Carl Schuster was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to a prominent Jewish family. His gift for languages was evident from an early age as was an interest in puzzles, codes, and ciphers. These skills would later serve him well both as a scholar and as a cryptanalyst for the OSS during the Second World War. He received a B.A. (1927) and an M.A. (1930) from Harvard where he studied art history and oriental studies. A growing interest in traditional symbolism led him to Peking (1931–1933) where he spent three years studying with Baron Alexander Staël von Holstein, a Baltic refugee and distinguished scholar. It was during this period that he began collecting textile fragments and ventured on the first of his many field trips in search of specimens. His travels would eventually take him to some of the more remote parts of the world, photographing rock carvings, visiting small museums or private collections, and talking to missionaries, scholars, or anyone else who might have information he was seeking. Schuster returned to Europe to study at the University of Vienna with the noted art historian, Josef Strzygowski, and received his doctorate in 1934 in art history.
He worked briefly as Assistant Curator of Chinese Art at the Philadelphia Art Museum but was soon back in China (1935–38) pursuing his researches and traveling until the Japanese invaded.
Schuster was assisted in his researches by academic grants from the Harvard-Yenching Institute, the Bollingen foundation, and the Guggenheim Foundation. His easy-going manner and gift for languages provided access to people and information not available to others. He collected and photographed specimens in his widespread travels, but he never wandered randomly.
Some of his rare Chinese embroideries were purchased by George Hewitt Myers for the Textile Museum and another large group was given to the Field Museum in Chicago. He also donated a group of Chinese prints to the New York Public Library as well as a collection of Buddhist woodcuts.
After World War II, he lived in Woodstock, New York, where he began to develop his ideas, publishing learned monographs on traditional design motifs. He generally placed these studies in specialized publications, whose readers, he hoped, would respond with more leads. Harvard University was on the verge of publishing a book, The Sun Bird, but he withdrew it at the last moment because he felt it contained errors.
The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) provided him with a desk and he spent much time there and in the New York Public Library. In 1945, the American Anthropological Association sponsored an exhibition of his photographs at the AMNH illustrating his ideas about how certain symbols were shared by widely separated cultures.
Along with the artist Miguel Covarrubias, the curator Rene d'Harnoncourt, and the politician and philanthropist Nelson Rockefeller, Schuster was involved in the foundation of the Museum for Primitive Art (now part of the Michael Rockefeller wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art).
He continued to travel, attending conferences and doing fieldwork and to correspond with others who shared his interests.
Schuyler Cammann (1912–1991), Professor of East Asian Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, first met Schuster in China in the 1930s and was greatly influenced by him.
Schuster never sought the spotlight and his work was generally ignored in academic circles where his approach was considered out of date. Privately, he was at the center of a vast network of scholars and other interested parties who shared ideas and sought his advice.
Schuster’s ability to gather, organize and evaluate data was extraordinary. In an age before the copier and the personal computer, he accumulated an archive comprising some 200,000 photographs, 800 rubbings (mostly of petroglyphs), 18,000 pages of correspondence in multiple languages, and a bibliography of 5670 titles filed by alphabet (Chinese, Cyrillic, Latin)—all meticulously cross-referenced. Schuster did not live to see his work completed. He died suddenly of cancer in 1969. The task fell to a friend, the anthropologist Dr. Edmund Carpenter, who agreed to write and publish his findings. The result of twenty years of labor was Materials for the Study of Social Symbolism in Ancient and Tribal Art: A Record of Tradition and Continuity, published privately in three volumes (1986–88) and distributed free of charge to scholars and libraries throughout the world. A much abbreviated version of this work was published in 1996 under the title Patterns That Connect, by Abrams Press. Schuster’s archives, which contain unpublished material on a wide variety of subjects, are housed in the Museum der Kulturen in Basel, Switzerland.
Schuster’s initial publications centered on traditional design motifs that he found preserved on textile fragments he had collected in western China during the 1930s. While the textiles themselves were not old, the designs were, having been preserved by endless imitation. Even where the motifs seemed specifically Chinese, like the return of the triumphant scholar (chuang yüan) on horseback, the oldest known prototypes were found in distant times and places.
Schuster used the method employed by many art historians of identifying significant design motifs and then tracing their distribution and meaning in different cultural and historical contexts, looking for commonalities. He tried, where possible, to provide historical evidence for the movement of these ideas and images but this proved increasingly difficult as the trail moved backward in time. Writing later about the difficulty of providing historical support for the idea of cultural contact between Asia and the Americas in prehistoric times, he defended his methodology.
Schuster was a believer in the comparative method. Like the great art historian, folklorist and metaphysician, Ananda Coomaraswamy — from whom he learned a great deal — he believed that traditional symbolism constituted a form of language that communicated the beliefs of ancient peoples from the earliest times. As in linguistics, where many languages can arise from a common ancestor, he sought the underlying patterns that provided the links between seemingly disparate art forms. Not unlike the early navigators in the Pacific, who used the deep ocean swells to find their way around vast stretches of unexplored ocean, Schuster looked for older meanings obscured or altered by the fashion-driven arts of the palace and the propaganda of the great world religions.
