Professor Leopold Jaroslav Pospisil in Prague. Photo: Barbora Sajmovicova, 2016.
Professor Leopold Jaroslav Pospisil in Prague. Photo: Barbora Sajmovicova



Prof. PhDr. JUDr. Leopold Jaroslav Pospisil, Ph.D. DSc.

Leopold Jaroslav Pospisil is a well-known professor of comparative law, who has held an influential position at Yale University for more than two decades. Leopold Pospisil is one of the pioneers and founders of a type of field study in anthropology, called legal anthropology. He was born in Olomouc in April 26, 1923, in former Czechoslovakia. He studied law at Charles University in Prague and philosophy in West Germany. During the Second World War, he was devoted to farming to avoid forced labour in Nazi Germany, then he briefly acted as a lawyer. Pospisil emigrated to the United States in 1948, where he studied a master´s degree in sociology in Oregon. His doctorate of philosophy in anthropology was received at Yale University. Furthermore, he achieved the honour and title of ´candidate of science´ at the Faculty of Law of Charles University in Prague. From 1956 to 1983 he worked at Yale University as a professor of anthropology and curator of the anthropology department of the Peabody Museum at the same time. In 1984 he was appointed as a member of the National Academy of Science. He used to work among others as a senior human rights adviser to US presidents and has lectured at over 50 universities around the world. After 1989, he returned to Czechoslovakia, to talk at Charles University or in his hometown Olomouc, when he received the Prize of the city of Olomouc for his lifelong work. In 1994, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Charles University.

Professor Leopold Pospisil based his own studies on his rigorous anthropology field research, for example the Hopi Indians in Arizona, Kapauku in Papua New Guinea, and Eskimos of Nunamiut in Alaska or the Tyrolean village in Obernberg in Austria. He is author of a number of anthropological studies. The most important include: Kapauku Papuan Economy, New Haven, 1963; Kapauku Papuans and Their Law, New Haven, 1958; The Kapauku Papuans of West New Guinea, New York, 1963; Anthropology of Law: A Comparative Theory, New Haven, 1971. Pospisil has contributed and deeply influenced the anthropological discipline with his research and by using so called ´legal pluralism´ as well as the nature of ownership and overall interest in economic anthropology.



Professor Pospisil, when did you become interested in anthropology?

I had had a number of friends during Masaryk´s Czechoslovakia before the Second World War. I had many German friends, because at that time Olomouc was a German city. However, some of these friends rapidly changed within one year after the arrival of Hitler and they became SS men. They were decent guys from decent families, sometimes even Catholics and these people would kill me just because I am Czech. Then I began to wonder, how this is possible? How is it possible that from the decent young people came such a beast? Well, through this it all began.


This was, therefore the first impetus for your studies?

Yes. I studied biology and medicine myself, but I wanted to proceed to social science, but it had not been available, so I ended up with medicine and I began by studying law at Charles University. This was in 1945, and in 1948 I received a doctorate in law. I was not fully satisfied with only studying law, so I also studied in Olomouc. Moreover, I even taught Chinese in Prague.


Were you fascinated to other cultures at that time?

Yes, but after 1948 I had to emigrate abroad, because I was also in the resistance against the Communists – I had attended a student march against the communist regime. Even though I had come to Prague Castle to receive the highest military honour, the War Cross, from the hand of President Edvard Benes. Finally, I had to leave for Germany.


When did anthropology come?

Well, the anthropology came too late. Firstly I studied in Germany, then I immigrated to America.


What did you do in the United States at the beginning?

I took the first job that I came across. I became a cowboy in Texas. I was contacted by Oregon University on the ranch, that they had a vacancy for me at the university. It was a scholarship. Firstly, I studied economics and then, from economics, I switched to sociology. However, sociology did not satisfy me – it was crap too. How could I say…? It was about claiming what everyone knows in a language that nobody knows. So, I dropped the whole of sociology.


You finally graduated in Oregon in anthropology?

