In Memoriam: Dan McCall

In Memoriam: Daniel McCall

Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, Departmental Founder

In memory of one of our department’s co-founders, we offer two tributes. First, the “official” version from Bostonian. The second, from department co-founder, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology Harold Fleming, who wrote the following wonderful tribute to his beloved friend and colleague Dan McCall.

Professor McCallEmeritus Professor of Anthropology at Boston University, Daniel McCall died at his Boston home on July 10, 2009 after a prolonged illness. Beloved of students and colleagues during his more than thirty years of teaching at Boston University, he also contributed seriously to the development of historical approaches in anthropology, besides living an interesting, indeed memorable life before joining academia.

Borrowing from his own unpublished memoirs, we learn that he was born in March 1918 in Westfield, Massachusetts and that his mother died not long after his birth. About that time his father’s shoe store was defeated by the surging McCann shoe company, thus unemploying his father and forcing Dan into a Catholic orphanage. During his residence in the orphanage during the 1920s Dan ran away to join his father no less than six times. During his later childhood a nun told him not to read a particular book and not to read books from the public library because they were sinful. That was too much for Dan who valued the public library more than his religion. So he elected to quit being a Catholic and moved in permanently with his father.

Graduating from high school in the mid 1930s in the depths of the Great Depression, he took the nomadic option and “rode the rails” around the country eventually working on vegetable farms in Arkansas and elsewhere. About this time, since Dan was of a ripe age and the USA was gearing up to withstand the Axis powers, he was drafted. He chose the Coast Guard, partly because he had become a “pacifist”; that did not matter because shortly thereafter the Japanese took the USA into World War II and the US Navy quickly absorbed the Coast Guard. Dan joined the newly enhanced amphibious forces as a corpsman (medic) which saw him fighting the whole four years of the Pacific war, attacking beaches to be fired at but not to fire back, attending to the wounded and the dying, and somehow surviving! He not only survived three other beach assaults, including Saipan and Kwajalein, he ended up in the terrific battle for Okinawa where his Navy ships withstood the attacks of the suicidal kamakazi pilots, one of which just missed killing him. At another point his ship was torpedoed by the Japanese and had to be towed 4000 miles to Hawaii whilst having a gaping hole amidships!

A grateful nation gave Dan and other veterans the G.I.Bill, thus sending this avid reader to Boston University for his B.A. and to Columbia University for his PhD –in Anthropology, At that time Columbia had a leading department of Anthropology and Dan took courses with outstanding scholars such as A.L.Kroeber and Joseph Greenberg. The latter was in the midst of revolutionizing historical linguistics in Africa with a classification of its hundreds of languages into four major (genetic) families, a taxonomy which has withstood numerous savage attacks for half a century.

After his field work in Ghana, Dan joined Boston University in the 1950s and set out to establish a department of Anthropology to go along with the new African Studies program there. After he had been able to add some anthropologists to the Sociology department in the early 1960s, he prevailed upon the friendly sociologists to countenance a new Anthropology Department. The beginnings of its separation from Sociology began in 1965 with new hirings and by 1970 the “divorce” was final.

With colleagues similarly interested Dan nurtured a new ethos in B.U.;s anthropology:  Historical approaches which culminated in the famous “four fields” approach, combining ethnology, historical linguistics, archeology, and biological anthropology (both fossils and human genetics). In the late 1960s and early 1970s this new historically-oriented anthropology was gathering strength and heating up, but was abruptly terminated by a BU administration that wanted a “successful” department along more contemporary lines. Eventually the archeologists broke away to form a new department of Archaeology.

Recently a happier department has emerged and much of Dan’s vision has been restored. But without archeology, of course, it could never be the same as what Dan had dreamed of.

Dan’s ideas attracted numerous graduate students, many of whom hold faculty positions now in various universities around the country.

During the 1980s, as Dan retired from his tenured position at Boston University, some of his conception was incorporated into a new scientific organization. Dan was a founding member, frequent contributor to, and member of the Board of Directors of the Association for the Study of Language In Prehistory (ASLIP) and its publication, Mother Tongue.

When at Columbia University, Dan met the traditional field research requirement of graduate programs in Anthropology by doing his field work in West Africa, specifically Ghana and especially on the Ashanti people or Twi speakers. This led to a life long interest in both West Africa and in what was once called “primitive art.” His own ability to sketch and draw was significant, greatly enhancing his classes on art and African history. One of his outstanding publications on these matters was Africa In Time Perspective which greatly influenced both his students and colleagues but also the whole field of African studies.

Dan also was interested in old connections between Africa of the Sahel or sub-Saharan Africa and the north African littoral or Mediterranean Africa. Twice he crossed the Sahara Desert from Algeria to Nigeria or Niger, once by Volkswagen and once by native bus. He became an expert on trans-Saharan trade routes and historical contacts, especially between Greek, Carthaginian or Roman north Africa and sub-Saharan trading centers and kingdoms. Some of this research led to an interest in the origins and spread of chariots and charioteer warfare, leading eventually to an interest in the Indo-Europeans and their great success in chariot warfare. In fact nearly his last published work was a book review of David W. Anthony’s The Horse, The Wheel, and Language: How Bronze Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World. Princeton University Press (2007) which was about the Indo-Europeans; it was published in Mother Tongue, Issue 12, 2007, pp.215-222.

His very last publication (at age 90!) was an article on the diffusion of the concept of the seven day week from ancient Babylon across the Saharan trade routes to the Akan cultures of the Guinea Coast of  West Africa. That same diffusion had, of course, established the seven-day week in Europe. This was the first publication of this interesting and surprising hypothesis. It came out in J.D.Bengtson, ed., 2008, In Hot Pursuit of Language in Prehistory: Essays in the four fields of anthropology. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company. Pp.25-36