UNESCO: United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization

The Organisation


Harald E.L. Prins

Harald E.L. Prins is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at Kansas
State University and guest curator at the Smithsonian Institution.
Born in The Netherlands, he studied at various universities in Europe and
the USA, holding a Ph.D. from the New School for Social Research.
His numerous publications include The Mi'kmaq: Resistance, Accommodation, and Cultural Survival, and several other books, as well as two award-winning documentaries.
He served as president of the Society for Visual Anthropology and was an international observer in Paraguay.
He has done extensive fieldwork among indigenous peoples in South and
North America.
Long involved in human rights, he has been an activist researcher for several American Indian tribes and functioned as expert witness in indigenous rights and land claims cases in the U.S.
Senate and various Canadian courts.
“Toward a World without Evil: Alfred Métraux as UNESCO Anthropologist (1946-1962)”

Born in Switzerland, raised in Argentina, and academically trained as an anthropologist in France and Sweden, Alfred Métraux (1902-1963) had an inspiring career spanning the Americas, as well as parts of Asia, Africa, Europe, and Oceania. Dedicated to detailed ethnographic studies of non-Western peoples and cultures, he taught anthropology courses at Berkeley, Yale, École des Hautes Etudes, and various universities in Latin America. In addition to having worked at the Smithsonian Institution in the early 1940s, he also authored many dozens scholarly and popular publications, including best-selling books on voodoo, shamanism, the Incas and Easter Islanders.

In our presentation, however, we focus on Métraux’s transition towards applied anthropology and human rights advocacy in the years immediately following World War II. Like others of his generation, he had seen humanity slide into the abyss of two world wars, with a combined human death toll of some 65 million and untold millions more made hungry and homeless. Although globalization had not yet been coined as a new term, Métraux caught sight of an emerging world-wide reality in which anthropology as the cross-cultural study of humanity in all its complex diversity is not a luxury but a necessity.

Immediately after World War II, having served in the Morale Division of the US Strategic Bombing Survey in Germany in 1945, Métraux was among the very first important intellectuals joining the UN in mid-1946, when he began working as Chief of the Section on Research in the Department of Social Affairs in New York. Personally touched by the horrors of racial discrimination, human suffering, and genocide, he became a public anthropologist committed to the struggle for social justice. Emerging as a major public anthropologist whose career intersected with many of the major developments, dominant themes, and key players in anthropology as a global intellectual enterprise, he successfully recruited many of the world's leading scholars to study and publish on pressing social issues.
Going beyond the quest for scholarly knowledge, Métraux became an applied anthropologist and directed Unesco’s first rural poverty-reduction program, in Haiti's Marbial Valley, and was also involved in Unesco’s ambitious (and aborted) Hylean Amazon project. In this period, Unesco was instrumental in the organization of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences, created to promote international cooperation among anthropologists.

In 1950, Métraux moved from New York to Unesco’s headquarters in Paris where he headed the international organization’s Race Division. Uniquely positioned to help correct popular fallacies about the human condition and expose ethnocentric misconceptions about cultural differences, he coordinated the international team of scholars that produced the definitive U.N. “Statement on Race” (1951). As a direct offshoot of the 1948 “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” it sought to dismantle any scientific justification or basis for racism and proclaimed that race was not a biological fact of nature but a dangerous social myth. As a milestone, this critically important declaration contributed to the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court desegregation decision in “Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.” As such, Métraux’s anti-racism advocacy helped shape the social consciousness that ushered in the civil rights activism of later years.
Métraux also helped found the Unesco Courier, invited numerous scholars to write contributions for this magazine, and penned many articles himself. Moreover, he was actively involved in the ambitious Unesco series on race, commissioning internationally respected anthropologists and other scholars between 1951 and 1953 to write books such as Race and Culture, Race and Society, Race and Psychology, Race and Biology, Race Mixture, Racial Myths, The Roots of Prejudice, and The Concept of Race: Results of an Inquiry, as well as Lévi-Strauss’ influential text Race and History.

As Unesco anthropologist, Métraux was also instrumental in the development of “urgent anthropology” in the 1950s, drawing wider attention to the problem of disappearing tribal peoples. The title Métraux chose for his autobiography was “The Land without Evil,” after a well-known Guarani Indian myth. Sadly, he died before writing it. A few months after his Unesco retirement and his untimely death a few months later in April 1963, Unesco published a Spanish-language volume titled The Defense of Human Rights in Latin America (16th-18th Centuries), officially dedicated to Métraux’s memory as a pioneering public anthropologist committed to cross-cultural respect and universal human betterment.

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