Tag Archives: anthropology

Bernardino de Sahagún: First Anthropologist?

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.”


Works Cited

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.


The “Power of Sweet”: An Anthropological Perspective on the NCA and Visual Interpretations of Chocolate & Sugar in Industrialized Society

National Confectioners Association, founded in 1884 began as a coalition of trades-people to organize and create viability for their products. The contemporary mission statement on their official website perpetuates that original undertaking; “NCA exists to advance, protect and promote the confectionery industry… serving as a transparent and trustworthy source while building and promoting a responsible industry”. Is anyone else raising their brow at this proclamation of transparency – as it would presumably associate to promoting responsible nutritional standards?

“The medicinal and nutritional aspects of sugar’s role were never far apart, any more than they are today (mid-1980s)” persisted Sidney Mintz in her book Sweetness and Power (106). In 1715, well before the inception of the NCA, the Englishman Dr. Frederick Slare published A Vindication of Sugars Against the Charge of Dr. Willis, Other Physicians, and Common Prejudices: Dedicated to the Ladies. From a contemporary feminist perspective, the title alone makes me chuckle. I’m visualizing Slare on a platform pointing into a crowd, “I’m talking to you there, you miss, and you my lady”. Slare believed that “sugar is a veritable cure-all, its only defect being that it could make ladies too fat”. Well – No thank you Dr. Slare for that prejudgment upon female metabolism, a proclamation which surely added to a persisting gender bias. A notion for refute, Dr. Willis shed light on the topic with his anti-sugar views and clinical findings of what would be later known as diabetes mellitus, (Mintz, 106).

“NCA is proud of the role it plays in the public’s understanding and appreciation of candy’s unique role in a happy, balanced lifestyle.” Certainly, they are proud of their $35 billion-dollar industry totaling 55,000 employees in the U.S. alone. I do not intend to be overly jaded on the matter, but I can’t help but recognize the various clinical analyses and public profiles of high fructose corn syrup in our diets as we understand it today, but that’s a larger discussion in and of itself that would require deeper comparative research. Primarily my concerns lie in the fact that HFCS is often mislabeled as ‘natural flavor’ and during the last three decades, has grown to replace what used to be natural cane sugar in our common grocery foods and candies. Generations before us had already grown accustomed to foods preserved with sugar, becoming complacent with their expectations of taste and economical value through visual culture in advertisements. In my opinion, not much public transparency occurs where reliance on less expensive groceries is present.

The Life & Candy ideology expressed by NCA is particularly interesting in how they use the age old economical reach upon our physical and social values. Influenced by hegemonic notions of pollution and purity of the body, nutritional attitudes across all human societies have interpreted this punitive dichotomy for generations. NCA’s marketing lingo is reflective of the influential nature in which our collective emotional experiences in health, reinforce our ritualized notions within cultural practices surrounding holidays and special events.

Never mind the daily addicted chocolate and candy consumer- See this promotional video echoing the “power, power, power of sweet”, as seen through the lens of the confectioners’ industry workers.


We see a progressive move towards less expensive goods that used to be considered only for the elite prior to 18th century Europe and American society. The custom of drinking and consuming chocolate had spread through most of Europe and “one thing that didn’t change – at first, anyhow – was the association of drinking chocolate with high social standing” (Prescilla, 25).

See in the Cadbury ad to your right just how politically inclined a chocolate company was in 1901. The advertising poster was a rousing salute to Edward VII and his wife when he took the British throne (Morton, 86).

Cadbury.Edwardvii“In 1898 in the United States a dollar bought forty-two percent more milk, fifty-one percent more coffee, a third more beef, twice as much sugar, and twice as much flour as in 1872” (Laudan, 41). The NCA began actively lobbying for chocolate companies in the early decades of the 1900s to commercialize chocolate for holidays, and as noted earlier, to this day the NCA still portrays a high relevance with candy to our community practices. I ponder, as Laudan suggests, has “culinary modernism provided what was wanted… the food of the elite at a price everyone could afford”? On that notion, has the National Confectioners Association also prevailed a political platform for chocolate, sugar, and food companies to exploit on the desire to consume what is considered socially elite?

Throughout the creation of anthropology as formal discipline during the 19th century, a new worldview was being introduced, one with scientific tools. With the arrival and maturation of the scientific revolution, the period of enlightenment facilitated human consciousness for the means to alter old world views. In a cultural setting, when interpellation is presumably present, “the experience of the viewer influences the images meaning”. With this known, hegemonic Cadbury.firemangeneralizations can become an illogical way of analyzing an influence of an image upon the whole group of viewers. Therefore, counter-hegemony is an “alternative force that leads us to undo concepts of hegemony”, allowing us to see how the image influences the viewer from a comparative perspective (S & C, 2009).

Coffee, tea, sugar and chocolate long being known as stimulants, we see this reflected in the early 1900s in another – among many – Cadbury advertisements, portraying its popularity with English firemen. Sugar promoting stamina was a lasting notion. See this Baby Ruth ad below that speaks to just that.

babyruth.dextroseGendered advertising was also sewn into most visual aspects of material culture, including in the marketing of candy such as the Tootsie Roll. I think we can reflect upon our social context during these time periods and find parallels between social constructs within advertisements. From a counter-hegemonic perspective, it’s not to say this image below is meant to reinforce gender roles with the consumption of chocolate and sugar products, yet it does create a lens into the artists’ view of the American social scene. tootsieroll.lifeoftheparty

We see thirteen men pictured here, strategically positioned facing this seemingly gleeful American woman holding a Toostie Roll. She, alike the Tootsie, “is the life of every party” as the text reads. I don’t know about you, but if thirteen men were staring at me eating a Tootsie Roll at a party, I’d be finding the closest exit and calling 1-800-N0-T00T$I3!

During a time when women were subjective to the ideologies imposed by men, we see this through the material culture we create. Where heterosexuality is the normal or preferred sexual orientation in most American households. Heteronormative notions in our visual culture is nothing new and we still see advertisements daily, selling sex, and I can’t help but reflect upon Dr. Slares remarks. They indulge the viewer or the reader into a glimpse of the cultural attitudes of the time. The National Confectioners Association has been no stranger to it.


Cartwright, Lisa and Sturken, Marita   2009   Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. New York, NY  Oxford University Press, 2nd ed.
Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe   2013 [1996] The True History of Chocolate. 3rd edition. London: Thames & Hudson
Martin, Carla    2017 AAAS E-119 Lecture Slides. Laudan, Rachel on Culinary Modernism (p.41)
Mintz, Sidney   1986 [1985] Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books
Morton, Marcia and Frederic.   1986   Chocolate, An Illustrated History Crown Publishers, Inc. New York, NY   Cadbury Limited images (pg.82 + 87)
National Confectioners Association, 2017
The Power of Sweet – That Power. National Confectioners Association advertisement
Organic Consumers Association, 2017 (Mercola)   2007    How High Fructose Corn Syrup Damages Your Body.
Presilla, Maricel   2009   The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.
Toop, C. R., Muhlhausler, B. S., O’Dea, K. and Gentili, S.   2014    Journal of Developmental Origins of Health and Disease. Consumption of sucrose, but not high fructose corn syrup, leads to increased adiposity and dyslipidaemia in the pregnant and lactating rat.
Unknown Artist, “The LIFE of the Party” Tootsie Roll advertisement
Unknown Artist, “Keep Going with Baby Ruth”