NYU granted its first doctorate in anthropology in 1891, with a thesis on “Materialism,” and has followed by awarding degrees to many hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students since. “Anthropology and Ethnology” became a regular offering on Washington Square in 1908. Initially, every single course offered in the university’s joint Department of Sociology and Anthropology was taught by a single faculty member, Rudolph Binder. Only in 1920 did the department grow to two; Binder continued to teach the core anthropology offerings as well as lecture on the histories of civilization and religion. “Social Anthropology” made its debut as a graduate seminar (Binder again) in 1929; an undergraduate major in anthropology began to be offered on Washington Square in 1937.
Come 1957, two new anthropologists were hired: John Landgraf, a specialist on Borneo, and Joseph Bram, teaching on Europe. Bram and Landgraf were joined in 1960 by the department’s first African-American anthropologist, Elliot Skinner, who had received his BA from NYU. He offered courses on Africa and cultural theory, and later went on to become US Ambassador to Upper Volta. When Skinner moved to Columbia in 1964, he was replaced by the African-American anthropologist, Gloria Marshall, a specialist on Yoruba women who went on to become President of Lincoln University (under her later name, Niara Sudarkasa).
The first archaeologist, Jacques Bordaz, joined NYU in 1961, followed next by Bert Salwen and Howard Winters in 1967. Biological anthropology was launched with the arrival of Cliff Jolly in 1968. Linguistic anthropology was launched 20 years later with the arrival of Bambi Schieffelin in 1986, completing the department’s four-field profile.
Although taught by a growing cohort of faculty on both of NYU’s then-two campuses — University College, or “the Heights Campus” in the Bronx, and Washington Square College downtown — the program was greatly transformed when Anthropology was inaugurated as a stand-alone department in 1966. Until this time, the downtown wing was housed in what is now the Silver Building, and led all of the graduate teaching.
In 1966, Anthropology moved to 25 Waverly Place, a former hat factory built in the late nineteenth century by the same architects who designed the Guggenheimer Building on Broadway, which would later become NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Through the first decades of the twentieth century, Waverly Place from University Place to Broadway was the center of New York’s millinery trade. When NYU purchased 25 Waverly in 1952, the Bates-Thompson Hat Shop occupied today's first-floor conference room where generations of students have since taken seminars, and faculty have debated with each other in department meetings.
From the 1950s onward, 25 Waverly hosted the Courant Institute of Mathematics, and had its basement doubled in size to house what was then the world’s fourth UNIVAC (“Universal Automatic Computer”) for private research undertaken for the US Atomic Energy Commission. In the 1960s, 25 Waverly was home to the Department of Politics, having taken its name from Rufus D. Smith, a political scientist who served as the university’s provost.
To lead the new department in the mid-1960s, NYU recruited the Africanist John Middleton and appointed him Chair. Middleton had been offered a position at Yale at the same time as NYU, decided to accept both, and managed to lead the department while also teaching in New Haven for a full six years. The new cohort also included Eduardo Seda-Bonilla, the department’s first LatinX faculty member. Margaret Mead, one of the department’s consulting architects, joined NYU as a Visiting Professor for two years beginning in 1967. By 1970, the department had grown to 14 faculty. Conceived initially as a program in urban anthropology and museum studies — expressly drawing on the city around it — the department greatly expanded its range in subsequent decades.
Following Middleton, NYU recruited the biological anthropologist, John Buettner-Janusch, from Duke University, to become the department’s next Chair. Despite a distinguished career, Buettner-Janusch eventually became best known for his arrest over drug manufacture in the labs at 25 Waverly, followed by time in prison.
In response to this disruption, the Department returned to more solid ground when the distinguished feminist scholar Annette Weiner was recruited from UT Austin to become the third Chair in 1981. Best known for her ground-breaking work in the Trobriand Islands, on material culture and new feminist readings of anthropological classics, she went on to serve as Dean for the Social Sciences and Dean of the Graduate School. During her time as Chair, the Department grew in size of faculty, space, and range of interests, including joint appointments with other schools, departments, and programs—including Law, Medicine, American Studies, Asian/Pacific/American Studies, the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, Cinema Studies, Environmental Studies, French Studies, Middle East and Islamic Studies, Museum Studies, and Religious Studies—taking on much of the shape that currently defines it.
Over the years, the Department has grown in a number of important directions, with some key structural milestones.
• Annette Weiner’s longstanding interest in Visual Anthropology motivated her to develop this area for the department. In 1986, she hired Faye Ginsburg who created the Advanced Certificate Program in Culture and Media, established as a specialized stream for graduate students in Anthropology and Cinema Studies, enabling them to follow a unique curriculum encompassing a critical understanding of ethnographic and Indigenous media, anthropological research on media of all kinds, and the production of excellent documentary work, with support from the NYU Film School in the Tisch School of the Arts. Over 100 students have completed the Certificate along with their PhD, going on to outstanding careers in the academy as well as documentary and museum work. In 1993, with support from the Rockefeller Foundation and the UN Environmental Program, Ginsburg established The Center for Media, Culture and History, with visiting fellows and wide-ranging programming to enrich this departmental area. Additionally, the Center collaborates annually with the Margaret Mead Film Festival at the American Museum of Natural History.
• The Center for the Study of Human Origins (CSHO) was founded in 2002 to support and strengthen teaching and research in biological anthropology and archaeology. Additional faculty members were hired, increasing the number of faculty in these sub-disciplines from six to ten. The breadth of research interests expanded to encompass primate and human paleontology, skeletal biology, comparative anatomy, molecular primatology, population genetics, endocrinology, primate socio-ecology and conservation, paleolithic archaeology, zooarchaeology, the origins of symbolism, complex societies, and city-states. In addition to research and teaching, the Center organizes conferences, workshops, educational programs, and public outreach activities to promote a greater understanding and appreciation of the study of human origins.
• Recognizing a growing separation between academic and applied biological anthropology, as well as the opportunity to broaden the pathways to a PhD in biological anthropology, a rigorous, stand-alone MA program focusing on foundational training in Human Skeletal Biology was developed in 2003. Matriculating its first class in 2004, under the direction of Professor Susan Antón, the program includes intensive academic training with resource faculty throughout the tri-state area who offer applied internships in forensic anthropology and bioarchaeology. The more than 75 graduates of the program have gone on to PhD programs in biological anthropology or to work in applied settings including local, state, and federal forensic laboratories.
Other centers and institutes at NYU that have been formed by the work of our faculty include the Center for Religion and Media (2003), the Center for Disability Studies (2017), and the LatinX Project (2018).