THE HIJACKING OF FRANZ WEIDENREICH: How Writings of an Anti-Racist Anthropologist were misrepresented by Racists and Academic Purists (Part 1 of 3)
Note to readers: If you observe any shortcomings in this essay, let me know and if possible give me the citations from primary (not secondary) sources that support your argument. This digital blog is not a journal article printed on paper and so, if need be, I can update it.
(Initially posted: 8/20/16, Revisions: None)
Summary: While researching the theories of the German anatomist and anthropologist Franz Weidenreich, I located a largely unknown paper he published in 1931 in Der Morgen magazine (Figure 1) during the Nazi rise to power in Germany. In this paper, he examined blood types of Jewish and non-Jewish Germans, and found that they were quite similar to each other, and not similar to the blood types of Middle Eastern populations. His findings – which concluded that German Jews were not a separate race from non-Jewish Germans – refuted the Nazi racial ideology. After fleeing Nazi Germany, Weidenreich relocated to China where he described the fossilized remain of Homo eructs. By comparing Homo erectus remains from Europe, China, and Indonesia, Weidenreich proposed that these far flung populations were also intermixed, even though they had somewhat different shaped skulls and teeth. To date, no one has made the connection between Weidenreich’s early anti-Nazi writings and his later publications on the diversity among Homo erectus. After Weidenreich died, his research was misrepresented by his critics, and in an ironic twist, bogusly used by 20th century race supremacists to promote the idea that West Africans (and by extension African Americans) had evolved from apes well after the rest of humanity. Weidenreich, who risked his life apposing Nazi racism, ended up being hijacked by America racists who argued against de-segregating public schools.
Weidenreich has been Forgotten (Mostly)
Franz Weidenreich (1873-1948) holds an unusual position in the history of both physical anthropology and anti-racism in that he was an innovative pioneer in these two arenas, yet he is largely forgotten. Spencer (1997:1107) noted that Weidenreich developed the ‘polycentric theory’ of human origins which ‘anticipated the multi-regional theory of human modern origins that is one of the present explanations for human species unity in the face of regional diversity’. Put into layman’s terms, back in the 1940s Weidenreich propose that what we now call ‘races’ were not distinct separated lines of humanity, but rather a network of integrated populations in a constant state of change. Furthermore, he proposed that human had always been that way, such that humans interbred with Neanderthals, who also interbred with their ancestral forms. Although Weidenreich used the word ‘race’, his view of the concept of race was not simply unrelated lines of humanity. Rather, he asserted that races were population with porous boundaries, which is how variation occurs within many animal species. Thus, Weidenreich theory was consistent with the findings of Mayr and Dobdzhansky who observed that some species are monotypic (where all individuals share one largely uniform set of physical traits) while others are polytypic (showing a diverse spectrum of traits). This theory originated with Mayr’s (1964:111) studies of birds and Dobzhansky’s (1947:70) studies of Eurasian ladybugs. Dobzhansky (1962:221) asserted that ‘mankind is a polytypic species’. Weidenreich’s proposal that all modern human population were intermixed also pre-dated later anthropologists who regarded human polytypic variation as a racial spectrum. Livingstone’s (1962:279) contented that ‘there are no races, only clines’, which was endorsed by Dobzhansky. Skull anatomist C. Loren Brace, wrote that ‘there is a spectrum of variation’ in humans that is ‘rarely taken into account in appraisals of human evolution in general’ (Brace and Hunt 1990: 341).
In many ways, the views of Weidenreich (who studied anatomy) paralleled that of his contemporary Ruth Benedict (who studied human cultures). She also used the word ‘race’ while at the same time observing that the very concept did not sufficiently reflect a natural phenomenon. In 1940s, Benedict (1962:33-34) proposed that:
‘Whether the physical anthropologist measures of Swedes or Algerians or Chinese or Greeks, the same difficulty presents itself. Over and over again he discovers the obvious consequences of the great interim mixture that has occurred, or he discovers that the universality of the “ideal” type he set out to investigate in a given group is an illusion. If he compares his findings in his own group with those of another investigator in a different group – comparing, for example, Swedes with Sicilians – he finds that none of his traits are utterly lacking in individuals of the other group. The statistical distribution is different; that is all. He set out to isolate an anatomical variety as he would isolate a species of birds, but the facts he has gathered proved only that the human situation does not correspond to the situation among birds’.
