The department was established as the Institut für Völkerkunde at the reopened Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz in 1947, shortly after the end of the Second World War. Its first director (1947-1956) was Adolf Friedrich. From 1951 to 1954, his assistant Erika Sulzmann conducted one of the first post-war German anthropological expeditions, which led her to the Ekonda and Bolia in Belgian Congo. This excursion also laid the foundations for the department’s ethnographic collection, which today includes some 3,400 objects. Following Friedrich’s death in 1957, Wilhelm Emil Mühlmann took over as director and pursued the establishment of a sociology section at the department.
When Mühlmann left the department in 1960 to take up a professorship in Heidelberg, he was followed by Karl Jettmar, whose regional research interests lay in Asia. It was only after the latter’s departure three years later that a regional focus on Africa was finally established at the department. Erika Sulzmann had kept alive the Africa research tradition at the department down through the years. Eike Haberland, who took over in 1964, was followed by Ernst Wilhelm Müller in 1969, who had participated in Erika Sulzmann’s Congo expedition as a student. Shortly after, a Chair of African Cultures and Societies was established. From 1974 this chair was held by Gerhard Grohs who pursued the sociological orientation of the department initiated by Mühlmann. The department was renamed as the Department of Anthropology and African studies to mark the presence of a linguistic section in the department. In 1984, another chair was established at the department, to which Ivo Strecker was appointed. Müller was replaced by Karl-Heinz Kohl in 1987, and the latter was replaced, in turn, by Carola Lentz in 2002. Following Groh’s retirement, Thomas Bierschenk was appointed to the Chair of African Cultures and Societies. Following his retirement, Ivo Strecker’s chair was transformed into a Chair of Anthropology and African Popular Culture, which has been held by Matthias Krings since 2005. In 2016, Heike Drotbohm was appointed to a Heisenberg Professorship in Anthropology with a focus on African Diaspora and Transnationalism. In 2019, she replaced Thomas Bierschenk following his retirement. The newly created Chair of Anthropology with a focus on Aesthetics was filled in 2017 with Markus Verne.