For fun recently, I’ve been reading Isabel Kelly’s 1932 Ethnography of the Surprise Valley Paiute (yes, I’m aware that I have strange tastes in reading). In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, both amateur and professional anthropologists raced to document the cultures of what were considered to be “vanishing races.” Most of those peoples, obviously, did not vanish. Instead, they adapted to new circumstances, just as people have been doing throughout human history. The anthropological work of that era, however, has nevertheless proved in many cases to be invaluable, in that it gathered and preserved cultural information at a time when many indigenous peoples were under tremendous pressure to abandon their traditions and assimilate completely into American society.
Most of this work was not the “participant observation” that we tend to think of as stereotypical anthropology; where the scientist goes to live among an unfamiliar group of people, observing and taking notes on their day-to-day activities. Rather, anthropologists like Alfred Kroeber, John Peabody Harrington, and Isabel Kelly conducted extensive interviews with people old enough to remember the ways in which people had lived half a century or more earlier.
Apart from simply being fascinating to read, much of this material, if carefully used, is also invaluable to an archaeologist. One of the biggest caveats, or course, is time. In most cases, the interviews were conducted late enough that the informants would have had no personal memory of any time before contact with Europeans; they were born into societies that had already undergone profound changes. And, of course, these were human beings and not computers. They did not have perfect recall of events they had experienced decades earlier. It should also be considered that some informants may not have been completely forthcoming with information they considered private, and that some of what they reported might have been misunderstood by the anthropologist. But even after these and other limitations have been taken into account, these early ethnographies are often very helpful in interpreting what remains in the archaeological record, particularly from period shortly after European contact.
But mainly, I read old ethnographies because I enjoy it. They provide a fascinating glimpse into the past as it was actually experienced by some of the people who lived it.