canada is largely an import shaped by professionals who were either trained in the US or the UK, and where many of the teaching materials are similarly imported. Another possibility is that Canadian anthropology would have been present in universities, but not as a distinct discipline that occupied space in the form of departments. This essay builds on the second vein.

Theoretical Foundations of a Canadian Anthropology

Some of the key theoretical developments common to Wilson and Hale include: a non-racist and a non-linear theory of cultural change; cultural relativism; and, a multi-field approach (that included linguistics and archaeology). In addition, the Canadians were deeply embedded in public communications, would frequently address public audiences at schools, libraries, museums, or in the press, and in this sense they innovated a form of “public anthropology” before the phrase even existed. Neither of them practiced anthropology as a “discipline”: at the University of Toronto, courses in ethnology were offered in a variety of programs, while Hale did not work in a university setting.

If we were to summarize their innovations, we would have the following as a rough list:

  • The term “prehistory” was first coined by Daniel Wilson (Cole, 1973, pp. 33, 35).

  • Daniel Wilson did not accept the idea of either unilineal or unidirectional evolution (Trigger, 1966, p. 13); Hale; rejected evolutionary stage theory (Cole, 1973, p. 39).

  • Daniel Wilson argued that it was possible for a society to pass from a more advanced to a more primitive state, thus breaking with the teleology of cultural evolutionism (Trigger, 1966, p. 13). Things could indeed fall apart.

  • Daniel Wilson rejected the theory that one could explain cultural and even linguistic differences in terms of racial variation (Trigger, 1966, p. 21).

  • Daniel Wilson demonstrated that cranial capacity did not provide a gauge of intellectual capacity, countering the assumptions of early physical anthropology (Cole, 1973, p. 35).

  • Daniel Wilson argued that “primitive peoples” have the same intellectual capacities as “civilized” peoples, “and he refused to consider the state of a culture’s development to be an indication of the intellectual ability of its members” (Trigger, 1966, p. 12).

  • What came to be known elsewhere as “cultural relativism” was developed first in Canada, in the works of both Wilson and Hale (Trigger, 1966, p. 14; Cole, 1973, p. 39).

  • There was a strong critique of racism as found in the American School of Ethnology, by Daniel Wilson (Trigger, 1966, p. 15); Horatio Hale likewise criticized ethnocentric prejudice, at a time when such prejudice was a foundation of British and US ethnology (Cole, 1973, p. 39).

SIR DANIEL WILSONOne might speculatively extrapolate from these foundations. To begin, their rejection of the kind of progressivist, liberal, “cultural evolutionism” that has dominated mainstream political and economic thought in North America, would have directed Canadian anthropology to reject modernization theory and neoliberalism. Canadian anthropology would have had nothing to do with “development studies”. Canadian anthropology would have been equally inclined to reject “peace-building,” the “responsibility to protect,” “humanitarian intervention,” and “democracy promotion”—key ideological supports for imperialist policies of regime change and de facto recolonization.

Paternalistic and ethnocentric approaches to international affairs, which involve the “most developed” extending a “helping hand” to speed up the “least developed” in “bridging” the “gap” in consumption, governance, and so on—would have been tossed out by Canadian anthropology, at the very least for being unscientific. Likewise, the notion of “American exceptionalism” would have been torn asunder by Canadian anthropology. It is fundamentally an expression of progressivist, ethnocentric prejudice.

Second, Canadian anthropology would not have allowed for the race-fixation that has become dominant in the US. The incessant racialization of analysis of social relations would thus have found no fertile ground for development in Canadian anthropology, nor the competitive identity politics that play a central role in neocolonial/neoliberal divide-and-rule strategies.

Third, Canadian anthropology would not have developed separate from other disciplines—since it would not have been a discipline itself. It would have instead become a fertile field for combining the methods and insights of a wide range of intellectual endeavours, all driven by a basic aim of explaining how human societies come together in given places and times, how they cohere and fall apart, and how members of many different national societies interact in creating new societies. Hale, and Wilson especially, were interested in issues of cultural transplantation, hybridization, and demographic migration—the kinds of large-scale processes that have historically been brought about as a result of the work of empire.

“what kind of anthropology is there,
that is even worth having?”

The questions, the topics, the concerns would have been of the “biggest” kind, particularly following Wilson—anthropology would have leaned more toward the nomothetic side (for more, see this and the other article on the ZAP site). Certainly the study of empire would have been particularly welcome in a Canadian anthropology that was interested in understanding and explaining the forces at work in shaping human lives, human social orders, and human futures. Imperialism has been the largest-scale force responsible for undoing, repacking, and reinventing societies, how they are governed, what they produce and why they produce certain products, and for significantly affecting the quality of human lives. Without such an interest, what kind of anthropology is there that is even worth having?

The Parameters of a Canadian Anthropology

The shape of Canadian anthropology, on the foundations laid by Daniel Wilson, had at least the six following, and very notable features:

  1. Multi-disciplinarity: Canadian anthropology did not originate as an independent discipline in universities. It was always, from its earliest beginnings, part of a field of inquiry conducted by persons in multiple disciplines. Even when institutionalized in universities, Canadian anthropology was housed in multi-disciplinary schools of social science, and to this day about a third of all anthropology programs in Canada remain wed to sociology.

