Edward W. Gifford life and biography

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Edward W. Gifford biography

Date of birth : 1887-08-14
Date of death : 1959-05-16
Birthplace : Oakland, California
Nationality : American
Category : Arhitecture and Engineering
Last modified : 2010-10-09
Credited as : Anthropologist, archaeologist, studied California Indian ethnography

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Edward Winslow Gifford was an American anthropologist and archaeologist, who studied California Indian ethnography. Under his guidance, the anthropological collection at the University of California Museum of Anthropology in Berkeley grew into one of the largest in the United States. Gifford's work provided numerous artifacts that have continued to be valuable sources of information for later researchers into Native American culture. He gathered not only material artifacts, but collected numerous examples of folklore, which richly illustrate these otherwise lost cultures. Gifford also studied kinship terminology in detail, providing detailed understandings of extended family relationships among these peoples. His anthropological writings also developed concepts of lineage, which have proved significant in later anthropological thought.


Edward Winslow Gifford was born on August 14, 1887, in Oakland, California. He graduated from high school in 1905 and became interested in ornithology. He joined several expeditions, organized by the California Academy of Sciences, among others the expedition to the Galapagos Islands (1905–1906), where he observed and described the pallid tree finch. After seeing Gifford’s dedication to work and organizational skills, the California Academy of Sciences offered him a job as an assistant curator of ornithology. He never attended college.

He joined the University of California's museum of anthropology in 1912 as an assistant curator, becoming curator in 1925 and professor at the University of California, Berkeley in 1945. At Berkeley, he served as a faculty member together with Alfred L. Kroeber, Robert Lowie, Ronald Olson, and other famous American anthropologists. In 1947, he succeeded Alfred L. Kroeber as the director of the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at University of California.

Due to his close association with Kroeber, the preeminent leader in Californian anthropology, Gifford developed an interest in California Indians. The result of his studies was more than 100 publications on different aspects of California Indian culture. He became particularly fascinated with "salvage ethnography," a branch of ethnography concerned with the practice of salvaging a record of what was left of a culture before it disappeared. He was a dedicated and thorough scientist, and kept records of the tiniest details of whatever studied. He developed the university's Museum of Anthropology into a major U.S. institution with its significant field research and large collections.

Gifford conducted numerous field studies and expeditions. In the second half of his career, between 1947 and 1956, as curator of the Museum of Anthropology, he conducted three pioneering expeditions to the island of Viti Levu, Fiji (1947), New Caledonia (1952), and the island of Yap in Micronesia (1956). There he excavated the remains of pottery and other archaeological material from the peoples that lived on those islands.

He stayed in Berkeley, lecturing and doing research, until his retirement in 1954. He died on May 16, 1959, in Berkeley, California. He was married to Delila Gifford.


Gifford is famous mostly for his fieldwork among California Indians. By 1900, not more than 30,000 Indians remained in California. Whole tribes had been almost wiped out, being assimilated into the Euro-American culture of white men. Only a handful remained of those who knew their genuine traditions and culture. Gifford was seriously concerned with the pace of destruction of California Indians, and worked to preserve as much data as possible about their culture. He saw “salvage ethnography” as a good method of collecting and preserving data of those endangered cultures.

One of his most popular books was the 1930 publication, Californian Indian Nights. It is a collection of folklore stories that are told around campfires. The stories can be typically categorized as creation stories, as they describe the creation of the world, mankind, sun, fire, and so forth. Gifford noticed that a myth was missing from those stories, and that is typical for all other Indians in America. It is a myth of migration. California Indians did not have that myth, since they did not migrate, Gifford concluded. The stories in general explained the wisdom behind everyday life of an Indian community.

Gifford’s later career was predominantly influenced by his interest in Pacific cultures. In 1947, he conducted a series of excavations on the island of Fiji, using stratigraphic excavation methods. He wanted to demonstrate that in Pacific Islands, as in any other part of the world, culture has changed throughout history. On his expedition to New Caledonia in 1952, he excavated the type-site of Lapita at Koné, and numerous other post-Lapita sites.

Besides being a great pioneering fieldworker, Gifford was also a museum scientist. During his directorship in the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at Berkeley, the anthropological collection grew to one of the greatest collection of this type in the United States. Gifford patiently catalogued each small piece of material excavated, and provided detailed explanations of them. In recent times, with the development of technology and methods of analysis of material artifacts, researchers continue to be able to gain new insights into the material Gifford collected.


After Alfred L. Kroeber, Gifford is probably the second most famous researcher of California ethnography, whose studies of the physical characteristics and kinship terminologies of California Indians greatly contributed to the knowledge of this part of American culture. Also, due to his diligence and attention to detail, numerous artifacts that he collected and cataloged continue to be studied by later researchers using more advanced technologies, thus providing greater understanding of these cultures.


* Gifford, Edward W. 1916. Composition of California Shellmounds. University of California Press.
* Gifford, Edward W. 1916. Dichotomous Social Organization in South Central California. University of California Press.
* Gifford, Edward W. 1917. Miwok Myths. University of California Publications in American Archeology and Ethnology 12(8): 283–338. Retrieved April 16, 2007.
* Gifford, Edward W. 1917. Tübatulabal and Kawaiisu Kinship Terms. University of California Press.
* Gifford, Edward W. 1926. Clear Lake Pomo Society. University of California Press.
* Gifford, Edward W., and Robert Lowie. 1928. Notes on the Akwa'ala Indians of Lower California. University of California Publications in American Archeology and Ethnology 23: 338–52.
* Gifford, Edward W. [1933] 1965. The Cocopa. Kraus Reprint Corp.
* Gifford, Edward W. 1936. Northeastern and Western Yavapai. University of California Press.
* Gifford, Edward W. 1937. Culture Element Distributions. University of California Press.
* Gifford, Edward W. 1960. Archaeological Excavations in Yap. University of California Press.
* Gifford, Edward W. 1965. Californian Anthropometry. Kraus Reprint Corp.
* Gifford, Edward W. 1976. Apache-Pueblo. Kraus Reprint Corp.
* Gifford, Edward W. 1980. Tongan Place Names. Periodicals Service Co.
* Gifford, Edward W., and Gwendoline Harris Block. 1990. California Indian Nights. University of Nebraska Press.

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