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Lubbock, Sir John

Summary Article: Lubbock, John from Theory in Social and Cultural Anthropology: An Encyclopedia

Sir John Lubbock (1834-1913), Lord Avebury, an English avocational archaeologist, naturalist, banker, and member of parliament, was a close associate of Charles Darwin and a leading evolutionist of the 19th century. He was the eldest son of a London banker who was also the treasurer of the Royal Society. The Lubbock estate neighbored Downe village in Kent, where Charles Darwin lived, and Darwin encouraged the young aristocrat's interest in natural history. Lubbock's principal scientific work was in entomology under Darwin's direction. He also worked closely with the geologist Charles Lyell and the biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, who promoted his membership in leading English scientific societies. Lubbock was also deeply interested in archaeology and visited the well-known sites of his day with leading prehistorians such as Joseph Prestwich and John Evans. Lubbock's descriptions of these sites in his 1865 book Pre-Historic Times, as Illustrated by Ancient Remains, and the Manners and Customs of Modern Savages helped build his reputation as one of the leading proponents of human antiquity in Victorian England.

Lubbock finished his education at Eton at the age of 14 and immediately became active in his family's banking business. In his 30s, he ran for parliament and was elected in 1870. As a member of parliament, his greatest achievements were to legislate banking holidays and shorter working hours, and for protecting archaeological sites through the Ancient Monuments Act of 1882. In 1879, Lubbock was elected first president of the Institute of Bankers, and from 1881 to 1886, he served as president of the Linnean Society. Lubbock also received honorary degrees from Oxford, Cambridge, and the University of Edinburgh, and in 1878, he was made a trustee of the British Museum. In 1900, Lubbock was made a peer and took the title Lord Avebury from the important henge monument he purchased in 1871 to save it from destruction.

In Pre-Historic Times, Lubbock attempted to prove human antiquity and create a picture of the lives of Stone Age humans. He did this, as one can tell from the book's full title, using archaeology and the 19th-century theory of the comparative method, especially the notion that modern indigenous people were a window into earlier stages of human society. In addition to archaeological reports, Lubbock made full use of ethnographic descriptions of the “primitive” people of his day, such as Australian aborigines, Native Americans, and the people of Tierra del Fuego. However, rather than starting in the prehistoric past and working forward, Lubbock's book moves backward in time, with a focus on archaeological excavations, starting with the Bronze Age through the Alpine Lake dwelling sites in Switzerland to the Somme River gravel beds excavated by the French archaeologist Boucher de Perthes, where Acheulian hand axes were first discovered. Additionally, in Prehistoric Times, Lubbock coined the terms Neolithic and Paleolithic as subdivisions of Christian Thomsen's three-age system of Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages.

In 1870, Lubbock published The Origin of Civilization and the Primitive Condition of Man. Whereas Lubbock's purpose in Prehistoric Times was to study archaeology and the “primitive” people of his day in order to understand more accurately the culture of ancient peoples, The Origin of Civilization set out to describe the social and mental condition of “savages.” He argued that there were three principles to be emphasized in the study of the “lower races”: first, that savage cultures resemble those of our ancestors from long ago; second, that such cultures include customs that no longer have present utility but are rooted in our minds like fossils in soil; and, third, that studying aboriginal peoples shed some light on the future. Following Henry Main's Ancient Law (1861) and E. B. Tylor's Researches Into the Early History of Mankind and the Development of Civilization (1865), Lubbock's book was strongly evolutionist in tone, tracing the evolutionary history of art, marriage, religion, morality, language, and laws from their first appearance in savagery to their culmination in modern Europe.

In many ways, Lubbock's books, in particular The Origin of Civilization, encapsulate the main themes of English evolutionary thought in the mid-19th century so typically associated with Tylor and Lewis Henry Morgan. First, there is the belief in unilineal evolution—that all societies were evolving in the same way. This parallel evolution is driven by psychic unity—a principle first enunciated by Adolf Bastian. Bastian argued that because all humans share biologically similar brains, all will share similar elementary ideas and therefore when confronted with similar problems will solve them in similar ways. The implication of cultural evolution and psychic unity was that cultures were simply at different places in their progress up the evolutionary ladder. Lubbock's ethnographic reporting described the many cultural parallels found in savage societies around the world and the “fossils” of those practices that remained in modern society. His archaeological writings pointed out these parallel developments through time, demonstrating the similarities between the lives of modern savages and the materials revealed in the archaeological excavations of his day.

Lubbock was famous in his day and widely known for his writings on various topics in biology and natural history. Prehistoric Times was a popular archaeology text and went through seven editions by the time of Lubbock's death in 1913. Today, however, Lubbock's legacy has been eclipsed by that of Tylor and Morgan. He is primarily remembered today in anthropology as one of the founders of prehistoric archaeology.

See also Comparative Method; Darwin, Charles; Morgan, Lewis Henry; Nineteenth-Century Evolutionary Anthropology; Spencer, Herbert; Tylor, Edward Burnett

Further Readings
  • Fichman, M. (2002). Evolutionary theory and Victorian culture. Humanity Books Amherst, NY.
  • Kehoe, A. B. (1998). The land of prehistory: A critical history of American archaeology. Routledge New York, NY.
  • Lubbock, J. (1865). Pre-historic times: As illustrated by ancient remains and the manners and customs of modern savages. Williams & Norgate London, UK.
  • Lubbock, J. (1870). The origin of civilisation and the primitive condition of man: Mental and social condition of savages. Longman London, UK, Green.
  • Murray, T. (2009). Illustrating “savagery”: Sir John Lubbock and Ernest Griset. Antiquity, 83, 488-499.
  • Patton, M. (2007). Science, politics and business in the work of Sir John Lubbock. Ashgate Aldershot, UK.
  • Stocking, G. W. Jr. (1987). Victorian anthropology. Free Press New York, NY.
  • Trigger, B. G. (2006). A history of archaeological thought (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press Cambridge, UK.
  • R. Jon McGee
    Alice Beck Kehoe

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