Nigel Barley (anthropologist)

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Nigel Frederick Barley (1947- ) is an anthropologist known for his humorous books on his experiences. His reputation was established with his first book, The Innocent Anthropologist (1983), an account of anthropological field work in Cameroon. After working in Africa he moved to Indonesia, where he wrote the humorous Not a Hazardous Sport (1989) about his anthropological experiences in Tana Toraja. He has since written numerous other works.


Barley spent some years living in Tana Toraja, Sulawesi studying the local customs.

Barley was born in Kingston upon Thames in 1947. He gained his bachelor's degree in modern languages at Cambridge University, and his doctorate in social anthropology at Oxford University. He worked for some years as an academic at London University and then served from 1980 to 2003 as an assistant keeper of Ethnography at the British Museum.[1][2][3]

Barley's first travel book, The Innocent Anthropologist (1983), gave a popular account of anthropological field work among the Dowayo people of Cameroon.[4]

Barley then worked as an anthropologist in Indonesia. His first book based on his time there was the humorous Not a Hazardous Sport (1989) describing his anthropological experiences in Tana Toraja in the mountains of central Sulawesi.[5]

Barley has written on many other subjects including Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore,[6] and Sir James Brooke, the "white rajah" of Sarawak.[7] He has been twice nominated for the Travelex Writer of the Year Award. In 2002, he won the Foreign Press Association prize for travel writing.[2]


The Innocent Anthropologist[edit]

Wooden fertility doll with beaded cords and amulets from the Dowayo people of West Africa studied by Barley. TropenMuseum collection.

The journalist and author Ryszard Kapuscinski wrote that whereas the "modern literature" represented in French literary awards largely failed to talk about people from other cultures, Barley's Innocent Anthropologist, like Colin Thubron's Behind the Wall and Bruce Chatwin's Songlines did "show us the modern cultures, ideas and behaviour of people who live in different geographical latitudes and who believe in different gods from us", even if these books were not considered to be "real literature" by some within the literary elite.[8] The anthropologist Tony Waters calls Innocent Anthropologist a memorably written story, and writes that it is the book he gets students to read for an understanding of "field work, ethnography, and cultural anthropology."[4] Waters says he truly admires the book as it gives a realistic idea of field experience, but "Oddly, I find few anthropologists who have read it, much less heard of it."[4]

Not a Hazardous Sport[edit]

Tim Hannigan, reflecting on Not a Hazardous Sport in the Asian Review of Books, wrote that British travel writing has had a "preeminent court jester"[5] in each generation, from Robert Byron in the 1930s, Eric Newby in the 1950s, and Redmond O'Hanlon in the 1980s.[5] But in his view, Barley's writing has survived the test of time "in a postcolonial world"[5] far better than O'Hanlon's, not least because, as an anthropologist, his observations on the people he wrote about were underpinned by "professional fieldwork ... proper language training and research".[5] Hannigan found Barley's prose "effortlessly jaunty .. with an air of permanent good-natured amusement. But there's also the faintly discernible trace of inexplicable melancholy common to the best of British comic travel writing".[5] All in all, Hannigan considered it an excellent travel book, both a "vicarious journey", entertaining, and valuable for steering the reader "away from complacency".[5]



  • Symbolic structures. An exploration of the culture of the Dowayos, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1983 ISBN 0-521-24745-4
  • The Innocent Anthropologist: Notes From a Mud Hut, 1983. (Reissued Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press, 2000; Reissued London: Eland Books, 2011)
  • Adventures in a Mud Hut: An Innocent Anthropologist Abroad, Vanguard Press, 1984. (ISBN 0-8149-0880-2)
  • A Plague of Caterpillars: A Return to the African Bush, Viking Press, 1986. (ISBN 0-670-80704-4)
  • Ceremony: An Anthropologist's Misadventures in the African Bush, Henry Holt, 1987. (ISBN 0-8050-0142-5)
  • The Coast, 1991. (ISBN 0-14-012213-3)
  • Smashing Pots. 1994.
  • Arts du Nigeria- Revisites, Musee Barbier-Mueller, Geneva 2015.

Southeast Asia[edit]

--- reprinted in USA as Toraja: Misadventures of a Social Anthropologist in Sulawesi, Indonesia
  • The Duke of Puddle Dock: Travels in the Footsteps of Stamford Raffles, Henry Holt, 1992. (ISBN 0-8050-1968-5)
  • Grave Matters: A Lively History of Death around the World, Henry Holt, 1997. (ISBN 0-8050-4824-3)
  • White Rajah: A Biography of Sir James Brooke, Little, Brown, 2003. (ISBN 0-3168-5920-6)
  • Rogue Raider: The tale of Captain Lauterbach and the Singapore Mutiny, Monsoon Books, 2006. (ISBN 981-05-5949-6)
  • Island of Demons: A novelistic treatment of the life of the painter Walter Spies in Bali, Monsoon Books, 2009. (ISBN 978-981-08-2381-8)
  • The Devil's Garden: Love and War in Singapore under the Japanese Flag, Monsoon Books, 2011. (ISBN 978-981-4358-42-2)
  • Snow Over Surabaya, Monsoon Books, 2017. (ISBN 978-1912049004)



  1. ^ "Dr Nigel F Barley (Biographical details)". British Museum. Retrieved 30 December 2019.
  2. ^ a b "Nigel Barley". David Higham Associates. Retrieved 30 December 2019.
  3. ^ "Nigel Barley Biography | (1947– ), The Innocent Anthropologist, A Plague of Caterpillars, Not a Hazardous Sport, Native Land, The Coast". 2019. Retrieved 30 December 2019.
  4. ^ a b c Waters, Tony (25 January 2013). "Why Does Anthropology Worry about Jared Diamond when they have Nigel Barley?".
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Hannigan, Tim (21 June 2019). "Not a Hazardous Sport: Misadventures of an Anthropologist in Indonesia by Nigel Barley". Asian Review of Books.
  6. ^ Milne, Rosie (12 September 2008). "Fact and Fiction". The Daily Telegraph.
  7. ^ Kuper, Adam (12 December 2002). "Man Who Burned". London Review of Books. 24 (24).
  8. ^ Kapuscinski, Ryszard (2008). The Other. p. 59. ISBN 978-1844673285. quoted in Cooke, Simon (2013). Travellers' Tales of Wonder: Chatwin, Naipaul, Sebald: Chatwin, Naipaul, Sebald. Edinburgh University Press. pp. 46–47. ISBN 978-0-7486-7547-0.

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