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Institutional histories can either be digestible and easy to use, or densely comprehensive and faithful to past contexts and practices. The first kind of history tends to distort past events by interpreting them through the purposeful lens of the present, while the second kind of history tends to exhaust the non-specialist unfamiliar with a past period and its events. Here we will try to avoid both extremes, and provide something reasonably useful and faithful at the same time.

Like any good history and most myths, we’ll start with an origin story. One day in 1924, long before most of us were born, the distinguished British-Polish anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinowski, often portrayed as the inventor of anthropological “fieldwork,” was visiting the UNC Campus at the invitation of Dr. Howard Odum, a UNC-CH sociologist. That day Malinowski met a graduate student, Guy Johnson. According to oral tradition, Malinowski and Johnson walked across campus and ended up sitting on a boulder where two streams came together (currently the site of Kenan Stadium). During their conversation, Malinowski converted Johnson to the study of anthropology. Several years later, after receiving the Ph.D. himself, Guy Johnson came back to Chapel Hill, joined the Sociology Department, and in 1930 taught the first course in sociocultural anthropology.

A consortium of people, including Guy Johnson and James Bullitt, worked to establish  a facility to support archaeology at UNC.  Robert Wauchope was the first director, succeeded by Dr. Joffre Coe, who specialized in the rich prehistory of North Carolina itself. This forerunner to today’s Research Laboratories of Archaeology (RLA) established a physical presence for anthropology on the campus. With the richest collection of Southeastern American prehistoric materials in the world, the RLA remains an important resource for the anthropology program.

The subsequent development of anthropology at UNC-CH largely parallels the growth of the discipline elsewhere in North America, as the specialty expanded after the Second World War. An independent Department of Anthropology emerged out of a joint program with Sociology in 1965 and continued to grow in the 1970s. In the early 1980s, however, the Chapel Hill program pioneered an innovative change of structure, shifting away from a conventional “four-field” approach of sub-disciplinary specialties (biological, archaeological, sociocultural, and linguistic anthropology), and adopting instead a division of three theoretically focused Concentrations (Social Systems, Meaning, and Evolution/Ecology), alongside two more specialized Programs (Medical Anthropology, Archaeology). While the department features a number of continuing topical strengths, its greatest collective legacy has been a commitment to crosscutting research, both inside the program and in association with other disciplines. All told, Anthropology faculty hold positions or have cross-listed courses in 24 other departments and curricula. Currently, the department has 26 full-time faculty (counting those with joint appointments), 20 faculty affiliates, and 3 emeriti. In recent years it has included 150-175 majors and more than 3,500 undergraduate students enrolled in its courses, as well as 60 to 70 graduate students in its Ph.D. programs.

Anthropology at Chapel Hill looks forward to the twenty-first century with innovations in new areas of research, an avowed interdisciplinary orientation, a research lens that includes our own multicultural society in the past as well as present, and a recognition of new international and regional processes, such as globalization, ecological transformation, transnational cultural flows, and economic restructuring.