Today, Benedict is still remembered by certain academics, but she has long been overshadowed by her more well-known friend and colleague, Margaret Mead. Her argument that the very notion of a pure ‘race’ was an illusion laid the groundwork for Ashley Montague’s (19442) influential and successful book Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race. Although Benedict has not been forgotten as much as Weidenreich, they still dwell in shadows of academic obscurity. Current authors who write books about race and how it was perceived throughout history often fail to mention them. In general, anthropologists and biologists who write books about race do not mention of Benedict. Meanwhile, social scientists and historians tend to overlook Weidenreich. Figure 2 presents a survey of 80 years’ worth of books on race, and only two of these publications mention both Benedict and Weidenreich.
The Early Discoveries of Homo Erectus
The focus of this essay will be Weidenreich and how his anti-racist outlook both shaped, and was shaped by, his anatomical research. This research focused both on living human populations and the fossilized remain of archaic humans, a term currently used to describe those ancestors of modern humans who walked upright and manufactured chipped stone tools. The most well-known archaic humans were the Neanderthals, whose remains were first discovered and described in 1856 in Germany (Roberts 2001:152). As more, Neanderthal bones were uncovered, and the scientific community largely accepted that modern humans had evolved from some sort of pre-human ancestor. However, there was disagreement as to where humans first evolved: Africa, Europe, or the Far East?
In the 1890s, Eugene Dubios had discovered fossil bones of an archaic human in Indonesia which he called Java Man. This fossil is now known to be a form of Homo erectus. Eventually, Dubios gave up on the idea that Java Man was an archaic human and instead claimed that it was a giant gibbon-like animal. Dubois also appears to have suffered some mental problems. At one point, he buried his Homo erectus fossils under his kitchen floor. (Boaz and Ciochon, 2004:1). Nonetheless, his discovery still suggested the possibility that humans first evolved in Asia, which seemed plausible since some large apes (orangutans) still lived there. The question remained: did humans come from the Far East, or some other place that still had apes, like Africa?
The possibility of an African origin for humanity got a boost in 1925, when a human-like skull was discovered in South Africa by an Australian-born South African named Raymond Dart. Dart’s fossil came from an upright walking primate species called an australopith. Because Dart’s find belonged to a young child, it was called the Taung Baby. Although the Taung Baby was not a modern human, it was human enough to suggest that humans originated in Africa, as Darwin had assumed. (Spencer 1997:314). However, there was also evidence (of a sort) that humans originated in Europe. In 1912, broken fossils of a large-brained, human-like skull with an apelike jaw were discovered in Piltdown Commons in East Essex, England. These remains were hailed as a human ancestor and kept away from view until 1953. It was only then that anthropologists determined that the skull fragments were only a few hundred years old. They were simply human remains, likely dug up from a grave. The jaw was that of recently deceased orangutan that had been fraudulently stained to look like a fossil (Spencer 1997:832).
The Piltdown hoax, and its suggestion that humans originated in Europe, was accepted by the famed British anthropologist, Sir Arthur Keith (Wolpoff and Caspari 2007:204). Keith’s lasting contribution to anthropology was that he determined that the overbite – which is common today but was unusual in the 18th century – was due to diet and the use of forks, not genetics. (Brace 2005:230) He is also notable for having authored the book The Antiquity of Man, published in 1915 and revised in 1925. Keith also felt that evolution did not occur at the individual level as Darwin had proposed. Rather Keith felt that groups of animal evolved as a unit, and that within the human species, each race evolved as a unit. (Brace 2005:231) For Keith, the tribe was the smallest unit of human evolution. Furthermore, tribal evolution would lead to racial evolution, but only when the tribe or race was isolated from the rest of humanity. According to Keith, war, prejudice, and race prejudice in particular were a positive good that pushed human evolution to advance and progress. (Brace 2005:232) In 1931, he published an essay called The Place of Prejudice in Modern Civilization in which he asserted that ‘Our modern masters of football have but copied the scheme of competition which Nature had set up in her ancient world. Her League of Humanity had its divisions – white, yellow, brown, and black’ (Quoted in Brace 2005:232). Keith then praised the existence inter-ethnic conflict as an evolutionary benefit to humanity, writing that:
‘Nature endowed her tribal teams with this spirit of antagonism for her own purposes. It has come down to us and creeps out from our modern life in many shapes, as national rivalries and jealousies and as racial hatreds. The modern name for this spirit of antagonism is race-prejudice’ (Quoted in Banton 1961:169).
