Matthew W. Stirling attended the University of California (B.A., 1920)
Washington University (M.A., 1922). He received a D.Sc. from Tampa University in 1943.
In 1920-1921, Stirling was a teaching fellow at the University of California.
he was a museum aid and assistant curator in the Smithsonian Institution's Division of
Ethnology. After an absence from the Smithsonian staff, he became the chief of the Bureau of
American Ethnology in 1928. He continued in the position until 1957, his title changing to
director in 1947. After his retirement, Stirling was a Smithsonian research associate, a
National Park Service collaborator, and a Committee on Research and Exploration member
for the National Geographic Society.
Besides his career as an administrator, Stirling was an active field worker.
His efforts, while
touched with romantic impulses, sometimes had remarkable scientific significance. On his first
effort, in 1922, he explored the cave country of France by bicycle. In Florida during the
winters of 1923 and 1924, he began scientific work, excavating on Weeden Island for
Bureau of American Ethnology Chief J. Walter Fewkes. During the 1930s, he returned to the
South working along the Gulf Coast and directing Civil Works Administration archeology in
Florida and Georgia. In the summer of 1924, he was at Mobridge, South Dakota, excavating
historic Arikara villages.
In 1925, having resigned from the Smithsonian, Stirling led the Smithsonian
Colonial Government expedition to the interior of New Guinea and did ethnological and
physical anthropological studies among Negritos. He also collected natural history specimens.
In New Guinea, Stirling used an airplane, shot a considerable amount of motion picture film
(now in the Human Studies Film Archives), and gathered many anthropological specimens.
These were outstanding features of his work.
In 1924, Stirling first ventured into Latin America by exploring the upper
Amazon in Campa
territory and collecting textiles. In 1931-1932, he was a member of Donald C. Beatty's
Latin-American Expedition (see Numbered Manuscripts) and did ethnological work among
the Jivaro of Ecuador. Next Stirling turned to Central America. Having visited Copán and
Quiriguá and heard reports of extensive ruins in southern Veracruz, he secured funding from
the National Geographic Society and, between 1938 and 1946, explored Tres Zapotes,
Cerro de las Mesas, La Venta, and San Lorenzo. Not only did he identify Olmec culture, he
also dated it as the precursor of other Mesoamerican cultures, including the Mayan. From
1948 to 1954, he turned to work in Panama, Ecuador, and Costa Rica in a search for links
between Mesoamerican and South American cultures.
Stirling was president of the Anthropological Society of Washington in
1934-1935 and vice
president of the American Anthropological Association in 1935-1936. In 1939, 1941, and
1958, he received the National Geographic Society's Franklyn L. Burr Award for
meritorious service in geographic work.
Stirling married Marion Illig in 1933. She came to share in much of his work.
The Stirling collection largely concerns the New Guinea expedition. In
addition, there are
photographs of the Jivaro, Cuna, and Choco and archeological work in Veracruz. Additional
material relating to Stirling's career, particularly his work in Florida and Latin America, are in
the series of Numbered Manuscripts and among the Records of the Bureau of American
QUANTITY: ca. 3.5 linear meters (ca. 11 linear feet)
ARRANGEMENT: (1) Journals and reports; (2) clippings; (3) correspondence;
(5) ephemera; (6) miscellany; photographs, including (7) New Guinea lantern slides; (8)
New Guinea prints; (9) New Guinea negatives; (10) Jivaro lantern slides; (11) San Blas
(Cuna) prints; (12) San Blas negatives; (13) Choco lantern slides; (14) Mexican lantern slides
(La Venta, Tres Zapotes, Cerro de las Mesas).
FINDING AID: Register by Paula R. Fleming