Yes, at the University of Oregon, where I started studying anthropology. I combined my knowledge of law with anthropology in my thesis. In this work I studied and compared 50 different societies. I asked about a scholarship, because I had had one from the beginning with my studies in America in all subjects, and I wanted continue after the master´s degree.

Thanks to this fact, I was accepted at Stanford University in California, at Harvard University, at Yale University, at the University of Chicago and at University of California in Berkley. So, I could choose, where I would be studying. I chose Yale, because it was already one of the best socio-cultural anthropology centres in the world – better than Harvard. Later, when I became a professor, nine of our professors were members of the National Academy of Science. This is the highest honours that can you receive.


Have you been a member of National Academy of Science?

Yes I have and I was also a chairman of the committee. The National Academy of Science appointed me, not only a member of the Committee for Human Rights, but I also became director of the world´s largest research centre (National Research Council).


Professor Pospisil, I wonder who was the most interesting anthropologist that you have personally met?

The most interesting anthropologist was, of course, me! (Laugh) In my opinion the best professor of anthropology at Yale University was Floyd Glenn Lounsburry. He actually invented the component analysis that I have used in my research and deciphered Mayan writing. So, he was a real genius.


In addition to Lounsburry, an anthropologist, Michael Coe, worked at Yale University. Did you meet him?

Of course! Michael Coe is my friend. We studied together at university and we are still colleagues and friends. I was even in the admission committee and I remember that I accepted Michael. When I saw him, I said to myself: ´Jesus Christ! What a guy! I have to accept him!´


You were obviously a supervisor of a number of excellent anthropologists. Could you tell me some of them?

I can mention another of my former students, in my point of view, the best aztecologist, Jerome A. Offner. The anthropologist Offner presided over the world conference dedicated to Aztecs and I could go on. Many of my students are among the best anthropologist in the world.

Indeed my best student is the current anthropologist of the Pacific Patrick V. Kirch. He is not only the best anthropologist of the Pacific, but he also deals with archaeology and ecology in this particular area. I had presented him to the National Academy of Science to become a member for his exceptional work. Men get to there when they are, for example 65 years old and world-renowned, under normal circumstances. I got him to NAS when he was 38 years old and thus he broke the record. Pat Kirch is truly the best anthropologist and currently works as a professor at the University of California at Berkley.

Furthermore, I would like to mention Rebecca R. French, who came to me already with a doctorate of law. Moreover, she had even been a judge. Rebecca French wrote her famous dissertation about Tibet and according to the Dalai Lama, she is the only one in the world who can read the ancient manuscript of the Tibetans. For this reason, she is the best expert on Tibetan law in the world and she acts at the University at Buffalo.


When you oversaw students´ dissertations, have you ever experienced something really peculiar?

Well, one of my students dealt with the phenomenon of homicide in the community and he undertook field research in Mexico. As a result, his work was not able to be published for 40 or 50 years, and was locked in a vault due to the fact that, the people who were mentioned and described in this thesis would be tried for murder. Well, the science is extensional, so I made an agreement with our library that nobody may read it and this work was allowed only for those who received a permit.


Professor, back to you. When did you decided on your first field research?

Well, I have to mention this; I have noticed one important thing during my studies of the theory of law, that many anthropologists and legal experts have one thing in common and it was that their existing theory was absolute nonsense. Probably they thought it up over a coffee or whisky somewhere, who knows what they had been drinking, and created a stupid theory. As a scientist, I knew it was nonsense, because for me, as well as in science, the only truths are facts. I never speculate. If I bring forward a theory, it must be empirically verifiable, i.e., it must comply with all available facts.


Professor, you mentioned in the preface of your book, Ethnology of law, at the beginning of studying the field of legal ethnology or anthropology of law, most anthropologists and ethnologists dealt with European law, not with law outside of Europe. Moreover, they did not speak the languages of the studied societies.

Yes, the ignorance of native languages was common among ethnologists. Furthermore, there were theories about the evolution of the law. For example, it was believed that primitive man had no law and that he was some kind of socialist and according to Marx, law developed like this. This was fiction and nonsense. This is why I said to myself that I want to study all of this myself and I obtained the data. It was impossible to rely on people who had not verified their theory.