The Piltdown hoax was embraced in America by Henry Osborne, the famed paleontologist and president of the American Museum of Natural History. Osborne was also a supporter of Madison Grant, the lawyer-turned author who was an officer in the American Eugenics society. According to Gossett (1997:254), Grant proposed that:
‘the superior races in the United States were in danger of being overwhelmed by inferior immigrants. For twenty five years Grant was a vice president of the Immigration Restriction League. His purpose in in writing The Passing of the Great Race was to alert Americans to the danger of the nation losing its essentially “Nordic” racial character, a loss he was certain could only be followed by the decline and ultimate extinction of its civilization’.
Osborn wrote the preface to Grant’s overtly white supremacist book, The Passing of the Great Race: or the Racial Basis of European History (Grant 1918:ix). Gossett (1997:389) noted that ‘Osborn enthusiastically joined with Madison Grant in the campaign to restrict immigration upon racial grounds’ because Osborn ‘assumed as obvious that racial inequalities of intelligence and temperament exist, that they are enormous, and that civilization itself’ depended on it. And, indeed Osborne wrote that:
‘The true spirit of American democracy that all men are born with equal rights and duties, has been confused with the political sophistry that all men are born with equal character and ability to govern themselves and others, and with the educational sophistry that education ad environment will offset the handicap of heredity. In the United States we are slowly waking up to the consciousness that education and environment do not fundamentally alter racial values’ (Quoted in Gossett, 1997:389).
Osborne asserted that human origins lay not in Africa, but in central Asia. Such a notion had been promoted through the 19th century by linguists and historians who supported what Gossett (1997:123-124) has called Cult of Aryanism. This cult would later become a core element Nazi ideology. Aryanism was based on the mistaken belief that members of a priesthood who the ancient Rig Vedas referred to as ‘Arya’, were an ethnic group – the so-called ‘Aryans’ –that once ruled India, and later migrated to Europe (Gossett 1997:123-124). The famed German embryologist and advocate for evolutionary theory Ernst Haeckel (1873:Plate XV) endorsed Aryanism such that he published a map (Figure 3) which proposed that humans evolve from apes in a now submerged land mass south of India. In order to prove that humans originated in the east, Osborne organized an expedition to uncover human remains in Mongolia. His field researchers found none, but instead discovered some significant dinosaur fossils. (Lebovics 2014:267).
The Lost Bones of Choukoutien (Formerly called ‘Peking Man’)
Although early 20th century researchers failed to find ancient human remains in Central Asia, they did uncover human-like bones near the city of Beijing, in Northeastern China. These finds were discovered largely through the efforts of the Canadian anatomist, Davison Black, whose work was funded through the Rockefeller Foundation. Black was native of Toronto, Canada who studied medicine at the University of Toronto, and then taught anatomy at Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. While on sabbatical, he studied anthropology at England’s University of Manchester. When the First World War began, Black had intended to serve in the military, but instead was allowed to take a post as an anatomist at Peking Union Medical College in China (Spencer, 1997:181). It was there that he began to seek out fossils, which the local Chinese referred to as long gu or dragon bones. Fossilized bones were commonly ground up into a powder and used in traditional Chinese medicine. (Boaz and Ciochon, 2004:4)
The first Europeans to investigate the possibility that Chinese fossil beds included human ancestors were Swedes. In 1914, a Swedish explorer and geologist named J. Gunnar Andersson (1874-1960) visited China looking for coal, oil, and valuable ores. In 1918, he visited the village of Choukoutien (now Zhoukoudian) located 50 kilometers southwest of Beijing. While there, he saw a pillar of limestone rich with fossilized bones. Although much of the stone near it had been quarried, the villagers told him that this area, called Chicken Bone Hill, was untouched. Local lore held that centuries ago foxes had lived in a cave and collected chicken bones. Some of the foxes later transformed into evil spirits. When a man tried to drive the foxes from the cave, the evil spirits drove him mad. Thus, the site was cursed and none of the locals would dig there. Andersson and his colleagues began investigating the site while staying a Buddhist temple. Soon enough, the locals grew tired of these European interlopers desecrating the temple. One of the villagers – whose name is lost to history – convinced the Europeans that they should instead dig at a location called Dragon Bone Hill or Longgushan. It was here that Andersson and his co-worker, the Austrian paleontologist Otto Zdansky excavated a productive fossil bed that Chinese dragon bone diggers (which was an actual profession) had known about for centuries. Eventually, Zdansky paid dozens of these bone diggers to work as excavators, muting the complaints those villagers who wanted the Europeans to leave (Boaz and Ciochon, 2004:6-8).
