When did "paleoanthropology" get its name?

A reader asked me this morning when the word "paleoanthropology" first came into use. I happen to be on an OED kick lately (for reasons that will soon become apparent), so let's see what it has to say.

For paleoanthropology, the OED (online edition) gives the first recorded English use by J. Dieserud in 1908:

The term ethnology for the study of human varieties, historic as well as prehistoric,..expressly connects archaeology, not including paleo-anthropology (or paleo-ethnology..) with ethnography (Dieserud 1908:12).

This is somewhat unsatisfying. Dieserud wrote from the point of view of a librarian, trying to classify the subject matter of anthropology (Braunholtz 1943). He made "paleoanthropology" one of the main classifications, so this is an important reference for the word -- indeed the book is cited throughout the first half of the 1900's as a basis for the inclusion of various areas into the subject matter of anthropology. But if a librarian could write about paleoanthropology in 1908, it stands to reason that the word had been coined much earlier.

A report on the Paris Exposition in 1889 includes "paleoanthropology" as part of an exhibit (including "prehistoric skulls and skeletons") under the direction of the Society of Anthropology of Paris (Regents of the Smithsonian Institution 1891:657). The International Congress of Anthropology and Prehistoric Archaeology of Paris, 1889, included an address titled, "Paleoanthropologie" by Paul Topinard (Wilson 1891:767-768):

Dr. Topinard delivered a most interesting address, entitled "Paleoanthropology." He said that the congress was interested in prehistoric anthropology as in prehistoric archeology. There was a paleoanthropology as a paleoethnography [sic]. The former required the services of a naturalist and anatomist; the latter required the ethnographer and the archeologist. The excavator serves to unite the two former, as the traveler serves to unite the two latter. It is because of, or by means of, this link that the work of the one is rendered beneficial to and aids the other. It is exceedingly rare that the anatomist is an explorer. For every one competent archeologist there are a hundred amateur excavators. The latter interest themselves but slightly over the human remains. Museums and private collections are gorged with industrial and artistic objects of prehistoric man, but are almost entirely without any of his remains. He lamented these gaps in the means of our information, and was much impressed with our poverty in this regard when he came to make an inventory of our knowledge concerning the ancient races of man.

I have not yet found another reference to the word before Topinard, and I have not found it in any of his books. It is possible that he or Broca came up with the term; but I wouldn't be surprised if a reader knows of an earlier usage. I first thought of Haeckel -- who was a great coiner of words from Latinate roots -- but I haven't found it in any of his major works. Darwin never used the word (and used "anthropology" only rarely).

Whatever its origin, the professional use of paleoanthropology and paleoanthropologist (including their British variants with the palaeo- prefix) followed the discovery of significant hominid samples early in the twentieth century. Gorjanovic-Kramberger used the word in his Krapina monograph, dated 1906: "Der diluviale Mensch von Krapina in Kroatien. Ein Beiträg zur Paläoanthropologie." Hrdlicka used the term as early as 1912 in his book "Early Man in South America."

The term seems to have been firmly established by the late 1930's. According to the OED, by 1934, the word paleoanthropologist was defined in Webster's, and in 1937 it was used in a Life magazine article about Peking Man. On the other hand, professionals employed it sparingly until the 1940's, when suddenly it springs up everywhere, in particular by Weidenreich (1947), Montagu (1947), Movius (1948), and Straus (1949). And it appears in the title of Wilfred Le Gros Clark's 1955 textbook, The Fossil Evidence for Human Evolution: An Introduction to the Study of Palaeoanthropology (University of Chicago Press, Chicago).

The discoveries of the 1930's, reported in the 1940's, no doubt inspired by Ann Miller's study of paleoanthropology in the 1949 film, On the Town.


Braunholtz HJ. 1943. Anthropology in theory and practice. J Roy Anthropol Inst G Br Ireland 73:1-8.

Le Gros Clark, W. 1955. The Fossil Evidence for Human Evolution: An Introduction to the Study of Palaeoanthropology. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Dieserud J. 1908. The scope and content of the science of anthropology. Historical review, library classification and select, annotated bibliography; with a list of the chief publications of leading anthropological societies and museums. Kegan Paul, Chicago.

Weidenreich F. 1947. The trend of human evolution. Evolution 1:221-236.

Straus WL, Jr. 1949. The riddle of man's ancestry. Q Rev Biol 24:200-223.

Montagu MFA. 1947. Comments on Weidenreich's paper concerning the origin of Homo sapiens. Am Anthropol 49:686-689.

Movius HL, Jr. 1948. The Lower Palaeolithic cultures of Southern and Eastern Asia. Trans Am Phil Soc 38:329-420.

Regents of the Smithsonian Institution. 1891. Annual report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution, Showing the Operations, Expenditures, and Condition of the Institution for the Year Ending June 30, 1890. Government Printing Office, Washington DC.

Wilson T (ed.) 1891. General notes: Archaeology and ethnology. Am Naturalist 25:764-770.