Ruth Bunzel was born in New York City to a Jewish American family of German and Czech origins. She graduated from Barnard College with a B.A. in European history in 1918. She studied anthropology with Franz Boas in college and later became his secretary. After participating in an expedition with Ruth Benedict to New Mexico and Arizona to observe the Zuni, she apprenticed herself to Zuni potters, and became a respected, skilled pottery artist. She went on to earn a Ph.D. in anthropology at Columbia University with a dissertation published as a landmark book, The Pueblo Potter: A Study of Creative Imagination in Primitive Art (1929). She also wrote books and scholarly articles about the Hopi, Acoma, San Ildefonso, and San Felipe Pueblo Indians of the southwestern USA. She was also one of the first American anthropologists to work in Guatemala. During World War II, she worked for the Office of War Information in New York and London. From 1946 to 1951, she participated in the Research in Contemporary Cultures Project, which specialized in Chinese cultures. She taught at Columbia University sporadically during the 1930s, becoming an adjunct professor in 1954, and full professor in 1960. After her retirement in 1972, she spent two years as a visiting professor at Bennington College. Among her other publications were Zuni Katcinas: An Analytical Study (1932); The Golden Age of American Anthropology (1960), which she edited with Margaret Mead; and Zuni Ceremonialism (1992).