Margaret Mead: Human Nature and the Power of Culture

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Margaret Mead on a canoe with Manus childrenOn the boat returning from Samoa, Mead met her second husband, Reo Fortune, a New Zealander headed to Cambridge, England, to study psychology. They were married in 1928, after Mead's divorce from Luther Cressman. They traveled together to Pere, a small village on the island of Manus, in what was then the Admiralty Islands and is now part of Papua New Guinea. Mead wanted to study the thought processes of children in preliterate cultures and asked the children of Pere to prepare drawings for her. On the trip she collected approximately 35,000 pieces of children's artwork. Contrary to prevailing thought, she discovered that what is considered childlike in thought varies according to the emphases of the culture. In a culture such as Manus, where the supernatural permeates everyday life, Mead found that children showed no particular interest in the supernatural in their drawings. They focused instead on realistic depictions of the world around them. She published her findings in Growing Up in New Guinea (1930), a book written for a general audience. But, as with her Samoan research, she also published a technical monograph on Manus for her peers entitled titled Kinship in the Admiralty Islands (1934).

“When does an Indian become an Indian?”

In this letter to her future husband Reo Fortune, Mead recounts a conversation with noted psychologist Robert Sessions Woodworth (1869–1962), one of her former psychology professors. In this conversation, Woodworth asked “at what points a child's cultural environment impinged sufficiently upon its consciousness to make it an Indian (culturally) as compared with an American.” This question—which Mead summarized elsewhere as “When does an Indian become an Indian?”—was critical to the research Mead did during the rest of her career. Fortune has also made some notes on the page.

Margaret Mead. Letter to Reo Fortune, January 17, 1927 [original letter is misdated as 1926]. Page 2. Manuscript, with additional notes by Fortune. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (98)

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Mead and Fortune in Pere Village

In 1928, Mead married her second husband, Reo Franklin Fortune (1903–1979), in Auckland, New Zealand. From there they headed to do fieldwork in the Admiralty Islands, settling in the Manus village of Pere. Mead focused on childhood education and mental development, while Fortune published a book on Manus religion from his research. Mead later termed it “the best field trip we ever had.” Mead and Fortune divorced in 1935.

Reo Fortune or Margaret Mead, photographer. Margaret Mead and Reo Fortune in Pere Village, Manus, Admiralty Islands, 1928. Gelatin silver print. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (106)

Mead on Canoe with Manus Children

Growing up in a village built over water, Pere children learned basic physical skills for survival at a very young age—how to swim, maintain balance, and paddle a canoe. Mead observed that few demands or restrictions were placed on the children by their elders, except those that related to their physical survival and to respecting the personal property of others. Mead felt that the carefree lives of Manus children did not prepare them for the harsh conditions of adult life.

Reo Fortune, photographer. Margaret Mead on a canoe with Manus children, 1928. Gelatin silver print. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (107)

Mead on Crutches

Mead broke her right ankle numerous times, beginning in 1924, when she was hit by a New York City taxicab. She broke it again in 1929, while living in Pere Village. Village houses were built on stilts over the lagoon. Mead fell and broke her ankle when the ladder to her house collapsed. Mead was treated by a Manus bonesetter, and villagers built crutches for her use, fashioned from canoe poles and wooden pillows. Mead broke her ankle a final time in 1960. After that break, she began using a tall English-made walking stick, which became her trademark.

Reo Fortune, photographer. Margaret Mead on crutches, Pere Village, Manus, 1929. Gelatin silver print. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (109)

Reality and Fantasy in Children's Drawings

In a letter written a few months before her grandmother's death, Mead described a conversation with one of her husband's young nephews. This exchange prompted her to think about how children distinguish reality from fantasy, proving crucial to the way Mead set up her Admiralty Islands research. On the expedition, Mead asked Manus children to draw pictures. She discovered that, in this culture where the adult world was suffused with ghosts and supernatural forces, children's drawings showed none of the animism that filled the images made by Western children.

