Cultural Anthropology

Biography William Halse Rivers Rivers



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William Halse Rivers Rivers started out as a doctor who studied the nervous system and psychology. As a professor for St. John's college at Cambridge University, he became interested in the study of people and how they related to one another. His main focus became the study of anthropology as a science. While doing field work, he came up with the genealogical method, which was his contribution to anthropology and the key anthropological issue of the video.

In 1898, Rivers joined an expedition in the Torres Straights, which is between Australia and New Guinea. Headed by Alfred Cort Hatton, they studied the mental characteristics of the islanders. Rivers studied their vision and color perception. He discovered that the perception of color differed from village to village but remained the same in families. To research the names of colors, he started to gather genealogies of the villagers. This lead to the genealogical method.

Rivers compared the number of human cultures to the number of animal species. Rivers claimed that human cultures were disappearing faster than species on earth, therefore, he wanted to make record of them before they disappeared. He made records of their rituals and songs, their string games, and how they fished, and he also mapped their genealogy. These rituals and techniques faded away after the "white man" offered seemingly better alternatives. He was also amazed at how they could remember the names of their ancestors with great accuracy and how they could memorize complex string games for a primitive people. During his research, he discovered how people were related to each other biologically and socially.

After leaving the Torres Straights, Rivers went to Egypt to study sensory perception cross-culturally. He met Elliot Smith who developed diffusionism, a theory that humans started out in Egypt and diffused to every part of the world.

From Egypt, Rivers went to southwest India in 1901 to study the Todas for five months. He was merely an observer, always staying close to other white men while studying the people. The Todas intrigued Rivers because they were so different than their neighbors. They wore different clothes and had different customs from the others. Their dairyman was also their priest and only men could handle their semi-wild buffalo. The dairies were viewed as temples. They owed their creation to Tarkesh, a goddess, which was the way all the Todas were united.

The most interesting aspect was that the Todas women often had more than one husband, known as polyandry, and married outside of the group, known as exogamy. This was so two families could merge into one. Brother's shared wives and their marriages were arranged as children. When the wife had a child, there was no way to tell who was the biological father, so the female chose which husband would be the father and raise it as his own. A woman could have sexual relations with any of her husbands, recognized lovers, or even the dairymen. There is no word for adultery in their language and it is not viewed as immoral. It was not that the Todas did not have any morality regarding sexual relations, they just had an alternative view. Today, the Todas do not practice polyandry as a result of the knowledge gained from the "white man."

Rivers left India and went to Melanesia and Polynesia to conclude his studies. He finally went back to Europe to study psychology. After World War I, he studied Shell-shocked victims and concluded that "the mind was as damaged as the brain" from the war. A new systematic and analytical scientific approach was introduced to anthropology by Rivers through his years of research. In 1922, Rivers died at the age of 58.

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