Francis Paine Conant was a cultural anthropologist who pioneered the use of satellite data in anthropology. He conducted fieldwork in Nigeria and Kenya, and his research interests spanned cultural ecology, AIDS, malaria, and sex and gender studies. He was also Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Hunter College, where he taught from 1962 to 1995.
Conant was born on February 27, 1926 in New York City. After graduating from Phillips Exeter Academy, he deferred college to enlist in the U.S. Army in 1944. He served as a field artillery observer for the 294th Field Artillery Battalion and helped liberate two concentration camps during World War II. After he was honorably discharged in 1946, he attended Cornell University, where he obtained his B.A. in 1950. While at Cornell, a Finnish student invited Conant to Finland to help relocate families, farms, and livestock further from the Russian border, a protective measure against another Russian invasion. Conant accepted his invitation and took time off from his academic studies to spend several months in Finland in 1947, as well as a summer in 1949.
After graduating from Cornell, Conant attended University of Iowa's graduate writing program for a short time. Dissatisfied with the program, he worked briefly for the Carnegie Endowment, during which time he occasionally served as a personal driver for Alger Hiss. In 1951, he returned to Finland to pursue a career in journalism. He worked for United Press International until 1953.
From December 5, 1953 to May 26, 1954, Conant traveled throughout Africa as part of the Bernheim-Conant Expedition for the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). The expedition was led by Claude Bernheim, the father of his first wife, Miriam. They traveled 16,000 miles through Northern Central and Eastern Africa, collecting film footage and material culture for the museum. Conant served as the writer and photographer for the expedition, publishing illustrated articles in the New York Times and Natural History Magazine.
He later returned to Africa as a doctoral student at Columbia University, where he earned his PhD in Anthropology in 1960. After studying the Hausa language at the International African Institute in London, he traveled to Nigeria as a Fellow of the Ford Foundation to carry out his fieldwork in Dass Independent District, Bauchi Province. Working among the Barawa that live in the mountains of Dass, he focused on their religion and its impact on the technology, social and political organization, and structure of their society. His dissertation was titled "Dodo of Dass: A Study of a Pagan Religion of Northern Nigeria." During his fieldwork, he also collected data on rock gongs, which were first identified and written about by Bernard Fagg in 1955.
In 1961 to 1962, Conant was a research associate for Walter Goldschmidt's Culture and Ecology in East Africa Project. The purpose of the project was to conduct a controlled comparison of four different East African societies and the farmers and pastoralists within each tribe. Conant was assigned to conduct ethnographic research among the Pokot in West Pokot District in Kenya. This research would form the basis of his remote sensing work in the same area more than a decade later. Conant was first introduced to remote sensing data in 1974 when his colleague Priscilla Reining showed him Landsat imagery of one his former fieldwork sites. He was inspired by the potential applications of satellite data to study cultural and ecological relationships. In 1975, he and Reining organized a workshop on "Satellite Potentials for Anthropological Studies of Subsistence Activities and Population Change." He incorporated remote sensing tools in his 1977 to 1980 study of the changing cultivation patterns and management of livestock in West Pokot District. His research combined traditional fieldwork (which included data he had collected in the 1960s), LANDSAT data, and geospatial data collected from the ground.
Later in his career, Conant's research interests expanded to include the spread of diseases, specifically AIDS and malaria. He, along with Priscilla Reining, John Bongaarts, and Peter Way found that uncircumcised men were 86% more likely to contract HIV than circumcised men. Their findings were published in their paper "The Relationship Between Male Circumcision and HIV Infection in African Populations" (1989). His research on malaria focused on the spread of the disease during African prehistory.
Conant taught briefly at Columbia University and was an Assistant Professor at University of Massachusetts, at Amherst in 1960-1961. Most of his academic career was spent at Hunter College, where he served as Chair of the Anthropology Department several times. He also founded and headed the college's Research Institute in Aruba.
Conant was a Fulbright Senior Research Fellow at Oxford University's Pitts Rivers Museum in 1968-1969. He was also a fellow of the American Anthropological Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the International African Institute, the New York Academy of Sciences, and the Royal Anthropological Institute. In addition, he was actively involved with the Human Ecology: An Interdisciplinary Journal.
Conant died at the age of 84 on January 29, 2011.
Bates, Daniel G. 2011. Francis P. Conant: A Tribute to a Friend of Human Ecology. Human Ecology 39(2): 115.
Bates, Daniel and Oliver Conant. Francis P. Conant. Anthropology News. 52(5): 25.
Conant, Veronika. Email message to Lorain Wang, October 22, 2013.
[Curriculum Vitae], Series 7. Biographical Files and Letters, Francis Conant Papers, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution
Born February 27 in New York City, New York
Enlists in Army and serves in World War II as a flash ranger in 294th Field Artillery Battalion
Earns B.A. from Cornell University in English and Russian, minor in Engineering
AMNH Bernheim-Conant Expedition to northern Africa
Conducts language studies at the International African Institute
Conducts fieldwork in northern Nigeria
Earns PhD in Cultural Anthropology from Columbia University
Assistant Professor, Anthropology, University of Massachusetts at Amherst
Research Associate for Culture and Ecology in East Africa Project directed by Walter Goldschimdt
Joins faculty at Hunter College
Fulbright Senior Research Fellow, Oxford University, Pitt-Rivers Museum
Sets up remote sensing monitoring area in West Pokot district in Kenya. Studies changing cultivation patterns and management of livestock
Retires from Hunter College; Emeritus Professor
Dies on January 29 at the age of 84