Did you conduct your field work systematically somehow? What kind of data did you have to collect so that you could come to the world of science with your legal anthropology?

Well, it is considered that the oldest human society is the Stone Age and for understanding this kind of societies I chose Eskimos in Alaska in 1957. The region was in the interior, where they had not been influenced by Western civilization and there were no missionaries, so they had retained their animist religion. The Eskimos are people who do not manufacture (as a society) and they procured food themselves. Of course, I had discovered in Alaska that the Eskimos are not socialists in the way of Marx. According to Marx, all of the means of production should have been commonly owned, such as in the Stone Age there were bows, arrows and spears. Seriously, do you thing that Eskimos, before going to hunt animals, entered into some collection centre to choose a hunting weapon?! Foolishness! To sum up, the Eskimos were the complete opposite of Marx´s socialism. They were strong individualists. I can also give an example of the fact that their fishing kayaks (umiak) belonged to only one man and were not common property. The owner of the umiak also ruled the crew on the water.


What kind of society did you choose for your further comparative research?

The second social stage for my research was the Neolithic society, i.e. the Younger Stone Age. I went to Papua New Guinea to observe this society, but I needed native people who had not seen a white man previously. These kind of tribes I found in an inland area that had not even been charted! It was in the highest mountains of the Pacific, where Mount Carstensz is. So, I came to the unknown lands to study the Papuans. I remember that I was walking for five days through the mountains before I came to this place. Also, I have to mention that before I moved into the isolated places, I was asked by the local governor of the Dutch colonial government to take a panoramic photo of the area. Obviously, no one knew what was in this particular area.

The Papuans literally brought down all those famous anthropological theories. For example, a Soviet anthropologist argued that primitive man (despite not even knowing what ´primitive´ means in anthropology) had a sort of realistic thinking and that he could not think abstractly. However, I discovered among the Papuans that they had created their own advanced mathematics and there is nothing more abstract than mathematics, is there?! The Papuans could count to the thousands in their minds and are like a walking computer. In fact, we cannot even compare with them what takes place in the brain. You would not be able to say how much 263 multiplied by 32 is. Probably you would take a pencil and start working out on paper. They do not. They gave me the result of this sum. Their mathematics is in their mind and by this I dissolved all the contemporary theories about the Kapauku. Overall, this research was really fantastic.


What other phenomenon did you also find in the Kapauku and what influenced your work in terms of the theory of legal anthropology?

Among other things, I studied the death penalty in Kapauku society, about which I wrote a book with another colleague. It dealt with the theory of the death penalty in all cultures. For example, the US Senate had decided that the death penalty is a cruel and unusual punishment. Conversely, I found that capital punishment is universal during my years in field.


The Kapauku represented the second social system. What other kinds of society did you choose?

The Kapauku represented Neolithic cultures, so then, I needed to explore the other system. The system is called the ´chieftain´s social system´ and in this social structure people do not have small gardens but they have large fields. Moreover, both former social systems were differentiated by the fact that instead of chiefs they have a headman (an informal leader). Conversely, chieftainship is a formal function and is appointed, either elected or hereditary. So, I studied the Hopi Indians in Arizona, who lived in Pueblo, for this research.


When did you study the Hopi Indians?

Well, I studied all societies whenever I had the opportunity. Therefore, I started studying the Hopi Indians in 1955 as the first society.


So, you studied the Hopi Indians and thereafter you came to Alaska.

Yes. Firstly, I studied the Hopi, then the Papuans and after that I went to Alaska. Finally, I needed some societies which represented civilization, so I chose the Tyroleans in Austria.


Why did you choose the Tyroleans in particular?

The Tyroleans in particular? Well, it did not matter what kind of people I chose, but I had to not choose the Czechs. This would be ethnocentrism. I wanted to undertake research in Mexico, because I can speak Spanish. On the other hand, I realized that everybody goes to Mexico, because Spanish is the simplest language in the West. Every American anthropologist goes to Mexico, so I told myself that I would not go there. Then I wanted to go to France, but I found out that I had to study French law (Code civil des Français), whilst I need not study law in Austria as I have a qualification for this law from studying in Prague.


