Short Portrait: Adolf Bastian

Adolf Bastian
Adolf Bastian

Adolf Bastian was born in Bremen in 1826 and grew up in a wealthy family of merchants. He studied Law in Heidelberg as well as Natural Sciences and Medicine in Berlin, Jena, Würzburg and Prague.

After finishing his studies in 1850, Bastian began to work as a ship´s doctor. Within the following fifteen years he travelled not only to Australia, Peru, Mexico and China but also to India, Africa and Asia.

In 1860 Bastian began to publish books and articles on his travel experiences and field researches. Moreover, he became head chairman of the newly founded Ethnological Museum (formerly: Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde) in Berlin in 1868.

Bastian also began lecturing at the Friedrich-Wilhelm-University in Berlin. Since 1871 he held a full professorship and was the first academic anthropologist in Germany. His theories were based on the assumption, that all peoples share universal "elementary thoughts" but develop specific cultures due to differing environmental and historical circumstances.

Furthermore, Bastian founded the anthropological journal Zeitschriff für Ethnologie. Together with Rudolf Virchow, he also initiated the Berlin Society of Anthropology, Ethnology and Early History (Berliner Gesellschaft für Anthropologie, Ethnologie und Urgeschichte, BGAEU) in 1869.

Throughout the following twenty-five years Bastian did further journeys around the world in order to collect ethnological material for the museum in Berlin. During his life he not only spent many years traveling but published about 80 books and 300 articles.

Adolf Bastian died in Berlin in 1905.

(This text by Vincenz Kokot is based on Alsayad/Seiler (eds.) 2005: Ethnologen-Lexikon. Berlin: WeißenseeVerlag, by courtesy of WeißenseeVerlag and Sibylle Alsayad; photo source: