Short Portrait: Leonhard Schultze-Jena

Leonhard Schultze-Jena
Leonhard Schultze-Jena

From 1912 onwards he added "Jena" to his last name. Zoologist, Geographer, Philologist. Born Jena (Germany) 28 may 1872, died Marburg (Germany) 28 march 1955. Leonhard Schultze Jena was born into an academic family of high status in Jena. He started with studies in medicine in Lausanne, Kiel and Jena, and switched to biological sciences and chemistry after receiving his first medical degree ("Physikum"). In 1896 he successfully concluded his university education with a D.Sc. in zoology from Jena university.

Schultze Jena's career is exceptional in that he consecutively worked in four distinct scientific fields, namely zoology, where he got his first employment as assistant under Ernst Haeckel [1834-1919] including oceanographic studies in southern Italy and Sicily, did field studies in marine fishing and physical anthropology in South Africa, was professor of geography from 1908, first in Jena, later in Kiel, where he was also head of the ethnographic collection, and from 1913 until retirment in 1937 at Marburg university. He worked in non-European philology studying Melanesean and Mesoamerican languages, to the latter of which he made his major contributions. The regions of his anthropological field-work were also exceptionally divers: South Africa (1903/05), New Guinea (1910/11), Europe (1915/19, 1922, 1951), and Mesoamerica (1929/31).

Clearly, Schultze Jena's major anthropological contributions lay in the study of languages, in the recording and translation of indigeneous religious texts, and ethnographic study of rituals. This inclination materialized first with his study of a Melanesian language based on his own fieldwork ( "Zur Kenntnis.. Tumelo"), and reached a climax in his three volume "Indiana" publication where he presents studies of the following Mesoamerican languages: Mixtec, Tlapanec, Nahua, Pipil and Quiché, and which includes important ethnographic observations as well. After his retirment, Schultze Jena continued his philological work with translations and editions of early colonial Mesoamerican Indian literatures, all published as monographs in the series "Quellenwerke.." founded by his friend Walter Lehmann [1878-1939] at the Iberoamerikanisches Institut in Berlin. Of these, the Popol Vuh, published in 1944 [2nd edition 1972], stands out, due to Schultze Jena's intuitive comprehension of the Quiché text based on his own linguistic and ethnographic field-work, the analytical dictionary, and an excellent German translation, which is not even surpassed by later Guatemalan and North-American editions (e.g. Adrian Recinos' of 1953, Munro Edmonson's of 1971 and Dennis Tedlock’s of 1985).

Schultze Jena's later editions of Nahuatl texts, mainly from the corpus of the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún [1499-1590], are not as reliable, since Schultze Jena lacked first hand experience with that language, which he learned from documents only at a rather advanced age. However, for several years, they were the only modern editions and translations of those important sources. His anthropogeographic study of the Balkan ("Makedonien") is important too, since it thoroughly documents this South European region in a decisive epoch (1915/22) of political and social change. Schultze Jena's scholarly production was exceptionally massive and steady. Over an active life-span of 50 years he published 10 book-size monographs.

(text by courtesy of Berthold Riese; photo source:

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