Bayon by Asienreisender

Adolf Bastian was one of the early western travellers with scientific ambitions in Angkor. He was the first who realized the fact that there was a religious change in the old Angkorean civilization from Hinduism to Buddhism, and that the temple monument of Angkor Wat was of Hindu origin.

When he published his findings and advocated them in London in the late 1860s, he was too late to find attention. Henry Mouhot was already popularized by the Royal Geographic Society in London and by the new French colonial regime. Mouhot's publication 'Travels in the Central Parts of Indochina' with it's many sketches was more attractive for a wider public than Bastian's meticulous writings (without any images).

Although Mouhot's digressing elaborations on Angkor were almost exclusively false and very pathetic, he is still considered as the big name, the romantic western 19th century explorer of Angkor.

The picture shows the 'smile of Angkor' at one of the towers of the Bayon in Angkor Thom.

Image by Asienreisender, 2006

Adolf Bastian



Adolf Bastian - Polymath and Ethnologist

One of the notable travellers in Southeast Asia was the ethnologist (Philipp Wilhelm) Adolf Bastian (1826 - 1905), who travelled Burma, the Malay Archipelago (nowadays Malaysia and Indonesia), Siam, Cambodia and Vietnam in the years 1861 - 1865. Adolf Bastian wrote tons of records and published eighty books and more than 300 articles alltogether. His writings go very much in details. So far they concern Southeast Asia they are listed in the literature index.

Adolf Bastian is considered to be the first German ethnologist / anthropologist. He (co-)founded several scientific institutions, among them the 'Königliche Museum für Völkerkunde' ('Museum of Folkart', nowadays Ethnologisches Museum) in Berlin. Many pieces of his huge collection of ethnic artefacts from all over the world were displaced there.


Adolf Bastian's Life

Adolf Bastian

Adolf Bastian in his later years. When he came back from his voyage to Java, Bali and Lombok (1896 - 1898) acquaintances described him looking 'like a corpse', after he suffered tropical diseases.

Born in Bremen, an old north German port city, as the son of a wealthy family of merchants, Adolf Bastian had the financial means do follow his interests and develop his gifts. And there were many. Bastian was all but a one-track specialist. He first studied law at the Heidelberg University, then medicine and natural sciences at the Universities of Berlin, Jena and Würzburg.

After his studies he travelled in the age of 24 years as a ship doctor to Africa, India, Australia, Peru, the West Indies and Central America. After the eight-years journey around the world, when back in Bremen, he wrote a basic book on ethnology: 'Man in History'. In 1861 he sailed to Southeast Asia.

When he came to Angkor in 1863, Adolf Bastian described and decyphered the bas relief of Angkor Wat, particularly the 'Churning of the Sea of Milk'. Referring to a German 2009 TV documentary in cooperation with National Geographic, Bastian was the first who realized that Angkor Wat was originally a Hindu monument. All the Buddhist additions were put on after the construction was already finished, and the Buddhas and other Buddhist requisites are all replacable and not an integral part of the buildings structure. All the Hindu motives are. The great populizer of Angkor, Henri Mouhot, who visited the site three years earlier, still believed it were all of Buddhist origin. Though, that is not described in Bastian's travel record 'Die Voelker des oestlichen Asien. Reisen durch Kambodja nach Cochinchina' (1868). But in this work he names the Javanese influence of the architecture.

Bastian travelled altogether 25 years of his life.


Adolf Bastian's Works, Ideas and Theories

Alone six volumes of Bastian's work are dedicatet to 'The People of East Asia' (1866 - 1871), and there are more of his writings on Southeast Asian topics as Buddhism or the famous 'inscription no. 1' of Sukothai.

All his many publications contain detailed descriptions of the ethnics Bastian came in contact with. Often he is comparing very different peoples and their customs and particularly their mythologies. That includes also ancient cultures like the old Greek and Egyptians. Since his work is extraordinarily full with ideas, it's not always easy to get a clear picture of his theories. His books and essays are also not easy to read; most of his manyfold implications remain unexplained and are therefore not understandable for a non ethnologist outsider. Bastian's scientific reception is impaired by that since today.

Stela No. 1 in Sukothai by Asienreisender

The inscription no. 1 on the famous Ramkamhaeng stela in Sukothai. The inscription is a cornerstone in the modern narrative of Thai history. Adolf Bastian wrote an elaborate essay on the inscription. The stela in Sukothai is, by the way, a replica; the original is placed in the National Museum in Bangkok. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

Bastian emphasized the 'unity of human mind' (he called it 'Elementargedanken'). According to this idea different peoples in all the different cultures all over the world show only a small variability in their basic world reception. The Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung adapted and developed Bastian's 'Elementargedanken' to the concept of the psychological 'archetypes'.

Societies in their geographic distribution with all the peculiar influences of different landscapes, climates and local histories differ apparently. People organize in response to that their social structures and mindsets. That shapes the cultural differences between the ethnics in different regions of the world. Bastian called that 'Völkergedanken' ('folk ideas').

Studying a great number of different ethnics around the world, Bastian concluded the 'folk ideas' as secondary to the 'Elementargedanken' of human's psychic unity. The secondary layer, so to say, can only grow exclusively on the very basic layer. That explains the many congruencies of myths, legends, sagas and religious ideas of cultures in very different locations on the earth or over long periods of history (the old Romans or Carthageans).

Bastian critizised Darwin's 'theory of evolution' and followed instead the theory of 'evolutionism'. Evolutionism describes the development of all different human societies in the way of a higher (kind of linear) development. The highest stage in this concept reached the industrialized European (and north American) societies. Evolutionism is therefore critisized as eurocentric. It seems also somewhat teleological.

Adolf Bastian's approach to ethnology was a scientific one, influenced by the naturalist tradition of Alexander von Humboldt and Johann Gottfried Herder. Detailed obervations, as they are manyfold expressed in his rich works, were the empirical basics for his studies. Bastian was particularly eager to study and document foreign cultures before they would come under European (colonial) influence and adapt to it. He was fully aware of the threat, respectively process of extinction, for these cultures which came from European colonialism and called it's spread over the world a world fire ('Weltbrand').

One of the great merits of Bastian's work is the valuable collection of ethnic research results among native people who were still widely untouched by western civilization. Nowadays such an approach is completely impossible. Almost all of the different people in the world are completely overlayed by the poisonous impact of western capitalism. The former local cultures are, so far there are still traces of them left, merely adapted, distorted and submerged to westernization.

Nevertheless, Adolf Bastian's documentary approach gave some cause for critics who claimed his work lacks structure and systematic empirical studies.

Adolf Bastian died in 1905 in one of his voyages in Trinidad. His remains were later brought to Germany and burried in Berlin.

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Published on March 7th, 2014