4 - Tylor, Edward Burnett (1832-1917)

Date Range1832 - 1917

Tylor and the Westlake Collection

Edward Burnett Tylor is known as the ‘father of anthropology’; the only anthropologist in the nineteenth century to devote his career to the discipline. He was the first Keeper of the Pitt Rivers Museum from 1884 to 1891, and held the first Chair of Anthropology at the University of Oxford from 1896. Tylor also provided anthropology with its first definition of culture in his celebrated 1871 book, Primitive Culture:

‘Culture or Civilization, taken in its wide ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society’ [1.1].

Such an all-encompassing definition allowed culture to become the single distinguishing quality of the human species, a quality, within Tylor’s understanding, governed by evolutionary principles. By studying cultures within a comparative, global, framework, Tylor ‘allowed ethnology to inform the study of prehistory’ [Cove 1995, 61].

Tylor's interest in Tasmanian stone culture was pivotal to the fascination scientists have long since held with the Tasmanian Aboriginal people. Tylor first saw a Tasmanian stone implement in about 1860, when a scraper was presented by Mr. Thomas Dawson to the Somerset Archaeological Society in Taunton, close to Tylor's home. It was from this one stone artefact that Tylor asserted in 1865 that ‘the Natives of Van Dieman's Land, whose dismal history is closing in total extinction, are among the lowest tribes known to Ethnology' [Tylor, 1964, 195].

Twenty-five years later the Taunton Scraper, as it became known, was still the only Tasmanian stone implement available to Tylor. It featured in the first edition of Henry Ling Roth’s The Aborigines of Tasmania (1890) for which Tylor wrote a preface, restating his opinion that the Tasmanians illustrated man ‘near his lowest known level of culture’; less advanced than early Stone Age Europe.

By 1893 Tylor had acquired a much larger collection of Tasmanian implements. He explained in his paper, ‘On the Tasmanians as Representatives of the Palaeolithic Man’ that ‘a number’, had been sent by Mr. Alexander Morton of the Tasmanian Museum, while a ‘general collection’ of about 150 implements had been received from W. L. Williamson [images 1-23, WEST00017, 'Correspondence to Edward Burnett Tylor: August 1893 - October 1898', Series 2, Pitt Rivers Museum Manuscript Collections, Westlake Papers].

Despite his larger collection of Tasmanian stone artefacts, Tylor’s 1893 paper, as the title suggests, only confirmed his conclusion drawn from the Taunton Scraper. It was this conclusion that Joseph Paxton Moir of Hobart, a Hobart amateur stone tool collector, attempted to challenge in correspondence dating from 1898 and 1906 [WEST00018, WEST00019 and WEST00020, 'Correspondence to Edward Burnett Tylor: August 1893 [to] 1906', Series 2, Pitt Rivers Museum Manuscript Collections, Westlake Papers].

Sending specimens, drawings, essays and lengthy descriptions, Moir’s careful letters persistently drew Tylor to one main argument: that the Tasmanians’ cultural status should not be regarded as too low. He agreed that the Tasmanians were Palaeolithic, but came late in the epoch, and were in fact ‘on the eve of the Neolithic Age’ [WEST00018, Letter to Edward Burnett Tylor from Joseph Paxton Moir, 21 March 1899, 'Correspondence to Edward Burnett Tylor: December 1898 - July 1900 (and a draft response)', Series 2, Pitt Rivers Museum Manuscript Collections, Westlake Papers]. He explained a reason for his commitment to his thesis: ‘because I am a white Native of Tasmania and wish justice done to my black brothers’ [WEST00019, Letter to Edward Burnett Tylor from Joseph Paxton Moir, 12 May 1905, 'Correspondence to Edward Burnett Tylor (and a draft response): October 1900 - May 1905', Series 2, Pitt Rivers Museum Manuscript Collections, Westlake Papers].

In early 1899 Tylor wrote to Henry Ling Roth and told him of Moir’s findings, in particular Moir’s ‘duck bill’ scraper’. Roth responded to Tylor: ‘I the dark as to what the Tasmanian could have used a duck bill stone for’ [WEST00018, Letter to E. B Tylor from Henry Ling Roth, 13 February 1899, 'Correspondence to Edward Burnett Tylor (and a draft response): October 1900 - May 1905', Series 2, Pitt Rivers Museum Manuscript Collections, Westlake Papers]. But the second edition of The Aborigines of Tasmania included four new plates illustrating stone implements collected by Moir, among them a duck bill scraper. Tylor wrote in the new preface that the Tasmanian stone tools showed the ‘ seen in neolithic work’ [Roth 1899, 145, viii].

Tylor presented one of Moir’s letters within a paper to the Royal Anthropological Institute in 1900 and, five years later, wrote to Moir how he hoped to include some of his findings in his next book, Growth and Spread of Culture [WEST00020, Draft letter to Joseph Paxton Moir from Edward Burnett Tylor, 25 July 1905, 'Correspondence to Edward Burnett Tylor (and some draft responses): July 1905 - August 1906', Series 2, Pitt Rivers Museum Manuscript Collections, Westlake Papers]. Illness hampering his progress, however, this last treatise was never published (Stocking, in Tylor 1994, xxiii-xxiv, explains that Tylor’s final treatise was to be based on the Gifford Lectures he presented in 1889 and 1890 and published in 1907). Among rough manuscript drafts in the Tylor Papers in the Pitt Rivers Museum an opening chapter entitled: ‘The Eolithic Age and [the] Tasmanians’.

It seems the Taunton Scraper had continued to captivate Tylor. In 1905, H. St George Gray, curator of the Taunton Museum, wrote to Charles Read, Keeper of the British Museum on 29 April 1905, that Tylor ‘never comes here (and he is often here) without asking to see our Tasmanian implement’. It seems Tylor had returned not merely to his earlier findings, but ultimately shared, if unwittingly, Westlake’s theory of the Eolithic Tasmanians.

ReferencesFull references are available in the Bibliography included in this Guide:

John J. Cove, 1995

Chris Holdsworth, 2004

Rhys Jones, 1971.

Ian J. McNiven and Lynette Russell, 2005.

Tim Murray, 1992.

Henry Ling Roth, 1890 and 1899.

Edward Burnett, Tylor 1964 (first edition 1865), 1871,1893, 1900 and 1994.

Rebe Taylor, 2004.

Correspondence to Charles H. Read, Assistant Curator, British Museum from H. St George Gray, Assistant Curator, Somerset Archaeological Society, 24 February 1905, 14 April 1905 and 29 April 1905 Prehistory and Europe Archives, British Museum.

Published by the The University of Melbourne eScholarship Research Centre and the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, August 2010
Listed by Rebe Taylor, with Michael Jones and Gavan McCarthy
HTML edition
Updated 14 February 2017

The template for this finding aid is part of the Heritage Documentation Management System

[ Top of Page | Home | Series | Provenance | Search ]