  2. Public communication: Wilson, Hale, and their contemporaries saw their teaching mission as extending to public lectures in schools, museums, and seminaries. They sought out the press. This was done as if a normal part of the routine, which upsets any preconception of the Canadian university as either always or only an “ivory tower” institution. Canadian anthropology was a public mission.

  3. History—the Long-Term: Wilson’s work shows a keen interest in grasping large sweeps of time, in seeing cycles where others saw unidirectional progress. This interest in rise and fall is also well suited to the study of empires.

  4. Large spaces, large movements—the Large-Scale: Wilson’s focus on the encounters of large masses of different peoples, brought from different continents, complimented his interest in long time frames.

  5. No kinship: Kinship was not a subject of concern to Wilson. Instead, as was convincingly explained by Adam Kuper, the lead historian of British anthropology, kinship took shape as a subject of concern to a particular, Victorian English social class. There is nothing “universal” about the origins or applicability of this interest.

  6. Independent of the US: Wilson asked his own questions, and developed his own ways for answering them. This was done by remaining largely out of communication with US and European anthropology.

From the above, we can distil a number of key lessons for the development of an intellectually independent, non- or anti-imperial Canadian anthropology.

Practical Foundations for the (Re)Development of a Canadian Anthropology

We know a number of things about the working lives of Daniel Wilson and Horatio Hale, that would seem to furnish clues about their intellectual development. For example:

  • Wilson particularly, and to some extent Hale, either had strained or distant relationships with their US counterparts (Trigger, 1966, pp. 23, 26).

  • There was, at best, a remote connection to European intellectual currents of the time (Trigger 1966, p. 23).

We are essentially dealing with two issues: localization and innovation, occurring together. How can this be achieved? From the examples of Wilson and Hale, the following interpretations might provide some guidance:

(A) Distance from origins: though both Wilson and Hale were schooled in Europe and the US respectively, they also grew apart from those original experiences, with both time and distance, until they were no longer in the mainstream of circulating currents in those places.

(B) Filtered memories: with time, what was once very influential in one’s intellectual formation, can become rarely revisited sediment, or it can even be lost.

(C) Aberrant mutations: mutations perform a vital role in any evolutionary process. There can be epistemic mutations as well, that thrive in isolation, especially given free space in which to grow. Dialogue is very important, but so is a period of silence. Silence can perform a role similar to radioactivity, in transforming ideas that were barely held consciously and which suddenly come to the fore in a new shape.

(D) Relative isolation: neither Wilson nor Hale were formed in isolation from the centres of learning. However, they both matured in later years apart from such centres. This may not have caused them to think independently, but it was certainly present in the process.

(E) Instability, chaos, upheaval: both Wilson and Hale underwent some difficult separations and transitions, finding themselves in unfamiliar surroundings, far from home, yet making a new home for themselves. Hale married a Canadian, integrated into his community, and immersed himself in local research. Wilson’s mind shifted from Scotland to Aboriginal North America. Their life experience would have taught them to take little for granted and to see stability as only momentary and fragile. Such life experiences work against the ossification of thought, against the comforts of hegemonic knowledge, against disciplinary doxa.

(F) Charismatic idiosyncrasy: to fashion a new program of teaching and research, to give it both institutional form and make it a subject of public fascination, requires a certain amount of courage. Published research on Wilson and Hale frequently alludes to their idiosyncratic qualities, the strong nature of their individual personas, and their tendency to launch themselves into the public arena as educators.

“a Canadian anthropological approach to
the study of empire and the human condition”

Hopefully, with what has been outlined above, it might now be clearer why the “slogan” of Zero Anthropology is, “a Canadian anthropological approach to the study of empire and the human condition”. Another way of seeing it is, in the wry words of a colleague: “a tradition that isn’t one”.


Cole, Douglas. (1973). “The Origins of Canadian Anthropology, 1850-1910”. Journal of Canadian Studies, 8, 33–45.

Forte, Maximilian C. (2017). “Canada, First in Anthropology”. Zero Anthropology, July 3.

————— . (2014). “Anthropology: The Empire on which the Sun Never Sets (Part 1)”. Zero Anthropology, May 16.

Hancock, Robert L.A. (2006). “Toward a Historiography of Canadian Anthropology”. In Julia Harrison & Regna Darnell, (Eds.), Historicizing Canadian Anthropology (pp. 30–43). Vancouver: UBC Press.

Nock, David. (2006). “The Erasure of Horatio Hale’s Contributions to Boasian Anthropology”. In Julia Harrison & Regna Darnell, (Eds.), Historicizing Canadian Anthropology (pp. 44–51). Vancouver: UBC Press.

Trigger, Bruce G. (1966). “Sir Daniel Wilson: Canada’s First Anthropologist”. Anthropologica, 8(1), 3–28.

Van Esterik, Penny. (2006). “Texts and Contexts in Canadian Anthropology”. In Julia Harrison & Regna Darnell, (Eds.), Historicizing Canadian Anthropology (pp. 253–265). Vancouver: UBC Press.


Image: Sir Daniel Wilson, and an extract from one of his letters. Created by Maximilian C. Forte using materials in the public domain.



© 2011-2020, Maximilian C. Forte.