The Cross-cultural Longterm Research Program
and the Human Ethology Film Archive

founded by Prof. Dr. I. Eibl-Eibesfeldt
text published January 2002       




We bid farewell to our esteemed colleague and dear friend


Irenaeus Eibl-Eibesfeldt
died on 2 June 2018

He started his last journey in the circle of his loved ones, his wife and
his children, whom we heartily wish strength at this time. His
enthusiasm, his open eye and mind will always be remembered, as will
his love for life and his vast joy in everything that lives!



text published January 2002       


Fig. 1: Prof. Dr. Eibl-Eibesfeldt filming in the field in
Papua New Guinea: "The Eipo mother and her child were
as interested in my behaviour as I was in theirs."

Photo: Dieter Heunemann

During the second half of the 1960s Prof. Dr. Irenaeus Eibl-Eibesfeldt and Prof. Dr. Hans Hass developed a comparative approach to Human behaviour recording unstaged and undisturbed social interactions of everyday life, rituals and other activities on film and tone documents. For these cross-cultural studies a number of traditional societies with different subsistence strategies were selected for our documentations to provide us with informations on behaviour in societies with different kinds of human social organisation. They have been selected to represent a wide a geographical range as possible:

  • The G/wi, !Ko and !Kung Bushmen of the Kalahari (Botswana and Namibia), who during the first years of our investigations (1970-1975) still lived in small groups as hunters and gatherers. They are relatively peaceful people living on what might be considered a Palaeolithic subsistence strategy with Palaeolithic technology.
  • The Yanomami (Yanomamö, Waika) of the upper Orinoco and the Sierra Parima in Venezuela (studied since 1969), who are hunters and simple horticulturists. In contrast to the Bushmen they are rather belligerent.
  • The Eipo and other Mek-speaking tribes of Western New Guinea (Irian Jaya; studied since 1975). They lived totally isolated from the modern world and were first contacted with an interdisciplinary team initiated by Gerd Koch and Klaus Helfrich, with whom the group worked closely. At the time of contact these were intact Neolithic horticulturists entirely free from external influences.
  • The Himba of Namibia (studied since 1971) who as nonacculturated Herero-speaking people are traditional belligerent stock-farmers and pastoralists.
  • The Trobriand islanders (studied since 1981), a culture of horticulturists and fishermen who, despite civilising influences, maintain many aspects of their culture.
  • The Balinese (studied since 1965) as a non-western peasant society.

Local communities of these cultures are visited, if feasible, at regular intervals. We also make spot checks of other cultures in Europe, central Australia (Walbiri, Pintubi) and Arnhemland (Gidjingali), the Philippines (Tboli, Tasaday, Agta) and other geographic regions.

The cross cultural approach to human behaviour was initiated in pilot studies in the 1960s. Systematic documentation began in 1969. Until January 2002, a total of 279.699 kilometres of 16 mm-film and 3371,47 ( correspond to 38457,83 meters) minutes of videofilm (Mini DV, Hi 8, S-VHS) has been recorded. In the majority of cases film documents are accompanied by a sound track. This makes the Film Archive of Human Ethology the most extensive documentation of human behaviour world-wide. In contrast to the variety of ethnological or anthropological films, which in most cases deal with performed activities, the Film Archive of Human Ethology mainly records unstaged and minimally disturbed social behaviour. In order to achieve such records, the right-angle reflex lens technique was employed, as developed by Prof. Dr. Hans Hass. This permits the photographer to film subjects without pointing the camera at them (Figs. 1 and 2).

The archives are housed in the former Research Institute of Human Ethology in Andechs near Munich which is associated with the nearby Max-Planck-Institute for Behavioural Physiology in Seewiesen. Strict guidelines have been laid down aimed at preserving the uncut original documents for future generations of scientists. The availability of this primary documentation is another methodological advantage of the Film Archive of Human Ethology, since most ethnological films have been subjected to potential manipulation through being edited and cut. Together with some old ethnological or anthropological films the older films of our Archive offer unique and unreproducible documentation of traditional societies, because some of the recorded societies have been subject to strong enculturation. The original unedited records provide opportunities for various interdisciplinary analyses of human behaviour. Until now only a few selected elements of human behaviour have been fully analysed by our local and fellow researchers (publications of the Film Archive). So there is plenty of virgin material that would reward further investigation.

Fig. 2: Camera with dummy lens placed in front
of the true lens showing the side window for the
right-angle reflex lense. The technique was
developed by Prof. Dr. Hans Hass.
Photo: Renate Krell

Up to 1998 as many as 234 films on Human Ethology and Ethnology have been published based on the Archive's resources (published films) in co-operation with the Institut für den wissenschaftlichen Film IWF (later: IWF Wissen und Medien) in Goettingen, Germany, and most recently with the Federal Austrian Institute for Scientific Film (Österreichisches Bundesinstitut fuer den Wissenschaftlichen Film, ÖWF) in Vienna, Austria. Most of the published films were included in the Encyclopaedia Cinematographica (EC) of the IWF, either because they met the rigid standards for scientific documentation or because they were judged to be of great importance for the scientific community. Each of these films documents a certain scene in such detail that it could be used as a source in further research and education. The films are accompanied by publications in which the verbal interactions and songs are transcribed and all important side information is collated.

The reconditioning of our large film and sound resources are far from being complete. By November 1997, another 21 films were offered and accepted at the EC of the IWF in Goettingen. Due to the emphasis placed on collecting this priceless record over the years, only half of the published films are so far accompanied by publications. In addition there is a need to improve the archiving of our documents. No scientific work on the uncut material should touch the valuable originals (sources). Therefore 1:1 copies (work copies) have to be prepared. Due to the early "birth" of our Film Archives more than two decades ago, computer-based indexing is not yet available. In order to increase the effectiveness of the scientific use of the Archives, in 1994 we began developing a computer index for the original documents. For the use of the Archives in future it is essentially to integrate all important information (subject names, demographic data, traditional genealogical relationships, behavioural keywords etc.) on each scene of the films into a database to enable complex inquiries. Only after this database is complete will the full potential of the Archive become available online to foreign scientists and institutions. In the meantime using the Archives requires the assistance of a handful of people who have worked with it over many years.

We estimate that at least 4 years will be necessary to accomplish the indexing of the large resources of the Archive of Human Ethology, if we could hire enough skilled ethologists for this purpose. Due to the chronic shortage of funding and the fact that our director Prof. Dr. Eibl-Eibesfeldt reached retirement age on June 30 1996, the Senate of the Max-Planck-Society (Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, MPG) decided to close down the Research Institute of Human Ethology, which had financed the documentation, evaluation and publication of our films in co-operation with the IWF. We are very pleased by the fact that the MPG offered Prof. Dr. Eibl-Eibesfeldt an emeritus-working place including the rooms of the Archive for a few years, to enable completion of the ongoing scientific evaluations and the indexing of the archive. Unfortunately this support alone could not finance the time and human resources needed to index the Archive. In this desperate situation the Volkswagen Foundation (Volkswagenstiftung) recognized the importance of the Archives of Human Ethology and saved our database project for at least the next two years.

Beginning of 2014, Irenaeus Eibl-Eibesfeldt and the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft agreed upon signing over the Human Ethology Film Archive to the Senckenberg Gesellschaft fuer Naturforschung. Through this recent transfer to the Senckenberg Gesellschaft fuer Naturforschung ideal conditions are met for the future of the scientific work of the Human Ethology Film Archive.


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