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Leo Frobenius

Leo Frobenius
Born 29 June 1873
Died 9 August 1938
Nationality Germany
Fields ethnology

Leo Viktor Frobenius (29 June 1873 - 9 August 1938) was an ethnologist and archaeologist and a major figure in German ethnography.



He was born in Berlin as the son of a Prussian officer and died in Biganzolo, Lago Maggiore, Piedmont, Italy. He undertook his first expedition to Africa in 1904 to the Kasai district in Congo, formulating the African Atlantis theory during his travels. Until 1918 he travelled in the western and central Sudan, and in northern and northeastern Africa. In 1920 he founded the Institute for Cultural Morphology in Munich. In 1932 he became honorary professor at the University of Frankfurt, and in 1935 director of the municipal ethnographic museum.

In 1897/1898 Frobenius defined several "culture areas" (Kulturkreise), cultures showing similar traits that have been spread by diffusion or invasion. With his term paideuma, Frobenius wanted to describe a gestalt, a manner of creating meaning (Sinnstiftung), that was typical of certain economic structures. Thus, the Frankfurt cultural morphologists tried to reconstruct "the" world-view of hunters, early planters, and megalith-builders or sacred kings. This concept of culture as a living organism was influenced by the theories of Oswald Spengler.

Frobenius taught at the University of Frankfurt. In 1925, the city acquired his collection of about 4700 prehistorical African stone paintings, which are currently at the University's institute of ethnology, which was named the Frobenius Institute in his honour in 1946.

His writings with Douglas Fox were a channel through which some African traditional storytelling and epic entered European literature. This applies in particular to Gassire's lute, an epic from West Africa which Frobenius had encountered in Mali. Ezra Pound corresponded with Frobenius from the 1920s, initially on economic topics. The story made its way into Pound's Cantos through this connection.

In the 1930s, Frobenius claimed that he had found proof of the existence of the lost continent of Atlantis.[1]

In 1910, Frobenius arrived in Ife after hearing of the “ancient” city where supposedly “Atlantis” and the god or goddess of the sea resided. The Ife culture lies in the western part of Nigeria and had been the most important city of the Yorubas for centuries. According to some estimation, the Ife culture existed long before A.D. 800. There is no evidence on when the Ife art culture began. However, it had been estimated with the help of radiocarbon dating that fully developed artworks were being produced between the eleventh and fifteenth century. As Hays (1959) observes, Frobenius did not fit the regular image of an ethnologist and more often than not was obsessed and “near paranoia”. Usually Frobenius made no preliminary surveys of the sites or did not directly participate in the excavation. According to Frobenius, he "called upon the [local] people themselves to dig in those areas, where, according to tradition, an ancestor god had descended into the depths of the earth; they were to bring me everything that they found, since I would buy even such things as broken potsherds lying around which might seem meaningless to them. This suggestion brought success."

Frobenius views about the excavating process and its outcome set the stage for a determined deductionist maneuver by assuming Africans non-commitment to artifacts, which “seem meaningless to them.” Thus for six pounds and a bottle of scotch, as Frobenius claimed, the bronze Ologun got into his possession because Africans were not aesthetically matured, and had no sense of commitment to their historical inheritance.

Due to his studies in African history, Frobenius is a figure of renown in many African countries even today. In particular, he influenced Léopold Sédar Senghor, one of the founders of Négritude, who once claimed that Frobenius had "given Africa back its dignity and identity." Aimé Césaire also quoted Frobenius as praising African people as being "civilized to the marrow of their bones", as opposed to the degrading vision encouraged by colonial propaganda.

On the other hand, Wole Soyinka, in his 1986 Nobel Lecture, criticized Frobenius for his "schizophrenic" view of Yoruba art versus the people who made it.[2] Quoting Frobenius's statement that "I was moved to silent melancholy at the thought that this assembly of degenerate and feeble-minded posterity should be the legitimate guardians of so much loveliness,"[3] Soyinka calls such sentiments "a direct invitation to a free-for-all race for dispossession, justified on the grounds of the keeper's unworthiness."[4]


  • Die Geheimbünde Afrikas (Hamburg 1894)
  • Der westafrikanische Kulturkreis. Petermanns Mitteilungen 43/44, 1897/98
  • Weltgeschichte des Krieges (Hannover 1903)
  • Unter den unsträflichen Äthiopen (Berlin 1913)
  • Paideuma (Münich 1921)
  • Dokumente zur Kulturphysiognomik. Vom Kulturreich des Festlandes (Berlin 1923)
  • Erythräa. Länder und Zeiten des heiligen Königsmordes (Berlin 1931)
  • Kulturgeschichte Afrikas (Zürich 1933)


  1. ^ "Leo Frobenius", Encyclopedia Britannica, 1960 edition
  2. ^ Wole Soyinka, "This Past Must Address Its Present," Nobel Lecture, December 8, 1986,
  3. ^ Ibid.
  4. ^ Ibid.

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