How long were you in Austria?

Well, if I counted up, I spent seven and half years total in Tyrol on field research.


How long did the field research in Papua take?

I stayed with the Kapauku for three years.


You have written a number of excellent studies among all of your fieldwork and you are considered as a pioneer of legal anthropology in the social sciences, but also of the term legal pluralism. Could you tell me more about that?

(Smile) The term of legal pluralism has become an international designation. I received an award in Rotterdam in Holland and declared myself as the founder of the legal anthropology. So, if you are more interested in legal pluralism or the theory of law, please read my definition. I´m not just saying it – my definitions are included in the Encyclopaedia of Social sciences published by the University of Cambridge.

Well, what does legal pluralism consist of? Simply said, the crucial aspects were the criteria of law for me; those factors which determine and make a law from a decision. So, after my study of aforementioned four societies, I discovered that there is not only law at state level, but there are legal systems within the state. For example, there is a legal system of Charles University and – under certain circumstances – you can be called before the academic board and you can be judged. Thus, legal pluralism means, that there are as many legal systems as there are organized social groups.


You have also written an Ethnology of law published in Czech…

Yes, I wrote this exclusively for Czech students, as the student handbook.


Professor, you have just mentioned Czech students. Could you name some of your Czech students who you are proud of?

Of course, there are two excellent anthropologists – Livia Savelkova and Jana Voborilova.


Sir, could you tell me a few interesting things from your fieldwork, which you remember?

Yes, I could. For example, I have five adopted daughters and 48 grandchildren.


How it happened?

The whole story began during the festivities, where the natives recite traditional poems and sing and dance. These poems are very important in the native environment because you can ask someone for friendship, or you can declare war on another confederation or you could offer a marriage through the song. Each speaker gradually passed a word to the next speaker. The Kapauku started to make fun of me, because I obviously was not a speaker, so I said to myself: “I will show you something!” I told myself that I would offer a marriage the prettiest girl of the southern kamu-eli for fun. She was a beautiful girl and her name was Mekamu. I thought that during my “courtship” the real entertainment for everyone would begin. I wondered what Kapauku would do, because all of the men had proposed marriage to Mekamu and she did not want to get married. Moreover, the chieftains had courted her and she had refused them. So, I started singing and everybody was dying from laughter and I seemed like a moron, because I sang and sang more and more, but they took all of it very seriously, you know?! The local girls had a habit, that upon request for marriage hold a torch. If the girl did not want marriage, she would put the torch out on the ground. If a girl was pleased, she would walk on with torch.


And what did Mekamu do?

She walked on with a torch! Jesus Christ! I thought that she understood the joke, but she did not! At this time, all of these people around me started to watch what would happen next. I was totally destroyed at what happened next. When the chiefs saw my facial expression, they came to me and started to soothe me with words: “Do not worry! We will support you financially and help with the marriage, although she will be terribly expensive!” (Laughter)


What happened to your marriage?

Jesus Christ, I was in deep water!  Of course, I could not say no to that girl, because I never wanted to hurt her. So, I avoided it in every way. Finally, when I flew away from Papua New Guinea, I promised to come back, so I did eventually escape the marriage.


What happened with Mekamu? She was definitely waiting for you…

Well, I left in 1955 and in 1969 I returned to Papua as I promised. The natives, including my adopted mother, started to greet and hug me upon my return. I noticed that everyone was a little amazed. I began to ask them: “What happened? Did someone we know die, that you do not want to tell me about?!” They answered: “No, it is not about this… We have some other terrible news for you …Mekamu has married.”


How did you react to this?

I was terribly upset! You know, I had to be like a Papuan and I had to be really really mad! I yelled and thrashed around, waving my arms about. The following day Mekamu came to me with her husband. This is something interesting, isn´t it? Even we do not do anything like this! So, they were tremendously sensitive.