Margaret Mead. Letter to Martha Ramsey Mead, April 24, 1927. Holograph manuscript. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (85)

Manus Boys

When Mead went into the field with her husbands, they typically had a house built in the local style and employed youths from the village to work for them. In Pere, they employed a succession of several boys of about 12 or 13 years to run their household. One of these boys was Kilipak (later Johanis Kilipak), whom Mead described in 1929 as “possibly thirteen, quick as a flash, son of the ruling family, a natural leader of men.”

Margaret Mead, photographer. Houseboys, Pere Village, Manus, Admiralty Islands, 1928. From left to right: Kapeli, Pomat, Yesa, Kilipak, and Loponiu. Gelatin silver print. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (91)

“Catching Fish in a Net,” Manus Children's Drawings

Mead collected nearly 35,000 children's drawings in Manus on her 1928–29 field trip. This drawing is by Kilipak, described by Mead as “the brightest” in the group of older boys from whom she collected her first drawings. Mead found no tendency towards spontaneous animism in the drawings she collected, but she did observe some variations in types of drawings by sex and age. Girls, for instance, often tended to draw designs and to use color, while boys avoided color and depicted “realistic” scenes and subjects like human beings, animals, and ships.

“Catching Fish in a Net” by Kilipak, New Guinea, male age 13. Page 2. Pencil drawing. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (92)

Interpreting Ink Blots

As she had in Samoa, Mead developed psychological tests to administer to the children of Pere. This notebook contains ink blot tests and children's answers. While their interpretations varied, the children generally described things in the world around them, such as pigs and dogs. Mead observed that when some children were uncertain in naming an ink blot, they would call it “tchinal.” Tchinal is a “land devil” that the adults of Manus invoked to threaten children. Mead found that most children did not believe in tchinals and were not afraid of them.

Margaret Mead. Field notebook with projective testing materials, Manus, Admiralty Islands, 1929. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (99)

“Child Thought and Culture”

This is a pencil draft of the article that would be published as “An Investigation into the Thought of Primitive Children with Special Reference to Animism” (1932). In that classic article, Mead challenged the view of psychologist Jean Piaget (1896–1980) that animism (supernaturalism or attribution of spiritual qualities to objects) is a universal stage of development in childhood thought. Based on the children's drawings she collected and results of ink blots and other psychological tests, Mead argued that, due to their upbringing, Manus children did not think animistically.

Margaret Mead, “Child Thought and Culture,” undated, probably ca. 1930–31. Page 2. Holograph manuscript. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (94)

Learning by Imitation

Here three-year old Ponkob is sitting in one of the Mead/Fortune household chairs, in Mead's words, “playing at being a European.” Manus children had not used pencil and paper prior to the presence of Mead and Fortune. They were familiar, however, with the act of writing from seeing Mead, Fortune, and colonial government officials write. When Mead collected drawings in Manus, she instructed the oldest children to draw, without giving specific instructions. Then the younger children imitated them. Mead chose this approach to minimize the intrusiveness of introducing a new activity into the culture.

Photographer: Margaret Mead. “Ponkob plays at writing,” Pere Village, Manus, Admiralty Islands, 1929. Gelatin silver print. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (104)

Nanua and Ponkob

In her field notes on psychology, Mead described an episode where Nauna is sent by his mother to retrieve his recalcitrant younger brother Ponkob. In this photo, the brothers are in a canoe (Nauna, in front; Ponkob, paddling), with Pere village in the background. With the westernized name Michael Nauna, the older brother became a leader of postwar Pere. According to Mead, in the 1950's Nauna was “the most trusted man in the village.”

Margaret Mead or Reo Fortune, photographer. “The mariners of the next generation,” Pere Village, Manus, Admiralty Islands, ca. 1928–29. Gelatin silver print. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (115)


Tobacco is believed to have been introduced into New Guinea by traders centuries ago. In the 1920's and 1930's, Westerners brought tobacco with them to New Guinea to trade or use for gifts or payment. Even the very small children smoked tobacco. The children also chewed the stimulant betel nut, the nut of a tropical palm tree found in the region. In this photo, young Manus girls are rolling cigarettes from a gift stick of tobacco, with Nauna standing behind them.

