His mother, Karolína Hrdličková, educated her gifted child herself; his skills and knowledge made it possible to skip the primary level of school. The family immigrated to the U.S. in 1881, when he was only 13. After arrival, the promised job brought only a disappointment to his father who started working in a cigar factory along with teenage Alois to earn living for the family with 6 other children. Young Hrdlička attended evening courses to improve his English, and at the age of 18, he decided to study medicine since he had suffered from tuberculosis and experienced the treatment difficulties of those times. In 1889, Hrdlička began studies at Eclectic Medical College and then continued at Homeopatic College in New York. To finish his medical studies, Hrdlička sat for exams in Baltimore in 1894. At first, he worked in the Middletown asylum for mentally affected where he learnt of anthropometry. In 1896, Hrdlička left for Paris, where he started to work as an anthropologist with other experts of then establishing field of science.
Between 1898 and 1903, during his scientific travel across America, Hrdlička became the first scientist to spot and document the theory of human colonization of the American continent from east Asia only some 3,000 years ago. He argued that the Indians migrated across the Bering Strait from Asia, supporting this theory with detailed field research of skeletal remains as well as studies of the people in Mongolia, Tibet, Siberia, Alaska, and Aleutian Islands. The findings backed up the argument which later contributed to the theory of global origin of human species that was awarded by the Thomas Henry Huxley Award in 1927.
Aleš Hrdlička founded and became the first curator of physical anthropology of the U.S. National Museum, now the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History in 1903. He was the founder of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. After he stepped down, the journal volume number, which had reached Volume 29 in 1942, was re-started at Volume 1 in 1943.
Hrdlička was involved in examining a skull to determine that it belonged to Adolph Ruth, who was sensationalized in the press when Ruth went missing in Arizona in 1931 searching for the legendary Lost Dutchman's Gold Mine.
He always sponsored his fellow expatriates and also donated the institution of anthropology in Prague, which was founded in 1930 by his co-explorer Jindřich Matiegka, in his natal country (the institution later took his name).
Hrdlička was interested in the origin of the human being. He was a critic of hominid evolution as well as the Asia hypothesis, as he claimed there was little evidence to go on for those theories. He dismissed finds such as the Ramapithecus which were labeled as hominids by most scientists, instead believing that they were nothing more than fossil apes, unrelated to human ancestry.
In a lecture on "The Origin of Man," delivered for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, at Cincinnati, Ohio, Hrdlička said that the cradle of man is not in Central Asia but in Central Europe, as Europe is the earliest known location where human skeletal remains have been found.
Hrdlička was almost alone in his views. The European hypothesis fell into decline and is now considered an obsolete scientific theory which has been replaced by the Multiregional hypothesis and the Out of Africa hypothesis.
More recently, Hrdlička's methods have come under scrutiny and criticism with regard to his treatment of Native American remains. An AP newswire article, "Mexico Indian Remains Returned From NY For Burial" from November 17, 2009, recounted his study of Mexico's tribal races, including the beheading of still-decomposing victims of a massacre of Yaqui Indians and removing the flesh from the skulls as part of these studies. He also threw out the corpse of an infant that was found in a cradleboard but forwarded this artifact along with the skulls and other remains to New York's American Museum of Natural History. While these practices are not inconsistent with other ethnographers and human origin researchers of that era, the moral and ethical ramifications of these research practices continues to be debated today. His work has also been linked to the development of American eugenics laws.Mann, Charles. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, New York: Random House, 2005.
Redman, Samuel J. Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums, Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 2016.