Short Portrait: Konrad Theodor Preuss

Konrad Theodor Preuss
Konrad Theodor Preuss

Anthropologist, Historian of Religions ("Religionswissenschaftler"). Born in Preußisch-Eylau/Ostpreussen (today: Bagrationowsk/Russian Oblast Kaliningrad) 2 June 1869, died in Berlin  8 June 1938. Preuß was educated as a school teacher, and through additional studies got a Ph. D. in "Völkerkunde" in 1894 from Königsberg University. From 1895 until the end of his life he was employed at the Berlin Ethnographical Museum. His first field research (1905/7) was done among Mexican Indians (Cora, Huichol, Mexicano). The results were published during his lifetime an posthumously in part only (1912, and edited in 1968- by Elsa Ziehm [1911-1993), due to a second field trip to Colombia in 1913/19, during which he did archaeological investigations of the San Agustín culture and ethnographical fieldwork among Uitoto, and Kágaba indians.

Three sizeable publications were the outcome of his Colombian years. His field methodology encompassed long-term residence among the groups studied and a focus on oral lore recorded and later published in the indigeneous languages. In following these principles Preuß was far ahead of his time and most of his fellow ethnographers. His conception of primitive religon for which his fieldwork served as empirical background, started off with criticism of Edward B. Tylor's [1832-1917] theory of animism, for some time followed Lucien Levy-Bruhl's [1857-1939] theory of the primitive mind, and proceded to the theory of a primeval "Hochgottglaube" (belief in a high god) along the lines of Andrew Lang [1844-1912] and the "Wiener Schule" (Wilhelm Schmidt [1868-1954] and Wilhelm Koppers [1886-1961]).

Although important at his time, these and Preuß' own contributions to the theory of religion are now considered obsolete. His "Habilitation" under Eduard Seler [1849-1922] in 1921 opened University teaching for him. However, he was not an inspired teacher. Later during his life Preuß focussed on early colonial pictorial and textual sources from Mexico in the Nahuatl language which he considered major ethnographic sources worth publishing, translating and commenting as he had done earlier with his own field recordings. Most of these studies were co-authored with Ernst Mengin [1893-1973]. They stimulated greatly subsequent ethnohistorical studies in Mexico and Germany.

Preuß' editorship of the political controversial Lehrbuch für Völkerkunde (1937) was formal only, since the original editor, Leonhard Adam [1891-1960], being a "non-Aryan", was not permitted to appear as such in the imprint in Nazi Germany.

Preuss died in 1938,

(text by courtesy of Berthold Riese; photo source: