||Ethnohistory (Greek, â€˜research into communitiesâ€™) usually refers to the history of nonliterate peoples. It may also be used to describe the method of combining anthropology and the study of people\'s historical representations through their oral traditions, or the re-evaluations of documents produced by travellers, missionaries, conquerors or colonialists commenting on other societies.
Clark Wissler first coined the term in 1909 as a synonym for documentary. It came into anthropological usage, with its present associated meanings, in the 1950s. Prior to this, British anthropologists had concentrated on how societies functioned as social systems in the present. This in turn was a reaction to earlier anthropologists fallaciously speculating on how societies evolved from the past.
However, Edward Evans-Pritchard\'s 1950 paper reproached contemporary anthropologists for neglecting history altogether. He commented on the need to integrate a â€˜goodâ€™ history into anthropological approaches. Both disciplines contained fundamental similarities, since both history and anthropology were about interpretations and translations of individual and social practices removed in either time or space. Together, they provided the means for a wider and dynamic field of enquiry; their combination would help to form a fuller picture of â€˜the thoughts of living menâ€™ in their interpretations of their pasts and the way they distinguish between different types of pasts such as â€˜mythâ€™, â€˜legendâ€™, â€˜historyâ€™, â€˜factâ€™ and â€˜fictionâ€™. It would act to correct the fallacy of the â€˜ethnographic presentâ€™ which described the tendency to portray communities living in a static and timeless place. The misleading idea that â€˜primitiveâ€™ communities only undergo change with European contact would also be undermined.
One major problem with Evan-Pritchard\'s directives was that the kind of â€˜goodâ€™ history he was proposing sought to construct the kind of chronology of events typical in the West. Other senses of how events are constituted and how the past is conceptualized may show a different pattern, incompatible with this model. For instance, the Australian aborigines\' version of history as expressed in their â€˜dreamtimeâ€™ narratives, for example, is very different to chronological views of history, yet it is no less significant to the Aborigines\' sense of reality and values.
Some anthropologists have considered the way constructions of the past relate to the individual\'s or community\'s identity and interests in the present. A history may be constructed to fulfil such aims. Therefore, instead of asking how the past leads to the present, anthropologists ask how the present creates the past. Linked to this view are concepts about the person, space and time, religious views and how different or rival versions of the past relate to economic or political competition in contemporary times. RK
See also diffusionism; ethnicity; evolutionism; Marxist anthropology; myth; Orientalism.Further reading Bernard Cohn, An Anthropology among the Historians; , Edward Evans-Pritchard, Anthropology and History; , Elizabeth Tonkin (ed.), History and Ethnicity (1989).