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Angst over Ankor

Thank you for piece on Dr. Adolf Bastian

Angst over Ankor

The Editor,
I would like to add a few remarks to the article in the May 7th issue by Reinhard Hohler on the scholar/explorer Dr. Adolf Bastian. In the opening paragraph, Hohler’s wording could give the impression that Bastian was, in fact, the first to describe the ruins of Angkor, instead of the better known Henri Mouhot. That, of course, is not the case. (Neither man was the first westerner to ‘discover’ Angkor. That honor goes to intrepid missionaries of the 16th c.) Mouhot was in Angkor in 1860; Bastian in 1863.

Hohler’s delineation of Bastian’s travels acknowledges a lifetime of far-flung exploits. But in highlighting the listing, I think he leaves out some of Bastian’s more substantial contributions to science in general and connections to Thailand in particular.

The little-known Adolf Bastian is, in fact, known as the founder of ethnography. His extensive travels led him to believe that human nature everywhere is the same, with localized variants being due to unique historical and environmental constraints of each culture. In addition, Bastian believed in a monogenetic view of human origins at a time when others believed that the races had evolved separately. In this he anticipates modern evolutionary theories of origins.

His belief in human nature, being unified in its essentials, is an idea currently breaking new ground in the field of sociobiology, especially with work in the Human Genome Project. Steven Pinker’s recent book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, lays the argument out excellently.

With respect to Thailand, King Mongkut (Rama IV) had an enduring interest in archeology. Tribute has been paid to the King for assisting European scholars to open up scientific research into the Khmer civilization. He aided and encouraged Henri Mouhot to visit Angkor. He did the same with Bastian.

As distinct from Mouhot, Bastian’s contribution to Angkor studies is that he was the first to associate Angkorian architectural motifs with Indian models. Of course, he was right in this.

Mouhot’s contribution was equally impressive in its complexity, among other things, detailing the scenes in the extensive bas-reliefs of Angkor Wat and the Bayon. Fair or not, Mouhot’s vigorous descriptive prose and beguiling temple sketches, published in France, caused a sensation in a way that Bastian’s academic treatises did not.

Jacquelyn Suter,
Chiang Mai

Reinhard Hohler replies:

The article on Bastian was written not to highlight who was the first explorer in Angkor - sure there were even many explorers before Henri Mouhot - but Bastian published the first comprehensive monograph about Angkor mentioned in the article. That Bastian contributed a lot towards science in his more than 200 publications concerning the field of ethnology and related fields is without doubt. Because of that he is called the father of ethnology in Germany and should be remembered accordingly. R.H.

P.S. The subtitle should be “German explorer” remembered. The article is meant to make him more “famous” in English speaking circles. Also, some of his works are only now published in English.

Thank you for piece on Dr. Adolf Bastian

The Editor,
Re: article from Reinhard Hohler on Adolf Bastian in Issue 19. Thank you very much for this piece of information on the explorer Dr. Adolf Bastian. The visits to Burma and Bangkok are also no less interesting. It would be great if you could translate the whole “Petermanns Mitteilungen X” article into English (or Thai!). Since Dr. Adolf Bastian was a member of the Siam Society, may be they could publish it.
M.R. Rujaya,
(Former librarian of Chiang Mai University)