Yes, they were…

So, I said to her husband: “You chose the prettiest girl! I am still steaming mad, but I wish you all the best.


Have you ever experienced something interesting with the Hopi Indians?

Of course! I experienced countless interesting experiences with the Indian Hopi. The society of Hopi is matrilineal and houses and other properties are possessed by the woman, so for this reason I lived with one older Indian woman. I was young and I had thick dark hair and she liked it very much. So, one day she decided to wash my hair in a traditional Indian way – with the extract from the yucca plant. This was one of the experiences that I like to remember.

Actually, I had had many surprises at the beginning, because I slept in a traditional dwelling of the Hopi Indians, whose roof was made of wattle and clay. I slept with my wife there on the first night and when I looked up at the ceiling there was a giant snake, slithering directly above me. The next morning I immediately told the Indian woman what had happened at night. Straight away, she asked me whether we had banished him or not. I explained to her that the snake crept away and we slept on. She replied contentedly: ´That is good! This is a pet. This snake lives here with us and he kills all the rattlesnakes.´ It was a King snake.


Professor, you mentioned a few times that you have been to native communities where they had never seen a white man before. How did you always manage it? Was it simply a coincidence?

Well, I have always had good luck with everything. For example, my professor at the University of Oregon was Hopi and he lectured an anthropology. He helped me get into the Hopi community, even though the Hopi hated Americans, but also anthropologists. I came to the Hopi and told them I would not study anthropology, but I will study your law and they loved it! Moreover, the fact that I had Czech roots, they also liked, so I started to live with them. (Smile)


You mentioned that you stayed with the Hopi Indians with your wife…

Yes, I was there with my wife, but we did not have our child with us. The communists took my daughter and imagine that, I had not seen her for 20 long years. Therefore the Indians thought that my wife was sterile, so they included her in their fertility ceremonies. She was there with other women and Indians who gifted her a beautiful old sculpture. When we came back to the Hopi Indians after two years we also brought our adult daughter. The Indian woman, with who we had lived before, exclaimed: ´You see! I knew that it would work!´ (Smile)


Professor, I have one last question. What do you think that our modern Western society is lacking compared to those societies that you had a chance to get to know in such depth?

Well, we can learn a lot from them! The natives already had advanced healing in ancient times which could, for example, have helped tens of thousands of people during the First World War, when people died of complications from numerous injuries and infections. The Quechua people already used effective antibiotics. If we could learn from the so-called ´primitive societies´ we could save many lives. Therefore we should stop labelling them as ´primitives´ and we should start to learn from them and teach others about their inventions and to consider them for those.


Certainly, modern society lacks a certain degree of humility.

Yes, because civilization only grows by contact with other cultures and secondly, through learning from other people. So, the advanced civilizations must have contact with other civilizations and also be humble.


Professor, we are in the end of our interview. It was an honour to take the interview with you. Me, and our editorial stuff, wish you many happy years and good health.

Thank you too and looking forward to read this interview. I wish you a luck in your life.



Interesting links:

Leopold Pospisil, Ph.D. – Branford College

Students´ 1948 bid to save democracy remembered

25 February 1948 – the Communists´ “bloodless coup”


Editorial note:

The interview took place on May 18, 2016 in Celetná Street in Prague. 

Follow Barbora:

Ethnologist, Editor in chief of The Ethnologist

MA et BA Barbora Zelenkova (Sajmovicova) was born in 1985 in Prague. She graduated in Middle Eastern Studies (Near Eastern Studies) from the University of West Bohemia in Pilsen in 2013 and also in Ethnology from the Charles University in Prague in 2015. During her studies in Pilsen she focused on Somalia and Somali people and in Prague on Czech Orientalist and Arabist professor Alois Musil. Since 2014 she has been living in London, where she founded the website The Ethnologist, where she is editor in chief. She is also involved in translating (English/Czech, Czech/English). During her university studies visited Middle East, for example Egypt, Israel, Palestine and Jordan.