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
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.
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
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.