Anthropologists in the United States came relatively late to a concern with Africa. It was through the study of American Indians that anthropology developed in this country. This orientation was specified long before the discipline was a recognized academic subject. Thomas Jefferson recommended the study of Indian customs and languages, and through this study a reconstruction of Indian history. Albert Gallatin in the 1830's began to give to this goal the vigor he also gave to public life. Many others, whose reputations are associated with other fields, were “intelligent dabblers” (e.g. Henry Thoreau; cf. Lawrence Willson, “Thoreau: Student of Anthropology,” American Anthropologist, LXI, no. 2 [April 1959]).
The European-derived populations of the United States and of South Africa have comparable situations in that each has in its own back yard, so to speak, a number of “laboratories” for the study of societies and cultures other than their own. Anthropology in each country has developed in relation to these opportunities and challenges, but in South Africa it came at a very much later period.
Americans were, in fact, among the catalysts of the development of anthropological thought in the nineteenth century, but they were scarcely cognizant of Africa. Insofar as African ethnography was developed in the nineteenth century, it was done by Europeans. The commercial, colonial, and missionary interest of European countries helped to direct the attention of anthropologists in those countries toward Africa, but also of course to Asia, Oceania, and elsewhere. In toto, Africa was less cultivated at that period than were other major areas.