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Excavation of Tres Zapotes Monument D, 1939.

Bureau of American Ethnology

Matthew Stirling and Tres Zapotes Monument G. Tres Zapotes, 1939. stirling_19. Photograph by Richard H. Stewart, National Anthropological Archives
Matthew Stirling and Tres Zapotes Monument G. Tres Zapotes, 1939. stirling_19. Photograph by Richard H. Stewart, National Anthropological Archives

The Smithsonian Institution was established by an act of the United States Congress in 1846, and was endowed by the English scientist James Smithson, whose mandate was "to increase and diffuse knowledge." Three decades later in 1879, Congress established the Bureau of American Ethnology, (BAE) as an official research arm of the Smithsonian to study the culture and history of the native peoples of North America. The first chief of the Bureau was Major John Wesley Powell, a veteran of the Civil War, who was also the first American to navigate the entire length of the Colorado River.

In 1879, Congress appropriated $20,000 for the Bureau to prepare and publish the series called Contributions to North American Ethnology under the aegis of the Smithsonian Institution. The BAE was given the responsibility of conducting "anthropologic researches among the North American Indians" at a time when many tribes were undergoing rapid and substantial change. BAE anthropologists, archaeologists and linguists traveled throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean to study and record the culture and history, as well as to collect the material culture of native peoples. Most of the pioneering work in linguistics, archaeology and ethnology was performed by BAE staff, who greatly expanded the knowledge and understanding of the native cultures of this continent.

This monumental task lasted nearly a century and played a defining role in the development of American anthropology as a discipline. One result of this effort is the enormous ethnographic and archaeological collections made by the Bureau, which now form part of the Department of Anthropology's collections and encompass more than 2 million objects. The BAE's written record is also exceptional, including several hundred volumes on a broad range of subjects, cultures and regions. In-depth documentation, through text and illustrations, of the culture, linguistics and history of Native America is of a kind and caliber rarely seen today. The importance of this material is evident in the reprinting of numerous selected papers by both the Smithsonian Institution Press (in its series Classics in Smithsonian Anthropology) and other presses as well. The two-volume Handbook of American Indians originally published by the BAE at the beginning of the 20th century has evolved into a twenty volume Handbook published over the past two decades by the Smithsonian Institution.

Matthew Stirling was one of the last chiefs of the Bureau of American Ethnology, as it was incorporated into the Department of anthropology in 1965.

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