Aleš Hrdlicka

American physical anthropologist Aleš Hrdlička (1869-1943) made important contributions to the study of human origins and variation, as well as playing a major role in shaping the professional contours of the discipline in the United States.

Aleš Hrdlička was born in Humpolec, Bohemia (now the Czech Republic), on March 29, 1869, the first of seven children born to Maximilian and Koralina (Wagner) Hrdlička. In 1881 the family moved to the United States, settling in New York City, where young Hrdlička completed his secondary education and in 1889 began his medical studies at the New York Eclectic Medical College. On graduating with honors from this school in 1892 he entered general practice on the Lower East Side, while at the same time continuing his medical education at the New York Homeopathic College (1892-1894).

In 1895 he secured a position as a junior physician at the State Homeopathic Hospital for the Insane at Middletown, New York. It was while in this position that he became interested in the application of anthropometry to medicine, and as a direct result of his researches at the Middletown asylum he was invited in 1896 to join a multi-disciplinary team being assembled to staff the newly created Pathological Institute in New York City. Under the direction of the neurologist and histochemist Ira Van Gieson this institute had been charged with the task of investigating the "modus operandi" of insanity. To prepare for this work, Hrdlička spent the winter of 1896 at the Ecole de Medécine in Paris studying anthropology under Léonce Manouvrier, who exerted an important and enduring influence on his intellectual development.

Hrdlička remained at the Pathological Institute until 1899, when he was invited by Frederic Ward Putnam to join the Hyde Expeditions of the American Museum of Natural History as a "field anthropologist." In this capacity Hrdlička conducted four intensive surveys among the Native Americans of the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico between 1899 and 1902. A summary of these and later surveys (1903-1906) can be found in his monograph Physiological and Medical Observations among the Indians of Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico (1908). In 1903 he was selected to head the newly created Division of Physical Anthropology (DPA) at the National Museum of Natural History (Smithsonian Institution) in Washington, D.C., a position he held for the next 40 years.

During his tenure at the National Museum, Hrdlička built the DPA into a major research center housing one of the finest human osteological collections in the world. He also did much to promote physical anthropology as a legitimate academic discipline in the United States. In this regard, he endeavored to organize the then-nascent profession along the lines Paul Broca had taken French anthropology. Although his ambition of founding an American Institute of Physical Anthropology was never realized, he did succeed in launching the American Journal of Physical Anthropology in 1918 and the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in 1930, both of which were fundamental elements of his particular vision of the future of American physical anthropology. He also did much to promote physical anthropology in his native country. Besides making substantial donations that launched and sustained Jindrich Matiegka's journal Anthropologie (published at Charles University in Prague until 1941), he donated money to the Czech Academy of Arts and Sciences for the exploration of prehistoric sites in Moravia and also to Charles University for the foundation of the Museum of Man that is now named in his honor.

Throughout his long career Hrdlička received many awards and honors which indicated appreciation for his prodigious labors in the discipline. He was elected to membership in the American Philosophical Society in 1918 and in the National Academy of Sciences in 1921 and served as president of the American Anthropological Association (1925-1926), the Washington Academy of Science (1928-1929), and the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (1930-1932). He was also a recipient of the prestigious Huxley Medal (1927).

Although Hrdlička's research interests ranged over almost every aspect of modern physical anthropology, the primary focus of his scientific endeavors was on the question of the origin and antiquity of the American aborigines. He commenced this work with an exhaustive study of all the available evidence attributed to early humans in North and South America, the results of which are summarized in two major publications: The Skeletal Remains Suggesting or Attributed to Early Man in North America (1907) and Early Man in South America (1912). These studies indicated the presence of only anatomically modern humans in the Western hemisphere, which led him to reject the view that the Native Americans had either evolved in the New World or had entered the continent in early glacial or preglacial times. Following this he began orchestrating evidence to support a case for hominid origins in the western sector of the Old World and the subsequent peopling of the New World from Asia during the late Pleistocene-early Holocene period.

It was Hrdlička's growing conviction that anatomically modern Homo sapiens had been derived from a basically Neanderthaloid population that had initially been restricted to Europe and Africa. As these early transitional hominids spread slowly eastward across the Old World, Hrdlička contended, they became separated into a number of discrete geographical breeding units that led to their subsequent differentiation into the various racial groups that characterize the modern human family. He first presented an outline of this hypothesis in a paper presented to the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia in 1921, under the title "The Peopling of Asia" (Proceedings, American Philosophical Society, 60 [1922]). This period of Hrdlička work culminated with the delivery of the 1927 Huxley Memorial Lecture in London in which he summarized his arguments for a "Neanderthal Phase of Man" (Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 57 [1927]), and the subsequent publication of his now classic work, The Skeletal Remains of Early Man (1930).

After 1926 Hrdlička pursued evidence to document the thesis that the first Americans had entered the New World from Asia. His work in the Yukon and Alaskan coast (1926-1930), Kodiak Island (1931-1935), and the Aleutian and Commander Islands (1936-1938) is summarized in two posthumously published volumes: The Anthropology of Kodiak Island (1944) and The Aleutian and Commander Islands and their Inhabitants (1945). One of the main objectives of his work in the Commander and Aleutian islands had been to investigate the possibility that they had served as stepping stones from Kamchatka to the American mainland. Excavations proved, however, that the Commanders had been uninhabited in pre-Russian times. Thus, on the basis of this negative evidence, he concluded that the earlier and later inhabitants of the Aleutians must have entered these islands from Alaska. After 1938 he had intended to initiate a program of research on the Siberian mainland in an effort to prove the Asiatic origins of the American aborigines. These plans, however, were scotched by the outbreak of World War II. Hrdlička died of a heart attack at his home in Washington, D.C., on September 5, 1943.

Further Reading on Aleš Hrdlicka

For further biographical details see Frank Spencer, Aleš Hrdlička M.D., 1869-1943: A Chronicle of the Life and Work of an American Physical Anthropologist (2 volumes, 1979); and Frank Spencer and Fred H. Smith, "The Significance of Aleš Hrdlička's "Neanderthal Phase of Man: A Historical and Current Assessment" in American Journal of Physical Anthropology (1981).