Edward Burnett Tylor

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Sir Edward Burnett Tylor, D.C.L., LL.D., F.R.S. Born October 2nd, 1832, died January 2nd, 1917. By Sir C. Hercules Read, F.B.A.   

The death of Sir Edward Burnett Tylor has deprived the scientific world of a distinguished and rare personality, and the inspiration of his presence will long be missed in the special field that he had made his own. The loss is the more serious inasmuch as new blood is by no means too plentiful in the ranks of the younger men of science, an unfortunate condition at the very moment when the state of the British people, due to the war, will speedily demand just the qualities and experience to be found in the well-equipped anthropologist. In many ways Tylor’s career was characteristic of English methods, if one can so call the chain of accidents that finally culminated in providing Oxford, somewhat to her surprise, with a Chair and a Professor of Anthropology. He began life as an apprentice in the family firm concerned with a branch of engineering, but while still a boy his health showed signs of delicacy, and travel became a necessity. He thus found himself in the year 1856 in Cuba, having spent a year in the southern States. In Havana he met with “Mr. Christy,” and they arranged to travel together in Mexico. From this trip resulted the very entertaining volume, entitled Anahuac, published in 1861.

Modern readers would hardly know that this Mr. Christy was Henry Christy, the famous explorer, with Edouard Lartet, of the caverns of Dordogne, and the person who brought together the immense ethnographical collections now forming the greater part of those in the British Museum. Two men of such similar tastes could scarcely fail to be in sympathy, and on their journey Tylor gathered facts and laid the foundations for his future books, while Christy collected antiquities and the productions of the modern Mexicans to enrich his growing collections. Anahuac was followed in 1865 by Researches into the Early History of Mankind and the Development of Civilization, Here began the true anthropologist, and until one comes to deal with its successor, Primitive Culture, published in 1871, the reader would be surprised at the amount of keen observation and intelligent criticism of ethnological facts to be found in it.

When this last-named book is studied the reader quickly sees to what astonish¬ing lengths Tylor’s insight had carried him, during these years, towards the understanding and clear co-ordination of the beliefs and practices of primitive man. Though not the first man in Europe to deal with these problems, he certainly was the first to set them out in an intelligible and business like way. Anyone who has studied the writings of Professor Bastian, of Berlin, and will compare them with those of Tylor, will readily agree in this. The width of his reading, observa¬tion, and knowledge joined to this agreeable clearness in his written exposition made him easily the first of European anthropologists, apart from the physical aspect of mankind.

As a lecturer he was by no means so successful, it may be from the very richness of knowledge; the retirement of his study was the best incitement to precise expression. But his masterpiece of terse statement was undoubtedly the little manual on anthropology, first printed in 1881, but re-issued to meet the public demand at intervals in the following decade. It is a monument of the compression of a gigantic subject into the smallest conceivable compass, and in this sense is the result of all his previous more expansive writings. Without the concentrated though and lengthened experience obtained in much more voluminous productions, it may fairly be said that the smaller volume would have been an impossible achievement.

It is here, too, that he puts forward a justification for the study of anthro¬pology that deserves to be borne in mind by all of us who have become involved in its mazes. The very word is notoriously repellent to the lay mind, and I well remember Sir Michael Foster saying to me when I was President of Section H., at Dover, “The worst of you is that you include nearly everything.” It is true enough in a sense, but Tylor’s claim is that it simplifies the acquisition and understanding of knowledge, by showing the student the simple fundamentals of all human practices, and thus enabling him to disentangle the mystifying growths that subsequent ages have encouraged, and to see the primitive germ clearly before his eyes. A science (and anthropology has at last painfully become a science) that can do this deserves the gratitude of every student of human activities.

During practically all the period of its growth from a derided byway to truth, when men were groping somewhat blindly without knowing where they were being led, up to the present time, when its help and its decisions are invited by Governments, Tylor was in the forefront and kept a high standard before him and his contemporaries and his grateful disciples.

My first acquaintance with him was about the year 1871, when my duties and responsibilities were limited to the Christy Collection, then , in Victoria Street, Westminster, and here Tylor was not only a frequent visitor, but was also the means of adding to the collections. From that time to the end of his life our relations have been uniformly friendly and punctuated by the services, small or greater, that our respective positions enabled us to render each other.

The learned world was fully alive to Tylor’s merit, and Oxford bestowed upon him the honorary degree of D.C.L., and he was made an honorary Fellow of Balliol, while Cambridge conferred her D.Sc. at a later date. In my opinion, the event that gave him the greatest pleasure was his Oxford appointments, first Keeper of the University Museum, then Reader in Anthropology, and, finally, its first professor. It is to be hoped that Oxford will not allow him to be also the last. As Gifford lecturer he had a subject very much to his taste in the delivery of two series of lectures on natural religion. As President of the Institute he brought to bear upon our proceedings the accumulated experience and knowledge of an active life devoted to studies such as ours, while his distinguished presence and gentle manner made our meetings under his auspices both dignified and agreeable. It was a pleasant duty to his friends and fellow workers to band together to produce the volume of essays dedicated to him on his seventy-fifth birthday; these will remain as a monument of the affection that bound them to him when other schools of anthropologists will have arisen and will build on the foundations he has laid.   


This obituary first appeared as: C. Hercules Read. 1917. ‘Sir Edward Burnett Tylor, D.C.L., LL.D., F.R.S.’. Man Vol. 17, pp. 25-26. Reproduced with permission.


To cite this article:

C. HERCULES READ. 1917. ‘Sir Edward Burnett Tylor, D.C.L., LL.D., F.R.S. ‘. Man Vol. 17, pp.25-26. (available on-line: http://www.therai.org.uk/archives-and-manuscripts/obituaries/edward-burnett-tylor).


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