The Longgushan site produced fossils of many mammals. However, it was not until 1921, and again in 1923 that it yielded what appeared to be three human-like teeth. These teeth had been found by Zdansky, who hid them from Andersson, a man whom he disliked. Eventually, Andersson succeeded in publishing a paper on these teeth in which he argued that they came from a human ancestor that what would later be called Peking Man. (Boaz and Ciochon, 2004:10-11). By the time Black had arrived in China, both Andersson and Zdansky were moving on to other projects, and so Black filled the void. Black had already done a fine job of running the Peking Union Medical College hospital, which was greatly appreciated by the Rockefeller Foundation. Thus, he managed to convince the Foundation to support the paleontological dig at Longgushan, as a sort of quid-pro-quo condition for his remaining at the hospital. Although the hospital administration was generally opposed to Black’s anthropological diversions, the foundation agreed to create the Cenozoic Research Laboratory with Black as it honorary director (Boaz and Ciochon, 2004:18). As a result, digging continued, which was no easy task given that Chinese warlords were fighting over the very territory that contained the dig site. Undaunted, Black diligently conducted all his studies at night after his hospital shift, perhaps to stay out of the gaze of his less-than-supportive hospital supervisors (Boaz and Ciochon, 2004:16).
On December of 1929, the last day of the field season, on a day so cold that pails of water at the dig site were frozen, one of Black’s research team, a young German-educated Chinese archaeologist named Wenzhong Pei, excavated a skull of what is now known as Homo erectus (Boaz and Ciochon, 2004:24). Pei (often cited as W. C. Pei) would go on to become a major anthropologist in China describing some 17,000 stone artifacts from Loggushan (Boaz and Ciochon, 2004:69). Upon discovering the skull, young Pei feared that the priceless fossil might be stolen by corrupt officials manning the many checkpoints in the area. To protect that skull, he covered it in a quilt to disguise it as common baggage, and smuggled it over to Black’s lab in Beijing (Boaz and Ciochon, 2004:24-25). Pei’s skull would later be called Sinanthropus pekinenis or Ape Man of Peking. It would be the first of many Homo erectus bones unearthed from the Longgushan site. Indeed, Black’s efforts had succeeded but at a grave cost. He had heart disease which often left him exhausted. After a mild heart attack, he came to realize that he might not have long to live. Yet, Black chose not to retire. On March 15, 1934, at the age of 49, he was found slumped over at the desk in his lab, with two fossil skulls on either side of him (Boaz and Ciochon, 2004:26). With Black’s passing, the Rockefeller Foundation needed a replacement. They picked Franz Weidenreich.
Weidenreich Life: Three Times an Exile
Although Weidenreich led an amazing life, no biography has been written about him. It can be a challenge to find even basic biographical information about him. And because his life was so upended by the chaos both World Wars, he had little time to sit for interviews. The few available pictures of him were taken late in his life. In these images, Weidenreich is presented as a bald man with a blunt nose dressed in a well-centered, drab necktie, even when he is digging up fossils (Boaz and Ciochon, 2004:28, 52, 140). Because most of Weidenreich’s publications were published after 1923, they are not in the public domain (as set forth in the Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States, January 2015). Therefore, this blog post contains newly re-drawn versions of illustrations published by Weidenreich.
According to Wolpoff and Caspari (2007:197), Weidenreich regarded all human forms, living and extinct, as a single species for two reasons:
‘1. Even the most distinct geographic races were not distinct types but graded into each other with numerous intermediate forms.
2. The whole of human variation is less than that of domesticated species, for most characters overwhelmingly less’.
Weidenreich’s life began normally enough. He was born in 1873 in a village near Edenkoben, Germany not far from what is now the French Border. (Wolpoff and Caspari 2007:180). Edenkoben was located in a region call the Palatinate or the Rhenish Palatinate. Unlike most of Germany, this region was conquered by the Romans and so it developed a somewhat Romanized culture, more like that of the French. The German-speaking people of the Palatinate, known as Rheinlanders, were of Franconian descent. They were traditionally oriented more towards the cities France than Germany. This region was always a borderland; a liberal meeting place crossed by trade routes were the French culture met German culture and Catholics intermingled with Protestants (Minihan 2002:1581-1582). Edenboken even had a synagogue dating to 1780. It served a Jewish community which existed as far back as the 1600s (Spector and Wigoder 2001:345).
