Short Portrait: Karl von den Steinen

Karl von den Steinen
Karl von den Steinen

 Born March 7, 1855 in Mülheim an der Ruhr, with two-year-old was motherless and was raised by his grandparents. At 17 he began his University studies in medicine at the universities of Bonn, Zurich and Strasbourg, obtained at age 20 his graduation (Dr. Med in 1875). He Specialized in psychiatry in Vienna and in 1878 he went to work at the Charité - University Hospital Berlin.

Eager to expand his knowledge on mental deficiency, he made his first study trip, visiting nursing homes in "civilized countries" between 1879 to 1881. On the trip to Hawaii (Honolulu), he met the Doctor, Naturalist and Ethnologist Adolf Bastian who quickly introduced him to ethnology and aroused his interest in ethnology and during von den Steinen’s trip to Solomon Islands he collected various objects.

Between 1882-1883, most likely by the influence of Bastian, von den Steinen participated as physician and zoologist in German Polar Expedition in South Georgia. After the end of this expedition he chose not return to Germany and he went straight to Montevideo (Uruguay). In 1884, he made his first trip to sub-tropical forest of Brazil. Explored the headwaters of the Xingu river, a tributary of the southern Amazon. Departed from the city of Cuiabá, he went down the Xingu river by the source to the river mouth, going to the city of Belém in Pará State, north of Brazil, subsequently he went to Rio de Janeiro where he was received by the Emperor of Brazil. On this trip he devoted himself to linguistic studies of the native peoples of the region. He returned to Germany only in January 1885 when he sold to the Museum of Ethnology in Berlin his collection of ethnological objects for the Ethnological Museum in Berlin. Published the results of this expedition in 1886, the book entitled: Durch Central-Brasilien.

In 1887, he made his second trip to Xingu region dedicated specifically to ethnographic studies. There he described the region, the "forest people", their habits, their languages and collected several objects to the newly created Museum of Ethnology of Germany. The success of this trip, it was widely celebrated in Berlin, and Karl von den Steinen quickly became "a star in the sky of ethnology." The University of Halle (MLU) conferred him the title of Doctor Honoris Causa and he still was elected by the Geographical Society of Berlin to be its second president. Among such activities, in 1894 published his extensive research "Unter den Naturvölkern Central-Brasiliens" and in 1893 was hired by the Museum of Ethnology in Berlin.

His last research trip was made in 1897-1898, when he spent six months in the Marquise Islands (now French Polynesia). In 1899, He qualified to assume the professorship in ethnology (habilatition) - Friedrich-Wilhelm-Universität with the theme: "Erfahrungen zur Entwicklungsgeschichte des Völkergedankens". Two years later, in 1891, he became associate professor in Philipps-Universität zu Marburg. In the early twentieth century, began to share the position of professor at the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Universität zu Berlin and Head of Collections of South America in Ethnographic Museum in Berlin in 1904.

At age 51, in 1906, he retired from all professional activities and began to devote himself as a private scholar. In the same year became comparative ethnographic studies ethnographic museums in Europe and the United States. On November 4, 1929 dead at the age of 74 in Kronberg im Taunus.

Text written by Eduardo Henrique Barbosa de Vasconcelos – History Professor – State University of Goiás (Brazil) in June 2013, based on:
COELHO, Vera Penteado. Karl von den Steinen: um século de antropologia no Xingu. São Paulo, SP: Edusp: FAPESP, 1993.
BROGIATO, Heinz Peter . Karl Von den Steinen. In: Thomas Adam, ed. Germany and the Americas: culture, Politics and History. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2005.
NEUMANN, Rosane Márcia. Uma Alemanha em miniatura: o projeto de imigração e colonização étnico particular da Colonizadora Meyer no noroeste do Rio Grande do Sul (1897-1932). Faculdade de Filosofia e Ciências Humanas, PUCRS, Porto Alegre, 2009,
Von den Steinen, Karl (1855-1929). Universitätslehrer, Museumsdirektor, Privatgelehrter. In:

(text by courtesy of Prof. Eduardo Vasconcelos, History Professor at the State University of Goiás (midwest region of Brazil), April 2013. photo source: