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The Pitt Rivers Museum and Primitive Society

The Pitt Rivers Museum
C. R Hallpike
Written by C. R Hallpike

The anthropologist, Christopher Hallpike, argues here that recent changes in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford which are intended to undermine the concept of primitive society are contradicted by anthropological fieldwork, knowledge and theory.

Universities in the English-speaking world have not exactly distinguished themselves as defenders of impartial scholarship against the fashionable assaults of ‘wokery’ and political correctness. Professor Lawrence Goldman has delivered an excoriating critique of one such assault, that on the Pitt Rivers Museum of Oxford University, in his ‘A Breach of Trust in Oxford. The Pitt Rivers Museum and the Destruction of the Past’. As he rightly says, the aim of the new Director and her staff ‘…is to impose the nostrums of the present on the past, thus expunging earlier views of human history which are derided as racist, colonialist, sexist, ableist etc.’ While I entirely agree, Professor Goldman is an historian whereas I am an anthropologist, and my chief concern is the attempt by one of the greatest anthropological museums in the world to deny the ideas of primitive society and social evolution, key ideas of General Pitt-Rivers when he donated his ethnographic collection to the University.

In 2020 the Pitt Rivers Museum created something of a sensation by removing from display a number of tsantsa or shrunken human heads. In response to a storm of criticism in the media the Director of the Museum, Laura van Brockhoeven,  said that

‘…visitors often saw the Museum’s displays of human remains as a testament to other cultures being ”savage”, “primitive” or “gruesome”. Rather than enabling our visitors to reach a deeper understanding of each other’s ways of being, the displays reinforced racist and stereotypical thinking that goes against the Museum’s values today.’

This is part of a broader programme to ‘decolonise’ the Museum and remove displays that ‘reinforced stereotypical thinking about cultures across the globe that, as part of the colonial project, were seen as “primitive” or “savage”.’ A noticeboard in the Museum tells us that ‘Coloniality divides the world into “the West and the rest” and assigns racial, intellectual and cultural superiority to the West.

The problem with all this is that there really are primitive societies, we know a great deal about them, and they often treat the human body in ways that are very shocking to suburban Westerners. These are simply matters of fact with no connection to colonialism, racism, or sexism.

For example, I spent two years living with the Tauade of Papua New Guinea who traditionally had been cannibals, as they themselves told me. They used to wear bones through their noses, honoured their dead relatives by dancing with their bones in string bags, cut off their own finger joints in mourning, hung parts of deceased relatives round their necks, and kept rotting corpses on platforms in their hamlets. My principal informant gave me his grandfather’s skull as a leaving present. So why would a few shrunken heads have been out of place in such a culture? Rather than reinforcing racist and stereotypical thinking as the Director claims, the display of the heads would have introduced the Museum’s visitors to new ways of thinking about the human body and enlarged their conceptions of what it is to be human. Instead, the Pitt Rivers is busy creating a sanitised and false image of primitive culture, the very antithesis of what a museum is supposed to be for. How exactly does this ‘enable our visitors to reach a deeper understanding of each other’s ways of being’?

One may imagine the indignant reply ‘And just who are you to call any society “primitive”? Before the rise of political correctness there was general agreement among anthropologists, based on extensive fieldwork around the world, that primitive or tribal societies consist of small-scale and face-to-face communities, with subsistence economies and simple technologies, without writing, money, or centralised government, and organised on the basis of age, gender, and kinship ties. Before the rise of the colonial empires primitive societies were typical of Australia, parts of south-east Asia, Africa, and the Americas, but in some areas centralised states and literate empires developed, leading to the modern world of industrial civilisations.

The notion of ‘primitive society’ is also, therefore, an integral part of a social evolutionary scheme of things which comes to terms with the basic facts of history and ethnography. The idea of social evolution was not some crank enthusiasm of General Pitt Rivers, but a response to some of the most obvious features of human history and the findings of anthropology.[1] The idea has a long and complex history and at the present time is the subject of intensive debate in the biological and social sciences, in which it should be noted that the idea of race is totally absent.

The leading lights of the Pitt Rivers Museum, however, will have none of this:

Racialised hierarchies linked to intelligence, labour and gender have been a core part of the Pitt Rivers Museum from its founding. General Pitt-Rivers himself believed in social evolutionism, which identified universal evolutionary stages to classify different societies as in a state of savagery, barbarism, or civilization. European societies positioned themselves at the highest rank of civilization. [from Notice-board entitled ‘Hierarchy’]

In an age of relativism, the idea of social evolution is no doubt a bitter pill for many academics to swallow. An even bitterer pill for these academics is the very idea of colonialism, though they should at least admit that a period of colonialism was necessary to provide pre-state societies with the administrative, financial, technological, and educational institutions needed to function after independence as nation-states and allow the voices of their tribal peoples to be heard in the modern world.

It should be fairly obvious, then, that the theories of ‘coloniality’ as stated in the various notice-boards in the Museum, and the denial of primitive society and social evolution, are not contributions to the advancement of knowledge or to the public understanding of anthropology but simply the personal opinions of the Director and her staff, dogmatic statements of political beliefs unsupported by evidence or reasoned argument.


[1] C. R. Hallpike, The Foundations of Primitive Thought (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1979); C. R. Hallpike, The Principles of Social Evolution (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1986); C. R. Hallpike, Ethical Thought in Increasingly Complex Societies. Social Structure and Moral Development (Lexington Books, 2017)

Christopher Hallpike read PPE as an undergraduate in Oxford and then studied at Oxford’s Institute of Social Anthroplogy under E. E. Evans-Pritchard and Rodney Needham. He undertook fieldwork among the Konso in Ethiopia between 1965-7 and took his D.Phil degree in 1968. This was published by the Clarendon Press (an imprint of Oxford University Press) in 1972 as The Konso of Ethiopia. A study of the values of a Cushitic people. As a postdoctoral fellow at Dalhousie University in 1970–1972 he carried out fieldwork among the Tauade of Papua New Guinea. His account of this was published by the Clarendon Press in 1977 as Bloodshed and Vengeance in the Papuan Mountains. The generation of conflict in Tauade society. In 1978 he was appointed Professor of Anthropology at McMaster University, Ontario. A Bye Fellow of Robinson College, Cambridge in 1984–1985, 1988–1989, and 1992, he was awarded a D.Litt. by the University of Oxford in 1989 and is now Professor emeritus at McMaster.

Christopher Hallpike and the Pitt Rivers Museum:

In 1978 the Pitt Rivers Museum published Hallpike’s edition of the published and unpublished work of Beatrice Blackwood (1889-1975) as The Kukukuku of the Upper Watut. Blackwood was a longstanding member of the PRM staff and is currently the subject of a board erected in the Museum to honour women anthropologists. Blackwood is also the subject of an article in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. In 2011 Hallpike gave his substantial collection of photographs of the Konso and the Tauade to the Pitt Rivers Museum.

About the author

C. R Hallpike

C. R Hallpike

Christopher Hallpike is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at McMaster University, Ontario, Canada. His books include The Foundations of Primitive Thought, The Principles of Social Evolution, Ethical Thought in Increasingly Complex Societies, The Konso of Ethiopia, Bloodshed and Vengeance in the Papuan Mountains, and Do We Need God to be Good? He conducted several years’ fieldwork in Ethiopia and Papua New Guinea, and received a D.Litt from Oxford in 1989. He is also a sometime Bye Fellow of Robinson College, Cambridge.