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Herodotus, a Greek historian, who wrote in early 400 B.C. about the people of the Persian Empire, is generally considered the first anthropologist. His writings formed a foundation for centuries of studies to follow, as historians and other scholars researched the development of cultures and civilizations. The rise of imperialism paved the way for modern anthropology as Europeans took over foreign lands and were exposed to new cultures. In the early 19th century, amateur anthropologists formed their own societies. By the end of the 19th century, anthropologists began lecturing at colleges and universities.

Franz Boaz, through his teachings and research, helped to promote anthropology as a serious science in the 1920s. His students included Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, who later established their own anthropology departments. Mead's fieldwork, most notably among the Samoan people, was groundbreaking and controversial; for her research, she relied more on her interaction with individual groups of people than on statistics. Approaches and explanations expanded throughout the 20th century. Some, such as the Leakeys, expanded anthropology into scientifically researching human ancestors; this sort of anthropology overlaps greatly with archaeology. Today, anthropologists specialize in diverse areas, focusing on geographic areas and on such subjects as education, feminism, politics, and film and photography.