He learned to look for cross-relations between the arts, following the evidence where it led, across time periods and boundaries, both geographic and academic. He expressed some of his feelings about these matters in a letter to the ethnographer Heiner Meinhard in 1967.
Much of his time was taken up in collecting and comparing the motifs he felt to be of particular importance. One gauge of antiquity was how widely dispersed these designs were. He became interested in the figure of the Sun Bird, and its earthly antagonist, a turtle, snake, or other reptile. This led him to a deeper understanding of traditional cosmologies and their relation to ideas about kinship and rebirth.
An area that proved to be of primary importance was a study of joint marks, present in the arts of Asia, Oceania and the Far East. He gradually uncovered an ancient correlation between body joints and ancestors based on a metaphoric association of the human body with a plant or tree, with each limb representing a branching of the group or tribe. Indo-European and other language families preserve these ideas in the words used to describe kinship.
He was systematically building up a picture of some of the earliest beliefs and practices of mankind. A list of the topics that he investigated would be too lengthy to include here, but many of them proved to be inter-related.
Continuous-line drawings, including such related forms as string figures, mazes, and labyrinths. These art forms were related, in turn, to joint marks.
The design of fur garments using a technique of small, interlocking skins. The resulting designs were later transferred to other media where they formed a kind of primitive heraldry, serving to identify group membership and the social standing of the owner.
Crossed figures (human or animal) engaged in primordial copulation at the center of the world, representing the foundation of society and the cosmos. The point of intersection of these figures was often indicated by hatching or a checkerboard pattern, used for divination and gaming in later periods. These ideas can be connected to the origin of writing systems and to early mathematical ideas.
Y-posts, notched sticks, notched disks, rosaries, and other mnemonic devices, where the notching represented generations. These forms were related to counting systems and heavenly ladders which, in turn, were tied into the cosmological system as a means of returning to heaven by retracing one’s ancestry back to the First One.
Finger amputation and cannibalism, which related to ideas of rebirth and kinship.
It was Schuster’s study of joint marks that ultimately revealed an underlying system of genealogical iconography that he believed dated from Upper Paleolithic times. He expressed his growing excitement in a letter to a friend:I have been undergoing a "change of life," in this sense: my work has suddenly branched out and is growing so rapidly and luxuriantly that it is simply becoming impossible to keep up with it and with everything else too. It is extremely exciting: I have at last begun excavating a vein of incalculable richness. To try to get down to earth: I have the clue, at last, to one of the central symbols of all human cultural history, which explains the survival of traditions from at least Upper Paleolithic times through all subsequent cultures.
He published his initial findings in Brazil in 1956 under the title, “Genealogical Patterns in the Old and New Worlds.” Its goals seemed modest enough for a work of such importance.
Schuster believed that Paleolithic peoples developed a system for illustrating their ideas about genealogy. Not a kinship system — which depicts actual relations — but an idealized system linked to certain cosmological ideas. The resulting designs were used to decorate the body, clothing, and tools. Their function was to clothe the individual in his/her tribal ancestry. The basic units of the system were conventionalized human figures, linked like paper dolls, arm to arm to depict relation within the same generation, and leg to arm to depict descent. Linked together, these human bodies formed geometric patterns, often of astonishing complexity. (These figures are most familiar to us as decorative motifs like hourglass figures, diamonds, St. Andrew’s crosses, meanders, and spiral patterns, which appear in the traditional art forms of many cultures throughout the world.)
How did this iconography originate? Conceivably from robes of small animal skins, which resemble, by chance, human figures. These small furs were sewn together, with the fore-legs of one animal interlocked with the hind-legs of each adjacent, inverted animal. The use of split figures, emphasized by alternating colors, stressed the dual parentage that everyone enjoys, along with the concomitant notion that a human being is half male and half female, an idea which would have a long history. No examples of these furs survive from ancient times but the Tehuelche Indians of Patagonia made such robes as did other technologically simple hunting peoples.
Schuster also found abundant evidence that these designs were reproduced on cave walls, pebbles, tools, and stone monuments where they represented the corporate identify of their owners, much like military insignia do today.
Another significant aspect of the system is that descent is depicted as a fusion of the leg of an upper figure with the arm of a lower one. These common limbs represent bonds between generations. Many myths tell of human beings born from limbs – sometimes from arms or fingers, more commonly from legs, and most commonly from knees. The idea of birth from the limbs is based on an analogy with the plant world. Just as tree limbs can regenerate, so too, are human limbs seen as a source of potency. A human body becomes a living kinship chart with the ancestral spirits resident in the joints.