Leo Frobenius and German Ethnography

Leo Frobenius

Leo Frobenius

On June 29, 1873, German ethnologist and archaeologist Leo Viktor Frobenius was born. He proposed a theory that culture evolves through stages of youth, maturity, and age. He helped to spread knowledge of West African art and culture throughout Europe. He made a series of twelve major expeditions throughout Africa, gathering knowledge of art and culture, travelling across the deserts, savannahs and rain forests of Africa and South Africa, the River Nile and the shores of the Red Sea.

Leo Frobenius’ first expedition took place in 1904. He traveled to the Kasai district in Congo, formulating the African Atlantis theory during his journeys. The theory is a now-discredited hypothetical civilization thought to have once existed in southern Africa, initially proposed Leo Frobenius around 1904. This lost civilization was conceived to be the root of African culture and social structure. Frobenius assumed that a white civilization must have existed in Africa prior to the arrival of the European colonisers. Until 1918 he travelled in the western and central Sudan, and in northern and northeastern Africa. In 1920 he founded the Institute for Cultural Morphology in Munich. In 1932 he became honorary professor at the University of Frankfurt, and in 1935 director of the municipal ethnographic museum.

During the late 1890s, Frobenius defined several ‘culture areas‘, being cultures showing similar traits that have been spread by diffusion or invasion. He established the term paideuma, trying to describe a manner of creating meaning, that was typical of certain economic structures. Then, it was attempted to reconstruct some kind of world view of hunters, early planters, and builders.

During the first World War, Frobenius traveled with the German army for scientific purposes in Romania. Frobenius‘ team performed archeological and ethnographic studies and documented the ‘daily life’ of the inmates of the Slobozia prisoner camp. Later, Frobenius taught at the University of Frankfurt and the city acquired his collection of 4700 prehistorical African stone paintings. The local institute of ethnology where the paintings are currently stored was named the Frobenius Institute in his honour in 1946.

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