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Birdsell, Joseph Bernard (Joe) (1908–1994)

by Nell Reidy

This article was published:

Joseph Birdsell, 1970s

Joseph Birdsell, 1970s

ANU Archives, ANUA 225-84

Joseph Benjamin Birdsell (1908–1994), physical anthropologist, was born on 20 March 1908 at South Bend, Indiana, United States of America, third child of American-born parents John Comly Birdsell, manufacturer, and his wife Jane, née Defrees. His grandfather, John Comly Birdsell, invented the first combined clover thresher, huller, and cleaner. Educated at Phillips Exeter Academy, New Hampshire, Joe studied aeronautical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (BSc, 1931). After graduation he worked as a financial analyst in New York City for three years.

In 1935 Birdsell entered Harvard University (PhD, 1942) to study under Ernest Albert Hooton in the department of anthropology. Hooton proposed three options for Birdsell’s dissertation: crania of the classical Greeks, a nutritional study of Icelandic people, or hybridisation within Australian Aboriginal populations. Birdsell chose the last. In 1936 Norman Tindale, ethnologist at the South Australian Museum and recipient of a Carnegie Corporation of New York grant, visited Harvard and screened his short film Day in the Life of the Pitjandjara (1933). The following year the corporation sponsored a major fieldwork expedition in Australia ‘to investigate the consequences of recent race crossing between Aborigines and Europeans’ (Birdsell 1967, 100) to be led by Birdsell and Tindale under the auspices of Harvard and Adelaide universities.

Birdsell and his wife Beatrice, née Gilbert, arrived in Adelaide in April 1938. During the expedition, which commenced the following month, Birdsell, Tindale, and their wives, who acted as secretaries and research assistants, travelled over 18,000 miles (29,000 km) throughout eastern, southern, and south-western Australia. While Tindale concentrated on collecting ethnographic data, including genealogies, Birdsell focused on anthropometrics, engaging in the invasive collection of physiological measurements, blood samples, and hair samples from more than two thousand individuals. The Kaurna elder Lewis O’Brien was living at Point Pearce Mission Station, Yorke Peninsula, South Australia, when the expedition visited in 1938. Aged eight at the time, he recalled feeling ‘like a Guinea Pig. It didn’t feel too good. Skull being measured … arms and legs, it wasn’t great’ (O’Brien, pers. comm.). The expedition concluded in July 1939 and Birdsell returned to America in September.

Using the data collected during the expedition, Birdsell developed a tri-hybrid theory. He argued that Aboriginal people were ‘not, as generally considered, a homogenous people, but rather [were] composed of three major and discrete ethnic elements’ (Birdsell and Boyd 1940, 72). His doctoral thesis, ‘The Trihybrid Origin of the Australian Aborigine’ (1942), explored the idea that Australia had been populated, at different times, by these three groups, each partly replacing the previous group. He delayed the major publication of his results until after World War II. In 1941 he had accepted a teaching position at the State College of Washington. When America entered the war at the end of that year he joined the United States Army Air Forces. He served as an officer at Wright Field, Ohio, where his skills in anthropometry were employed in the Personal Equipment Laboratory.

Resuming civilian life, Birdsell was appointed a Guggenheim Fellow at Harvard University in 1946 and again in 1952. In 1947 he had moved to Los Angeles for a teaching position in the department of sociology and anthropology at the University of California (UCLA), which he held until his retirement as professor emeritus in 1974. Between 1948 and 1951 he was associate editor of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. With the physical anthropologist Carleton S. Coon and the human biologist Stanley M. Garn, he co-authored Races: A Study of the Problems of Race Formation in Man (1950). Two years later he embarked on a second major Australian expedition, revisiting many of the people examined in the earlier expedition, as well as their descendants, and extending into northern and southern Western Australia and western South Australia. His second wife Esther Mae, née Devore, and Tindale and his wife, accompanied him. The two men maintained a close personal and professional relationship that lasted for many years after their field expeditions, Birdsell noting affectionately that Tindale ‘raised me like a brother in the field’ (SAMA 2017).

