Ethnohistory: Object Of Study, Origins, Concepts, Methodology

The ethnohistoryis dedicated to the study of indigenous human groups based on their culture and history. This discipline includes not only current indigenous communities but also those that existed before, during and after colonization.

This approach is characterized by being interdisciplinary since it uses different approaches to the study of human life such as anthropology, archeology and historical data.

Many of his analyzes are based on historical documents and he takes into account the cultural or folkloric manifestations that allow him to discover the ways of life of non-European societies. Ethnohistory frequently encompasses the history of the American continent, however, it also includes within its approaches, colonized societies such as Australia or New Zealand. 

Object of study

Ethnohistory is oriented to the investigation of the ethnic groups that are native to some area of ​​the world. It focuses on human groups that are native to a region and that may or may not exist today.

The information obtained is usually searched within historical documents as is customary within historical research. However, ethnography also makes use of various sources that speak of indigenous life such as maps, paintings, music, museum collections, archaeological finds, current traditions or customs, and more. 

One of the most interesting ways to learn about the history of ethnic groups is oral tradition, which requires close interaction with them.

Much of the folkloric information is transmitted in this way and is composed of a wide cultural spectrum that speaks of the ways of life and beliefs of indigenous groups. Elements such as legends, stories or songs have endured over time through oral tradition.


Ethnohistory uses for its methodology the tools implemented by historians and anthropologists in their research purposes. This helps you reconstruct the past of different civilizations. It is precisely this variety of tools that distinguishes ethnohistory from traditional forms of historical inquiry, since it must go beyond written evidence. 

Following the pattern of research within the social sciences, the ethnohistory methodology works in order to obtain new knowledge on matters that have to do with social fact. Part of the approach can be based on observation or experimentation. 

An ethnohistorian must possess extensive knowledge of history and anthropology to carry out his duties. Other resources are provided by archeology and language studies, which also help to identify cultural aspects and changes within a historical period.

In this way, within the discipline, the interpretation of historical data is made possible, as well as a greater understanding of the ways of life of indigenous populations, which tend to have certain levels of complexity. 

Origin of ethnohistory

Ethnohistory arises from the study of indigenous communities as groups with particular historical content that is different from that of other civilizations. In the nineteenth century, the social relevance of Europeans due to the dominance of the regions, overshadowed the study of indigenous history. The belief that the Indians did not have their own history was common, an assumption born of the prejudice of European societies.

However, during the twentieth century, interest in the native ethnic groups of the places began to increase, and in its majority, the American Indians. One of the most outstanding places where ethnohistory was developed as an area of ​​study was the United States. 

Starting in 1946, the “Indian Claims Commission” was born, a mediating commission between the federal government and Native American groups who made claims against the nation. The commission appeared as a driving force in the study of indigenous communities by anthropologists and historians. It was necessary to know the history of these human groups to understand their claims on the territory. 

In the 1960s, some relevant studies emerged around the term “acculturation”, used by anthropology since the 1930s and which later led to the term ethnohistory. Acculturation, in its beginnings, tried to understand and discover the effects and changes generated from colonization.

By the 1970s, ethnohistory already had significant value as an area of ​​study within anthropology and history. Many of the ethnohistorians began to conduct research that went far beyond the claims cases dealt with during the days of the Indian Claims Commission in the United States. 

Related concepts


It is a science that is responsible for the study of the human being in terms of culture and its forms of organization and interaction. It encompasses both past and present societies.

Investigate the development and diversity that can come from ethnic groups. It emphasizes the continuity and changes of civilizations through time. It draws on the methodology of the social sciences, the human sciences, and some philosophical contributions. It is also associated with other study disciplines such as archeology and linguistics.


It is the study of the past through the remains from human activities and past life forms. Archeology includes the study of human-made tools or instruments, machines, architectural structures, and more.

The discipline is also interested in the investigation of remote or extinct cultures. An essential part of the archaeologist’s work is to contextualize any other material studied, to know its origin. 

Historical methodology

It refers to all the techniques and guidelines that historians use in order to carry out historical studies. Primary resources such as documents, manuscripts, autobiographies, are some of the most used.

History, as an academic discipline, uses a narrative approach to analyze the past sequentially, helping you determine the causes and effects of certain events.


It is a concept used within anthropology and refers to the process in which changes in customs and beliefs occur from the interaction between two or more cultures. Acculturation can be seen reflected, for example, in the influence of European colonization on the culture of the native indigenous peoples of America. 


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