Leo Frobenius  

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"When the Portuguese arrived [...] they found a people civilized to the marrow of their bones."--The History of African Civilization

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Leo Viktor Frobenius (29 June 1873 - 9 August 1938) was an ethnologist and archaeologist and a major figure in German ethnography. He was of great influence on Otto Rank's Art and Artist.



He was born in Berlin as the son of a Prussian officer and died in Biganzolo, Lago Maggiore, Piedmont, Italy. He undertook his first expedition to Africa in 1904 to the Kasai district in Congo, formulating the African Atlantis theory during his travels.

During World War I, between 1916 and 1917, Leo Frobenius spent almost an entire year in Romania, travelling with the German Army for scientific purposes. His team performed archaeological and ethnographic studies in the country, as well as documenting the day-to-day life of the ethnically diverse inmates of the Slobozia prisoner camp. Numerous photographic and drawing evidences of this period exist in the image archive of the Frobenius Institute.

Until 1918 he travelled in the western and central Sudan, and in northern and northeastern Africa. In 1920 he founded the Institute for Cultural Morphology in Munich.

Frobenius taught at the University of Frankfurt. In 1925, the city acquired his collection of about 4700 prehistorical African stone paintings, which are currently at the University's institute of ethnology, which was named the Frobenius Institute in his honour in 1946.

In 1932 he became honorary professor at the University of Frankfurt, and in 1935 director of the municipal ethnographic museum.


Frobenius was influenced by Richard Andree, and his own teacher Friedrich Ratzel.

In 1897/1898 Frobenius defined several "culture circles" (Kulturkreise), cultures showing similar traits that have been spread by diffusion or invasion. de:Bernhard Ankermann was also influential in this area.

A meeting of the Berlin Society for Anthropology, Ethnology and Prehistory was held on November 19, 1904, which was to become historical. On this occasion Fritz Graebner read a paper on "Cultural cycles and cultural strata in Oceania", and Bernhard Ankermann lectured on "Cultural cycles and cultural strata in Africa". Even today these lectures by two assistants of the Museum of Ethnology in Berlin are frequently considered the beginning of research on cultural history, although in fact Frobenius' book "Der Ursprung der afrikanischen Kulturen" could claim this honour for itself.

With his term paideuma, Frobenius wanted to describe a gestalt, a manner of creating meaning (Sinnstiftung), that was typical of certain economic structures. Thus, the Frankfurt cultural morphologists tried to reconstruct "the" world-view of hunters, early planters, and megalith-builders or sacred kings. This concept of culture as a living organism was continued by his most devoted disciple, Adolf Ellegard Jensen, who applied it to his ethnological studies. It also later influenced the theories of Oswald Spengler.

His writings with Douglas Fox were a channel through which some African traditional storytelling and epic entered European literature. This applies in particular to Gassire's lute, an epic from West Africa which Frobenius had encountered in Mali. Ezra Pound corresponded with Frobenius from the 1920s, initially on economic topics. The story made its way into Pound's Cantos through this connection.

In the 1930s, Frobenius claimed that he had found proof of the existence of the lost continent of Atlantis.

African Atlantis

"African Atlantis" is a hypothetical civilization thought to have once existed in northern Africa, initially proposed by Leo Frobenius around 1904. Named after the mythical Atlantis, this lost civilization was conceived to be the root of African culture and social structure. Frobenius surmised that a white civilization must have existed in Africa prior to the arrival of the European colonisers, and that it was this white residue that enabled native Africans to exhibit traits of military power, political leadership and... monumental architecture Frobenius's theory stated that historical contact with immigrant whites of Mediterranean origin was responsible for advanced native African culture. He stated that such a civilization must have disappeared long ago, to allow for the perceived dilution of their civilization to the levels that were encountered during the period.


Due to his studies in African history, Frobenius is a figure of renown in many African countries even today. In particular, he influenced Léopold Sédar Senghor, one of the founders of Négritude, who once claimed that Frobenius had "given Africa back its dignity and identity." Aimé Césaire also quoted Frobenius as praising African people as being "civilized to the marrow of their bones", as opposed to the degrading vision encouraged by colonial propaganda.

On the other hand, Wole Soyinka, in his 1986 Nobel Lecture, criticized Frobenius for his "schizophrenic" view of Yoruba art versus the people who made it. Quoting Frobenius's statement that "I was moved to silent melancholy at the thought that this assembly of degenerate and feeble-minded posterity should be the legitimate guardians of so much loveliness," Soyinka calls such sentiments "a direct invitation to a free-for-all race for dispossession, justified on the grounds of the keeper's unworthiness."


  • Die Geheimbünde Afrikas (Hamburg 1894)
  • Der westafrikanische Kulturkreis. Petermanns Mitteilungen 43/44, 1897/98
  • Weltgeschichte des Krieges (Hannover 1903)
  • Der schwarze Dekameron: Belege und Aktenstücke über Liebe, Witz und Heldentum in Innerafrika (Berlin 1910)
  • Und Afrika sprach...
    • Band I: Auf den Trümmern des klassischen Atlantis (Berlin 1912) link
    • Band II: An der Schwelle des verehrungswürdigen Byzanz (Berlin 1912)
    • Band III: Unter den unsträflichen Äthiopen (Berlin 1913)
  • Paideuma (München 1921)
  • Dokumente zur Kulturphysiognomik. Vom Kulturreich des Festlandes (Berlin 1923)
  • Erythräa. Länder und Zeiten des heiligen Königsmordes (Berlin 1931)
  • Kulturgeschichte Afrikas (Zürich 1933)
  • Erlebte Erdteile (unknown location or date)

Pages linking in as of September 202

Central Powers, June 29, Joseph Campbell, Oswald Spengler, Khosrow II, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Little Red Riding Hood, Petroglyph, African art, Frobenius, László Almásy, 1926 in archaeology, 1938 in archaeology, Hainuwele, Mossi people, Gottlieb von Jagow, Fortunatus (book), Trans-cultural diffusion, Religion in Africa, Benin Bronzes, Diffusion of innovations, The Cantos, List of cultural references in The Cantos, Sympathetic magic, Losso people, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1873 in archaeology, 1904 in archaeology, Frobenius Institute, Kulturkreis, 1870–79 in anthropology, The Dancing Water, the Singing Apple, and the Speaking Bird, Franz Altheim, Gabal El Uweinat, Gassire's Lute, Zār, Romanian philosophy, Voice of Africa, Army of the Ethiopian Empire, Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, Hugo Obermaier, Rock art of south Oran (Algeria), 1938, List of scholars of ethnology, Achilles Fang, Palais Thurn und Taxis, 1873 in Germany, Museum der Weltkulturen, Bolaji Idowu, Dema Deity, Lulua people, Augustus Henry Keane, Cultural enrichment, Bibliography of anthropology, Adolf Ellegard Jensen, Kisra legend, The Berlin-Baghdad Express, Alf Bayrle, The Black Decameron, Bronze Head from Ife, Frankfurt Main Cemetery, Cyril Hammond Elgee, Suzanne Césaire, German Inner Africa Research Expeditions, Karin Hahn-Hissink, Ngarinjin, Jawi people, Erika Trautmann, Seventh German Inner Africa Research Expedition, Ninth German Inner Africa Research Expedition, Fourth German Inner Africa Research Expedition, Reading Pound Reading, The Homeric Gods, Georg and Vera Leisner, Encarnación Cabré, Friedrich Salomon Hall

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