Birdsell returned to America in September 1954. Just over a year later he obtained a second divorce and, on 17 December 1955 at Los Angeles, California, married Roselin Auf der Heide, whom he had met at UCLA. In his teaching Birdsell tended not to include Australian material; however, he used examples from his Australian research in his popular textbook, Human Evolution: An Introduction to the New Physical Anthropology (1972). He made a third trip to Australia in 1973, taking up a research fellowship at the Australian National University. His tri-hybrid theory of Aboriginal origins received wide publicity and support from the 1940s to the 1970s. Manning Clark represented it as the accepted view among scientists in the first volume of his History of Australia (1968) and Tindale accorded it the status of scientific orthodoxy in Aboriginal Tribes of Australia (1974). However, opposing views were presented by Andrew Abbie and others that showed the essential homogeneity of the Aboriginal population. Subjected to rigorous scientific testing, Birdsell’s theory crumbled and ‘no subsequent biological investigations of ancient Aboriginal skeletal remains’ (McNiven and Russell 2005, 90) have supported his claims. Further, as understandings of Indigenous agency and ethical fieldwork practices changed, his objectives and practices began to be scrutinised. Birdsell’s former student Robert Littlewood recalled his discomfort following in his teacher’s footsteps. Revisiting Aboriginal groups on Cape Barren Island thirty years after Birdsell, he explained: ‘I lived on the islands for several weeks before it became abundantly clear that the Islanders would not allow themselves to be treated as objects for purposes of furthering my career’ (Littlewood 1981, 19).

An ‘affectionately crusty’ anthropologist, Birdsell wore a ‘trademark uniform [of] baggy corduroy pants, flannel shirt, and a smashed hat’ (Mai 1994, 70) that made him look like he was always in the field. In 1993 he published Microevolutionary Patterns in Aboriginal Australia: A Gradient Analysis of Clines, a summary of his life’s work and thinking in which he continued to defend his tri-hybrid thesis. Survived by his wife and their son, he died on 5 March 1994 at Santa Barbara, California. He bequeathed his Australian field notes, journals, correspondence, and photographs to the South Australian Museum.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Birdsell, Joseph. ‘Preliminary Data on the Trihybrid Origin of the Australian Aborigines.’ Archaeology & Physical Anthropology in Oceania 2, no. 2 (1967): 100–155
  • Birdsell, Joseph, and William C. Boyd. ‘Blood Groups in the Australian Aborigines.’ American Journal of Physical Anthropology 27, no. 1 (June 1940): 69–90
  • Horton, David, and Stephanie Moser. ‘Joseph Bernard Birdsell 1908–1994.’ Australian Aboriginal Studies 1 (1994): 96–98
  • Littlewood, Robert A. ‘Jo Birdsell: A Brief Memoir.’ In The Perception of Evolution: Essays Honoring Joseph B. Birdsell, edited by Larry L. Mai, Eugenia Shanklin, and Robert W. Sussman, 15–20. Los Angeles: Department of Anthropology, University of California, 1981
  • McNiven, Ian, and Lynette Russell. Appropriated Pasts: Indigenous Peoples and the Colonial Culture of Archaeology. Lanham, Maryland, USA: AltaMira Press, 2005
  • Mai, Larry. ‘Joseph B. Birdsell.’ Anthropology Newsletter 35, no. 6 (1994): 70
  • O’Brien, Lewis. Personal communication
  • South Australian Museum Archives. ‘Guide to Records: Provenance. AA 689 Dr Joseph Benjamin Birdsell.’ Updated 3 March 2017. Accessed 18 September 2019. http://archives.samusuem.sa.gov.au/aa689/provlist.htm. Copy held on ADB file.

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Nell Reidy, 'Birdsell, Joseph Bernard (Joe) (1908–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/birdsell-joseph-bernard-joe-28321/text35985, published online 2020, accessed online 19 September 2021.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

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