Born at Nottingham, England, Howitt came out to the Victorian goldfields with his father and brother in 1852. He became an accomplished bushman and had conducted two successful explorations when he was selected in 1861 to search for whatever remained of the Burke and Wills expedition.
Howitt avoided every mistake of his predecessors. Travelling only with necessary equipment and with a small, handpicked crew, he made the journey to Cooper's Creek in a fraction of the time it had taken Burke.
After this success he began a long and busy career in public administration, but he is best known today for his work as a pioneering anthropologist, conducted entirely in his spare time. Howitt was one of the first to scientifically study Aboriginal culture and society. His major work Kamilaroi and Kurnai (1879) was recognised internationally as a landmark in the development of the modern science of anthropology.