Han F. Vermeulen, a Dutch scholar at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle, Germany, argues in this monumental and meticulous historical study that, contrary to a widespread view, modern anthropology has its roots not in the nineteenth century but in the German Enlightenment. Using primary sources from Russian, German, Austrian, and other European archives as well as numerous secondary ones, Vermeulen painstakingly explores how “ethnography” began as field research by German-speaking historians and naturalists in Siberia during the 1730s and 1740s, was broadened as “ethnology” by scholars in Göttingen and Vienna during the 1770s and 1780s, and was eventually adopted by researchers in other countries.

Vermeulen begins by tracing the intellectual genealogy of ethnology to Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s philosophy and linguistics and follows by documenting his influence on Peter the Great, who undertook а major modernization of his country’s science, including geographic exploration and description of its...

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