The Great Eolith Debate and the Anthropological Institute

From the 1880s onwards, The Anthropological Institute played a key role in arguments surrounding eoliths, both as a venue for significant events and through the pages of its journals. Eoliths, stone objects claimed to be man-made and regarded by ‘eolithophiles’ as the precursors of handaxes, had become an issue almost as soon as the first chipped flints had been accepted as artefactual by Boucher de Perthes, John Evans, Hugh Falconer and others in the mid-nineteenth century. The ensuing debate, which drew in many luminaries of the age – such as Edward Tylor, Alfred Russel Wallace and Joseph Prestwich – in many ways exemplified the changing relationship between amateurs and professionals in the affairs of the Institute, and between the different branches of evolutionist anthropology, addressing question of scientific method, the use of ethnographic analogies, and contributing to the splits between the branches, and the eventual supremacy of the professionals by the eve of the Second World War.

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