Anthropology Ethnohistory and Historical Ethnography
Bronwen Douglas, Dario Di Rosa
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 March 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 March 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0240


This article situates ethnohistory historically, conceptually, methodologically, and geographically in relation to its intertwined “parent” disciplines of anthropology and history. As a named interdisciplinary inquiry, ethnohistory emerged in the United States in the mid-1950s in the “applied” context of academic involvement in Native American land claims hearings after 1946. However, anthropology (the science of humanity) has overlapped, intersected, or diverged from history (study or knowledge of the past) since becoming a distinct field in Europe in the mid-18th century and gradually professionalized as an academic discipline from the 1830s, initially in Russia (see Before Boas: The genesis of ethnography and ethnology in the German Enlightenment [Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 2015], cited under Anthropology and History). Anthropological approaches oscillated between historicization and its neglect or denial, with recurring tension between event and system, process and structure, diachrony and synchrony. In the late 18th and 19th centuries, ethnology (comparative study of peoples or races, their origins and development) was distinguished from the natural history of man and from anthropology (the science of race), initially in France. From the 1860s to the 1920s, Anglophone anthropological theory was dominated by the opposed doctrines of sociocultural evolution and diffusion—both superficially historical but largely ahistorical processes. For the next half century, prevailing functionalist, structuralist, and culturalist discourses mostly denied knowable history to ethnography’s purportedly vanishing “primitive” subjects. This uneven, agonistic disciplinary history did not encourage a subfield uniting anthropology and history. However, after 1950, in global contexts of anticolonialism, decolonization, and movements for Indigenous or egalitarian rights, anthropologists, historians, and archaeologists developed the hybrid fields of Ethnohistory and Ethnographic History, which flourished for half a century. Practitioners transcended ethnohistory’s spatial and conceptual roots in the United States and Canada to investigate Indigenous or African American pasts in Latin America and the Caribbean, Indigenous or local pasts in Africa, Asia, and Oceania, and non-Indigenous pasts in Europe and elsewhere. The need to incorporate Indigenous or popular histories and viewpoints was increasingly emphasized. From the 1980s, ethnohistory was condemned as Eurocentric, outdated, even racist, by postcolonial and postmodern critiques (see: The state of ethnohistory. Annual Review of Anthropology 20 (1991):345–375, cited under General Overviews). The label’s usage declined in the 21st century in favor of the already established terms anthropological history or historical anthropology, or the emergent fields of Anthropology of History, historical consciousness, and historicity.

General Overviews

Ethnohistory’s formal origins are traced to demands that US anthropologists present expert testimony before the Indian Claims Commission after World War II. With publication of the journal Ethnohistory (cited under Journals) in 1954, it became a named academic field combining ethnographic fieldwork with documentary, oral, and archaeological perspectives on Native American pasts. Most of the relatively few overviews available emphasize ongoing dominance of the Americas in ethnohistory’s total content, especially in Ethnohistory as surveyed in Riehm, et al. 2019. The field’s fragmentation and lack of a theoretical core shows in the absence of monograph-length overviews. Successive synopses of relevant literature and approaches in Sturtevant 1966, Cohn 1968, Carmack 1972, Trigger 1982, Krech 1991, and Harkin 2010 provide a cumulative summary, often with a sceptical focus on problems and deficiencies.

  • Carmack, Robert M. 1972. Ethnohistory: A review of its development, definitions, methods, and aims. Annual Review of Anthropology 1:227–246.

    DOI: 10.1146/

    Positions ethnohistory within British and US genealogies of relations between anthropology and history. Sceptical of ethnohistory’s theoretical weight and breadth to encompass anthropologists’ mixed recourse to history and limits it to a subfield of anthropology with eclectic methods for diachronic study of past cultures using documents and oral traditions. Available online by subscription or purchase.

  • Cohn, Bernard S. 1968. Ethnohistory. In International encyclopedia of the social sciences. Vol. 6. Edited by David L. Sills, 440–448. New York: Macmillan.

    Fine assessment of history and anthropology’s mutual embrace by a historical anthropologist of colonialism in India. Details ethnohistory’s precursors, origins, methods, and first two decades, including parallel emergence and development beyond the United States after World War II, in places with and without long literary traditions.

  • Harkin, Michael E. 2010. Ethnohistory’s ethnohistory: Creating a discipline from the ground up. Social Science History 34.2: 113–128.

    Surveys anthropology’s labile relationships with history; ethnohistory’s North American emergence and development from the 1940s as an empirical field distinct from anthropological history or historical anthropology, its subsequent broadening theoretical and geographical ambit, and its growing sensitivity to Indigenous history and historicity. Available online by subscription or purchase.

  • Krech, Shepard, III. 1991. The state of ethnohistory. Annual Review of Anthropology 20:345–375.

    DOI: 10.1146/

    Detailed bibliography and critique by the editor (from 1983 to 1992) of Ethnohistory (cited under Journals) of ethnohistory’s precursors, diverse manifestations, theoretical positions, and alleged state of “crisis.” Questions ethnohistory’s legitimacy, given its “exclusionary,” “tribal” connotations, neglect of “indigenous historiography,” and increasingly blurred boundaries between the parent disciplines. Available online by subscription or purchase.

  • Riehm, Grace E., Lydia Brambila, Brittany A. Brown, et al. 2019. What is ethnohistory? A sixty-year retrospective. Ethnohistory 66.1: 145–162.

    DOI: 10.1215/00141801-7217401

    Surveys trends in 900 articles published over six decades in Ethnohistory (cited under Journals), including a growing focus on Latin America from the mid-1980s; limited attention to places beyond the Americas; and ongoing emphasis on historical documents and ethnographic data over archaeological, linguistic, or oral materials. Available online by subscription or purchase.

  • Sturtevant, William. 1966. Anthropology, history, and ethnohistory. Ethnohistory 13.1–2: 1–51.

    An anthropologist’s dated exposition of presumed conventional differences between anthropology and history, their shared interests, and interplay as ethnohistory. Stresses the reciprocal importance of ethnographic fieldwork and historical documentary critique. Available online by subscription or purchase.

  • Trigger, Bruce G. 1982. Ethnohistory: Problems and prospects. Ethnohistory 29.1: 1–19.

    DOI: 10.2307/481006

    A Canadian archaeologist’s review of ethnohistory in North America, noting increasingly vocal Indigenous perspectives on their own pasts. Sees ethnohistory not as a separate discipline limited to nonliterate peoples, but as a methodology to study cultural change, demanding critical integration of archaeological, ethnological, ethnographic, and historical materials. Available online by subscription or purchase.

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