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Anthropology: Primary Sources

Understanding Primary Sources in Anthropology

Primary sources in anthropology can be defined as original, first-hand records of a particular culture, event, or time period. These first-hand records can be contrasted with secondary sources (including many academic articles and books), which provide analysis or interpretation of primary source materials.

Primary sources may include government and legal documents, historical texts (such as letters and diaries), oral histories, photographs, video recordings, artworks, and various archival materials. The original news stories and articles reporting on events are also considered primary sources. Journal articles in the social sciences (including anthropology) that report the results of original research studies can be thought of as primary sources. Finally, scholarly books and book chapters may also provide extensive quotations, narratives, or other data that constitute primary source material.

Researchers use primary sources to help them understand the context of events or activities from the point of view of the original participants. Such sources serve as powerful evidence to support or refute particular arguments. 

If you aren't sure if a source is primary or secondary, you can always ask your professor. For more information about primary sources, check out our guide:

News Resources

The following resources include news articles. If you need help finding articles about a particular event or time period, ask a librarian!

Other Primary Sources

Locating primary sources can be challenging. Many sources are only available in print archives, and those sources that have been digitized may not be easy to find. The best strategy is to think through the types of sources you might be interested in and then contact a librarian for assistance. Some questions you might consider:

  • What kind of sources would be helpful? Legal documents? Original news stories? Statistics? What else?
  • What is the scope of my project? Regional? National? International?
  • Do I need information about a specific person or event? What are the key dates or time periods?
  • What organizations and agencies might have produced information related to my research question? Do they post information on the web?

Google can help you (and sometimes frustrate you!) with finding digital archives, repositories, and collections of primary sources. Be sure to try different search terms and look through at least the first full page of results.

The following links are just examples of resources that include primary documents. They may or may not be relevant, depending on your topic.

Subject Guide


Lidiya Grote

Social Sciences Teaching and Faculty Outreach Librarian

Ekstrom Library