Anthropologists study people throughout the world, their evolutionary history, how they behave, adapt to different environments, communicate, and socialise with one another (Royal Anthropological Institute 2017). They do so with a scientific interest, they look to understand the people they are studying and look only to understand. There are no ulterior motives in true anthropology and they do not strive to change their research subjects in anyway. Bernardino de Sahagún has often been called the “First Anthropologist” for the work that he did studying the natives of Central America. While Bernardino de Sahagún should be recognized for his contributions to the field of anthropology and our understanding of Central America before the Spanish conquest, giving him the title of “first anthropologist” goes too far given his study’s evangelical motivations.
Born in 1499, Bernardino de Sahagún grew up and spent the first third of his life in Spain. He studied at the University of Salamanca which at the time was a “principal center of culture in Western Europe” (Leon-Portilla 2002). At the University he joined the priesthood and in 1529 he set sail with a group of Franciscan monks for the New World. Less than a decade after Cortes’ conquest the land of New Spain was filled with conflict when he arrived. During the early part of his time in the New World, he demonstrated a talent for learning native languages and worked at the Imperial College of Santa Cruz in Tatelolco instructing natives in a variety of different subjects. It was there that he trained his main collaborators who would assist him in the creation of a number of works about the people of Central America before the Spanish conquest. In 1547, he undertook his first research endeavor collecting 40 Huehuetlahtolli which were orations from the pre-Spanish literary tradition. His research efforts continued to expand until 1558 when he began his general study of New Spain which would led to the creation of the Historia General otherwise know as the Florentine Codex (Leon-Portilla 2002).
The Historia General is an incredibly important text for which Bernardino de Sahagún has received a number of accolades and acknowledgements. It is one of the few texts that describes life in Central America before the Spanish Conquest in great depth. In The True History of Chocolate, the Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe (2013, 65-66) argue “Fray Bernardino de Sahagún [is] rightly held by many in the anthropological profession to have been the world’s first field ethnographer.” Stuart B. Schwartz (2000, 24-25) points out “The Florentine Codex has been called one of the greatest ethnographic works ever.” The below is a statue erected to de Sahagún in Hidalgo, Mexico. There is also a statue of him in his hometown in Spain. These statutes illustrate the high levels of praise Bernardino de Sahagún has received for his work in New Spain.
Among the number of biographies written about Sahagún, he has been called “the creator of anthropological research methodology” (Leon-Portilla 2002, citing D’Olwer) and “one of the high points of Spanish science” (Leon- Portilla 2002, citing Graibrois). Leon-Portilla’s (2002) biography is even called Bernardino de Sahagún: First Anthropologist.
While Bernardino de Sahagún’s work deserves many accolades, the claim that he is the “first anthropologist” goes too far. The explicit motivations for his study run counter to the central goals of anthropology as a science. He embarked on this research to learn as much as he could about the “idolatrous, human, and natural things” of New Spain (Leon-Portilla 2002, 133) in order to make evangelizing the natives of New Spain easier. Anthropology at its core is focused on understanding for understanding’s sake. De Sahagún’s project was focused on understanding with the aim of changing and eradicating. Leon-Portilla (2002, 133) admits this saying “it would be wrong to postulate that he was moved primarily by what we would qualify as scientific interest.”
The evangelizing goal of de Sahagún’s mission is indisputable. In the prologue to the first book of the Historia General he says that Fray Francisco de Toral ordered him to conduct and complete the work. The evangelizing mission is not about celebrating or understanding another culture or group of people. It is about changing a group of people’s beliefs and way of life.
The above link shows a clip from the 1986 movie The Mission which is about 18th Century Spanish Jesuit Missionaries in South America (Joffe and Bolt 1986). In this clip the natives are shown singing and chanting songs they have been taught by the missionaries. This is a dramatic representation of the missionaries’ tendency to encroach into the lives they are interacting with rather than just observing and understanding.
Bernardino de Sahagún should be acknowledged for this contributions to the world including pioneering some essential anthropological methods. His portrait by Cecil O’Gorman shown below rightly includes a book that alludes to his work among the natives in New Spain.
Bernardino de Sahagún should be remembered for this work, for showing the world what life in Central America looked like before the Spanish conquest. To call him the “First Anthropologist” goes too far and is ignoring reality. De Sahagún’s evangelistic motivations disqualify him from that title as the missionaries sought to understand and change, whereas anthropology at its core is about celebrating and understanding in and of itself.
The Anthropologist Ruth Benedict is quoted as saying “The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences” (Royal Anthropological Institute 2017). The work of missionaries does not align with this purpose. Bernardino de Sahagún was certainly an indigenist and an appreciator of native culture but he was a missionary and not the “first anthropologist.”
Coe, Sophie D, and Michael D. Coe. 2013. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd edition. London: Thames & Hudson.
Joffé, Roland, and Robert Bolt. 1986. The Mission. Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video.
León Portilla, Miguel. 2002. Bernardino de Sahagun, First Anthropologist. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
Royal Anthropological Institute. 2017. “What Is Anthropology?” Discover Anthropology. https://www.discoveranthropology.org.uk/about-anthropology/what-is-anthropology.html.
Schwartz, Stuart B. 2000. Victors and Vanquished: Spanish and Nahua Views of the Conquest of Mexico. Bedford Series in History and Culture. Boston: Bedford/StMartin’s.