11 Oct 1874 (Köln) - 13 Sept 1934
Laufer was born into a wealthy Cologne family, with all the advantages thereunto appertaining. On their father's and mother's birthdays, the Laufer children would put on plays they had written themselves. Berthold was a great admirer of Shakespeare; he studied piano (his favorite composers were Beethoven, Mozart, and Liszt) and frequented the opera, these being further traits of 19th century life among the German elite: one thinks of the households of the Mendelssohns and the Rankes in Berlin. He was also fascinated by marionettes, a theme that would later run through his scholarly work. His father hoped for him a career in law or medicine (and his brother did become a physician, practicing as far away as Cairo), but Berthold had somehow determined instead on archaeology, and this the family finally accepted. The training was suitably arduous. Laufer spent 1893-1895 in Berlin, working on Buddhism under Franke, Chinese under Grube (who had been a student of Gabelentz at Leipzig), Malay under Gabelentz himself (he had come from Leipzig to Berlin in 1890), Tibetan under Georg Huth, a Leipzig graduate and a recent appointee at Berlin, and Japanese under Lange. During the second year (thus were resources divided in those days; see Eberhard) he studied simultaneously at the Seminar for Oriental Languages. His first publication, in three issues of his hometown newspaper (the Cologne Gazette for 1895), was a series of translations of "Japanische Märchen." Like Huth before him, he completed his Berlin work at Leipzig under Conrady and others, and from Leipzig, in 1897, he received his doctorate for a thesis critically analyzing a Tibetan text. In 1898 appeared a spate of publications in German periodicals, on such subjects as sources for Tibetan religion, the Tibetan language, Buddhist art, Indian fables in Mongolian versions, and the form of Mongolian folksongs. All this did much to advise the world of learning that a new recruit had arrived.
Morris K Jesup, who had made his million in railroad banking, had founded the American Museum of Natural History in 1869, and was himself its Director. Not content to wait for other people to donate their objects or report their discoveries, he organized and financed the expedition which under Peary's leadership reached the northenmost point in Greenland. That point was suitably named Cape Morris Jesup. He then switched oceans, to plan an ambitious expedition to study the Northern peoples on both sides of the North Pacific, with a view to clarifying possible early migrations, as well as learning more about those cultures in their present state. As Boas himself described it to the New York Times on 13 March 1897, when things were still in the planning stage:
There are few problems that are of greater importance to our knowledge of the early history of the American race than its relation to the races of the Old World.
The whole affair ran from 1897 to 1902, and publication of the results, many of them under the supervision of Boas, occupied the next three decades. Boas led on the Canadian side of the water, with a team including natives of the Northwest Coast cultures, some of whom he had previously trained in anthropology, and used as both collectors and informants. The core of the Museum's collection of Bella Coola, Kwakiutl, Nootka, and Tlingit artifacts, to name no others, was formed from the Boas results. The Asian portion lacked the services of the linguistic prodigy von Zach, who had been invited to participate. Instead, Boas invited Laufer, who accepted, leaving Germany in 1898. Laufer himself led the portion devoted to Sakhalin Island's Nivkhi (Gilyak), Evenk (Tungus), and Ainu peoples, and the Nanai (Goldi) and Evenk of the Amur region of Mongolia. Two Russian colleagues, who had turned to ethnography during a previous political exile in Siberia, led the remainder of the Asian investigations: Waldemar Borgoras studied the Chukchi and Yupik (Siberian Eskimos), and Waldemar Jochelson the Koryak, Yukaghir, and Sakha (Yakut). The result of all this was hundreds of boxes of artifacts, constituting what is still the most important collection for this area outside Russia.
Laufer's work for Jesup was concluded in 1899. Two years later, he led the 1901-1904 Jacob H Schiff Expedition, whose object was an investigation of history and ethnography in China. From this, Laufer returned to a position as Assistant in Ethnography at the American Museum (1904-1906). In 1905, not content with one set of duties, he also lectured in anthropology at Columbia, receiving a position as Lecturer in Anthropology and Eastern Asiatic Languages for the following year, 1906-1907. Academe however did not lure him from his museum prospects, and in 1908 Laufer went to the Field Museum in Chicago, refusing all subsequent offers (some at greatly increased salary) to move elsewhere. He had found his niche.
At Chicago, he again began with an expedition, leading the Blackstone Expedition to Tibet and China in 1908-1910, and in 1923 taking part in the Marshall Field Expedition to China. Among the results was an enormous amount of object culture, which back at the Field Museum it became his duty to catalogue and interpret. Amidst it all, his great pride was the Chinese jades, the subject of a still valuable book published in
- Kenneth Scott Latourette. Biographical Memoir of Berthold Laufer 1874-1934. National Academy of Sciences 1937. Contains portrait and bibliography.
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