Short Portrait: Otto Zerries

Otto Zerries
Otto Zerries

Otto Zerries was born in Pforzheim on July 27th, 1914. There he spent his childhood and youth. His father was an architect.

Zerries finished school in 1934. Due to "reasons of race" his school principal tried to prevent Zerries plan to study Anthropology, but the influence of Zerries father succeeded.

The same year Zerries took up his studies in Frankfurt/Main, at the Institute for Cultural Morphology (also see glossary for Kulturmorphologie), which later became the Frobenius-Institute. Moreover, Zerries took part in research expeditions to Northern Africa. In 1936 he took up a student assistant position and in 1939 he finished his Ph D thesis.

Zerries had to participate in World War II and eventually became a prisoner of war. After being in a detention camp in the egyptian desert, Zerries was disbanded in 1947. He returned to Frankfurt, where he took up an assistant position at the Frobenius-Institute and began lecturing. Between 1950 and 1952 he also held a lectureship at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Frankfurt University.

In 1954/55 Otto Zerries and Meinhard Schuster did a research trip to Venezuela, where they collected ethnographic data on the Waika people. After his return to Germany, Zerries became head of the America-Department of the Munich State Museum of Ethnology in 1956.

In 1961 Zerries finished his habilitation thesis at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich. During the following years he did further research trips, leading him to Mexico and Columbia. Besides his position at the museum, Zerries took up a professorship at the Institute for Ethnology and African Studies in 1967. A year later he also was head of the international congress of americanists in Stuttgart and Munich.

In 1970 Zerries did a research trip to Peru. Throughout the following years he kept lecturing at the university and worked in the museum, where he organized a number of exhibitions (e.g., on ancient american art of the Peru/Mexico-region).

Otto Zerries retired in 1979 but not only kept giving lectures for another decade but also was involved in further exhibition projects. He died on May 4th, 1999.
(Text written by Vincenz Kokot in January 2012, based on BAA Prof. Riese; photo by courtesy of Siegfried Seyfarth)