Aleš Hrdlička (March 30, 1869 – September 5, 1943) was an important figure in the development of anthropology, specifically physical anthropology, in the United States. His extensive writings not only catalogued his findings, but also provided physical evidence in support of his thesis that all human beings have a common origin. Hrdlička was one of the early proponents of the now controversial theory that Native American people came from Asia, across what is now called the Bering Strait. Hrdlička had no understanding of genetics, or of the future contribution it would make to his field. He gathered his evidence from an intensive study of bones. Nevertheless, he was one of the first scientists to propose that all races had a common origin in the Old World.
Aleš Hrdlička was born in Humpolec, Bohemia (today's Czech Republic) into a family of cabinet-makers. He spent his childhood in his native city where he finished elementary and middle school. When he was 13, his family emigrated to the U.S. and settled in New York. Aleš worked together with his father in the tobacco factory until he was 19 years old.
In 1888, he fell seriously ill with typhoid fever. It was during that time Hrdlička met Dr. M. Rosenblueth, a physician and a former rabbi. This meeting changed his life forever. Upon recovery, with the help of Dr. Rosenblueth, Hrdlička entered and graduated from the Eclectic Medical College of the City of New York. In 1894, he received a research position in the newly founded State Homeopathic Hospital for the Insane, at Middletown, New York. It was there that he developed his interest in anthropometry, the study of measuring the human body, which he further specialized in Paris, under Leon Manouvrier. Upon his return to New York in 1896, Hrdlička married Marie S. Dieudonnee.
In 1898, Hrdlicka visited Mexico to begin his research on the indigenous peoples there: the Tarahumares, the Huichols, and the Tephuanes. In 1903, the new department of physical anthropology was opened at the National Museum in Washington, DC. Today it is known as the Smithsonian museum. Aleš Hrdlička became the first curator of the department, a post he held until his retirement in 1941. Hrdlička founded the American Journal of Physical Anthropology in 1918, and in 1928, following his initiative, the American Association of Physical Anthropologists was organized and established. He was a significant contributor to the development of physical anthropology in the Czech Republic, where under the “Aleš and Marie Hrdlička Foundation,” he established the Chair in Anthropology at the Charles University in Prague.
Hrdlička had no children. His first wife, Marie, died in 1918. He married again in 1920, again with no children. Aleš Hrdlička died in Washington, DC, on September 5, 1943.
Aleš Hrdlička is one of the most fruitful scholars in the history of anthropology. Since his graduation from the New York Homeopathic Medical College in 1894, he produced, without a break, an average of eight papers every year until his death. All together there are more than 350 items in his bibliography. Hrdlička’s restless spirit and the desire for discovery brought him to compile one of the most complete collections of human bone material in the world. His collection of craniological material is described in detail in the six-volume Catalogues of Human Crania in the U. S. National Museum (1924, 1925, 1927, 1928, 1931, 1942).
His appointment to the National Museum in 1903 started the phase in Hrdlička’s life that he is the most famous for—physical anthropology. He studied the origin and evolution of the human species in general, and particularly the problem of the origin of Native Americans. In the period from 1910 to 1924, Hrdlička conducted numerous studies on over 1,000 subjects to support his idea of the origin of American people. In his books Physical Anthropology (1919), followed by Anthropometry (1920) and Old Americans (1925), Hrdlička claimed that the first Americans immigrated across the Bering Strait from the Asian continent. His proposal was based on the fact that in the Americas there were no apes from which man could evolve. Hrdlička organized several expeditions to Alaska, Kodiak Island, the Aleutian Islands, and the Commander Islands to collect evidence to support his idea.
According to Hrdlička, all the races had a common origin—in the Old World—and had spread gradually across the globe. In 1927, Hrdlička published his article The Neanderthal Phase of Man where he elaborated on this thesis. Hrdlička’s devotion to physical anthropology culminated in 1918 with his founding of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, which he edited until his retirement in 1942.
In the world related to physical anthropology, Hrdlička was definitely an authoritative voice. He greatly contributed toward our understanding of the prehistory of man in Europe, Asia, and America. Hrdlička was one of the first scientists to propose the common origin of all the races. He was also one of the first to hypothesize how the races spread across the globe. His theory remains accepted and supported by modern data. His theory of the migration of Native Americans from Siberia to Alaska won him an international reputation, and is still accepted as one of the many origins of American people. In many respects, Hrdlička can be considered the father of physical anthropology in the United States, and one of the greatest contributors to the development of anthropology in the world.
Hrdlička remains remembered both in the United States and in Europe. In World War II, the United States liberty ship, SS Ales Hrdlicka, was named in his honor. Numerous museums in the Czech Republic carry Hrdlička's name, one of the most famous of which is in Prague—the Hrdlička Museum of Man.
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