Much of what we know about Weidenreich family comes from the writings of his nephew, Peter Wyden, who became a journalist in the United States. In 1996, Peter’s son, Ronald was elected as the U. S. Senator from Oregon. (Stone 2011:395-396). Peter (1992:33) described his uncle Franz as ‘Pleasant but distant, with an egg-shaped head like most of the males on my father’s side’. According to Wyden (1992:33), the Weidenreich family had a ‘pedigree going back, in tiny market towns of southwestern Germany, to the fifteenth century, when the family name was Weil’. This name was changed to Weidenreich, which means ‘Willow-rich’, because the family became weavers of willows baskets (Wyden 1992:33). Weidenreich’s father was initially a hat maker, but took on a job as a cemetery superintendent after his haberdashery business failed (Stone 2011:396).
In 1899, Weidenreich received his medical degree from the University of Strasbourg, which is now in France, but was then in Germany. The city of Strasbourg is the capitol of the Alsace Loraine, a border region that became part of France in 1735. However, it was transferred to the Germans in 1871 after the Franco-Prussian War. In 1918, France again acquired it after the German’s lost the First World War (Tucker 2014:81). After graduating from university, Weidenreich became a professor of anatomy specializing in blood and lymph cells. He became a professor at Strasbourg, were he became known as ‘blood Weidenreich’ due to his field of research. In 1918, he was dismissed from this post because he was an ethnic German. The French officials who took over the province at the end of the First World War purged all the ethnic Germans. (Wolpoff and Caspari 2007:178) Weidenreich’s role as the president of the Alsace-Lorraine Democratic Party – which advocated for the region becoming an independent nation – was likely another strike against him. (McHale, 1983:417). It took him three years before he again found employment (Gregory 1949:1).
While at Strasbourg, Weidenreich became a friend and colleague of Gustave Schwalbe, a celebrated German evolutionist and devotee of Ernst Haeckel. (Wolpoff and Caspari 2007:178, Spencer 1997:917) Schwalbe promoted the use of precise measuring techniques in the study of human anatomy and the fossilized bones of Neanderthals and Homo erectus. Spencer 1997:916-917) Beginning in 1906, Weidenreich began to publish research into physical anthropology, but he did not agree with all of Schwalbe’s theories. Weidenreich always had an independent streak. While other scholars, like Sir Arthur Keith, embraced the Piltdown hoax, Weidenreich called it a fraud labeling it a ‘chimaera’ that should be ‘erased from the list of human fossils’ (Wolpoff and Caspari 2007:204).
Weidenreich’s early work focused on the anatomy of the chin (Wolpoff and Caspari 2007:181). Modern humans are the only primates who have a chin (Schwartz and Tattersall 2000:367). Neanderthals had no chin, and chins are missing in all archaic humans, only some of whom evolved into modern humans. In the late 20th century, some anthropologists suggested that the chin was a structural ridge used to strengthen the jaw from the outside. This external buttressing allows more room on the inside of the jaw. This roomier inside of the jaw could then be filled with all the muscles that are used by the tongue and throat to generate speech. Thus, the presence of a jaw may be related to the ability to speak, in which case, Neanderthals may not have been able to speak, or at least not as well as we moderns do. Recent findings of well-preserved Neanderthal neck bones, specifically the hyoid bone, indicate that Neanderthals might have been able to talk (Schwartz and Tattersall 2000:368)
After losing his job in Strasbourg, Weidenreich spent seven years as a professor at Heidelberg University, where he studied the structure of human bones. He was interested in the shape of the pelvis as it related to walking on two legs. Humans walk most the time, except when crawling or climbing, which we do slowly and gracelessly. (Wolpoff and Caspari 2007:181) Conversely, chimpanzees mostly climb and crawl on all fours. They are slow and ungraceful on those occasions when they walk upright, which they do when carrying things (Stefoff, 2004: 47). During the 1920s, Weidenreich studied the foot, spine, limbs, and hands. He noted that there were key differences between apes, modern humans, and archaic humans.
In 1928, Weidenreich took a position the University of Frankfurt am Main. There he researched archaic human fossils, including remains found in what is now Zambia and Israel. (Wolpoff and Caspari 2007:182). Like his colleague, Aleš Hrdlička of the Smithsonian Institute, Weidenreich thought that humans were descended from Neanderthals. Weidenreich’s goal was to determine what kind of relationship there might have been between them. (Wolpoff and Caspari 2007:183). There are many notable differences between humans and Neanderthals. In general, Neanderthals had more strongly muscled limbs relative to modern humans. Their rib cage was big at the bottom such that they had no waist. They had larger jaws, teeth, eyebrow projections, and brains than modern humans. Neanderthal thumbs were also a bit longer, which presumably gave them a better grip (Roberts 2011:153).