Margaret Mead, photographer or Reo Fortune. “Small girl assistants supervised by Nauna,” Pere Village, Manus, Admiralty Islands, 1928. Gelatin silver print. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (115b)

Holding On in Pere

Mead, an early student of gesture and body language, was interested throughout her career in the way children were held and carried in various cultures. Among the Pere villagers, she wrote in her notes, “the reaction of grasping the elder's throat comes very early.” Because much of village life occurred in or over water, small children were carried on their elders' shoulders and backs.

Reo Fortune, photographer. Margaret Mead carrying a Manus girl, probably Piwen, on her back, 1928. Gelatin silver print. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (110)

Father and Daughter

Here Mead documents the interaction between a Manus father, Luwil, and his daughter Piwen. Mead found a strong father-child bond in Manus: “As soon as children can walk, they become their fathers' constant companions.” In her research notes, Mead recorded a scene of Luwil disciplining Piwen. And in the photograph seen here, notice that Piwen is resting her hands around her father's neck. Mead went on to present a paper entitled “Father and child in Manus” at the joint meeting of the American Anthropological Association and American Folklore Society in December of 1929.

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  • Margaret Mead, photographer. Luwil Bomboi carrying his 2 1/2 year old daughter Piwen. Manus, Admiralty Islands, 1929. Gelatin silver print. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (120)

  • Margaret Mead. Note slip, “Piwen April 5,” Manus, Admiralty Islands, 1929. Manuscript. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (120a)

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Kroeber's Critique

In a 1931 review of Growing Up In New Guinea, Alfred Kroeber (1876–1960) criticized Mead for her ahistorical outlook and for not including sufficient ethnographic data to support her conclusions. He also noted that she had an aesthetic gift for conceptualization “approaching genius.” Kroeber had been Franz Boas' first Ph. D. student and was one of the most eminent anthropologists of the time. Mead was troubled by his critique and wrote him to thank him for the praise he gave her in the review and to answer his criticisms. This letter is Kroeber's response.

Alfred L. Kroeber. Letter to Margaret Mead, May 14, 1931. Typescript. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (129)

“The Ethnographic Points of Manus Culture”

While Mead often published technical works from the same research she used in her books for general audiences, she also included detailed appendices in many of her more “popular” books. In this draft page from one of a dozen appendices to Growing Up In New Guinea, for instance, Mead provided basic information about Manus geography, house-building, and language. While some reviewers liked her inclusion of the appendices, others, such as Alfred Kroeber, thought the material would have been better integrated into the text.

Margaret Mead. “The Ethnographic Points of Manus Culture,” draft of page from Appendix 2 of Growing Up in New Guinea, ca. 1929–30. Holograph manuscript. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (122)

Fieldwork Dress

This is a dress Mead designed for doing fieldwork. It has pockets large enough to hold notebooks and a wraparound waist that can accommodate weight change. She wore dresses made from this pattern when she returned to Manus after World War II.

Margaret Mead fieldwork dress. Fabric. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, the National Museum of American History, Behring Center (273)

A Changed Manus

Accompanied by two younger colleagues, Theodore and Lenora Schwartz, Mead examined the effects of technological change on the lives of the people, publishing her findings in New Lives for Old: Cultural Transformation—Manus, 1928–1953 (1956). Mead felt that a key to the success of the change was that it was total and rapid. She has been criticized for exaggerating the extent of the change in Manus culture.

Theodore or Lenora Schwartz, photographer. “The field work team, 1953,” Margaret Mead, Lenora Schwartz, and Theodore Schwartz [left to right] with Manus children, 1953. Gelatin silver print. Courtesy of Ted Schwartz. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (267)

Return to Manus

In 1953, Mead made a follow-up visit to Pere Village, the first of six trips she would make there in the post-World War II years. Mead was interested in Manus as a successful model of cultural transformation. Because Manus had been a wartime staging area, life there had changed dramatically in the twenty five years since Mead's first trip. This change was accompanied by a political movement headed by a charismatic leader named Paliau Maloat (1907–1991).

Theodore or Lenora Schwartz, photographer. 1928 houseboys as adults. Johanis Lokus (Loponiu), Margaret Mead, Petrus Pomat, Raphael Manuwai [not in 1928 photo], John Kilipak—[left to right] with Manus children, 1953. Gelatin silver print. Courtesy of Ted Schwartz. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (268)

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