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Davidson, Daniel Sutherland (1900–1952)

by F. D. McCarthy

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Daniel Sutherland Davidson (1900-1952), anthropologist, was born on 9 July 1900 at Cohoes, New York, United States of America, son of Matthew Henry Davidson, travelling salesman, and his wife Laura, née Sutherland. After education at the local Egberts High School, from 1920 he attended the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia (B.S., 1923; A.M., 1924; Ph.D., 1928). Except for two years in 1932-33 at the University of Buffalo, he was on the staff of the University of Pennsylvania from 1924 to 1946 and associate professor of anthropology there from 1940. He was at the University of Oregon in 1947-48 and was professor of anthropology at the University of Washington, Seattle, in 1949-52.

Though he carried out research on American Indians and wrote a monograph on snowshoes, Davidson's major anthropological work was on Oceania with particular emphasis on Australian Aboriginals. In a number of studies he mapped the geographical distribution of particular cultural traits, interpreting the resulting patterns as largely the result of historical development through innovation and/or diffusion. In 1928 he published his doctoral thesis The Chronological Aspects of Certain Australian Social Institutions …; it was savagely reviewed by Professor A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, who preferred contemporary sociological research of Aboriginal societies to historical reconstruction.

Davidson visited Australia in 1930-31 and 1938-40, examining private and museum collections and carrying out field-work, mainly in northern Australia, where he excavated several prehistoric sites. In 1934 and 1936 he located and edited important, previously unpublished, material by E. Hassell from the 1880s, on Aboriginal life in south-western Australia. His other research resulted in monographs on rock and decorative art, social institutions, tribal distribution and string figures, and in some forty papers on a wide range of subjects, including rafts and canoes, utensils, weapons, stone artefacts, netting and basketry, throwing darts, footwear, mourning caps, fire-making, and the origin of the boomerang. He wrote also on the relationships of the cultures of Australia, Tasmania, Melanesia, Indonesia and Tierra del Fuego, and on trans-Pacific migrations.

Davidson's periods of research in Australia were brief, but so little was then being done in the fields of art and material culture that his perceptive work in these neglected areas was above contemporary Australian standards and has proved of use to later prehistorians. His efforts to delineate tribal groupings and cultural traits across Australia are now dated but were an attempt to provide a comprehensive and developmental view of Aboriginal culture.

Nicknamed 'Sud', Davidson was of medium height and build with dark hair and a trim moustache. The societies to which he belonged included the American Folk-lore Society, of which he was secretary and treasurer in 1942-44. Swimming and mountain climbing were among his favourite recreations. He had married Elma Ely Barber on 21 December 1929; she accompanied him on his visits to Australia. He died of a heart attack at Altamonte Springs, Florida, on 26 December 1952, survived by his wife and daughter.

Select Bibliography

  • Oceania, 1 (1930), no 3
  • Mankind, 4 (1953), no 11
  • American Anthropologist, 56 (1954), and for publications
  • Archives of the Universities of Pennsylvania and Oregon
  • private information.

Citation details

F. D. McCarthy, 'Davidson, Daniel Sutherland (1900–1952)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/davidson-daniel-sutherland-5897/text10041, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 22 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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