HOW THE TERMS “CAUCASIAN” AND “MONGOLIAN” BECAME POPULARIZED: Blumenbach Presented Slaves as Case Studies to Illustrate his “Environmentalist” Theory of Human Polytypic Variation. (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: 12/30/16, Revisions: None to date)


Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752 – 1840) was a German egalitarian anatomist lauded as “The Father of Physical Anthropology” because of his pioneering publications describing human racial variation. He proposed a racial typology that included five interrelated primary varieties of humanity. An evaluation of Blumenbach’s many publications reveals a discernible pattern in which he used slaves as examples to illustrate his environmentalist biological theories. As he saw it, human intelligence was not inherited, but was shaped by environmental conditions. Thus, slaves and other displaced persons who found success outside their ancestral homelands were ideal case studies for his argument. When he sought to label his five primary racial varieties, Blumenbach selected two names – “Caucasian” and “Mongolian” – because they were associated with enslaved nationalities. This finding diverges from the argument posed by Schiebinger and others that aesthetics was a key driver in Blumenbach’s research program, which led him to adopt the term “Caucasians”.

Modern scholars have disagreed about the role of bias in Blumenbach’s research.

Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840) was a pivotal figure in the early development of physical anthropology, specifically through his research on human polytypic variation, commonly known as “race”1. Today, Blumenbach is best known for having developed a five part naming system (or typology) to describe what he called “generis humani varietates quinae principes, species vero unica [five principle varieties of human kind, but one species]” (Blumenbach 1795, 284). Blumenbach (1795, 284) consistently argued in favor of monogeny, the notion that all human ethnic groups sprang from but one founding population.

Since the 1990s, some scholars (Gould 1996, 410; Bindman 2002, 201; Keevak 2011, 5; Sussman 2014, 19) have proposed that Blumenbach held ingrained, culturally-informed Eurocentric aesthetic biases that inappropriately influenced the outcome of his research. Such interpretations largely originated with Schiebinger (1993, 129-133) who asserted that for Blumenbach, “the Caucasian’s great beauty simply revealed them as the original humans – the archetype from which all other races degenerated.” However, other modern scholars (Spencer 1997, 185: Cook 2006, 3 and 32; Zammito 2006, 49; Demel 2011, 231) have countered that Blumenbach’s writings indicate minimal if any bias favoring Europeans.

No rigorously researched biography has ever been written about Blumenbach. Most publications addressing Blumenbach include only a brief a biographical sketch, and cite but a few of his many writings. To date, there has never been a comprehensive examination of how the practice of slavery was a key topic within Blumenbach’s works. In the following paper, I will discuss how slavery was used by Blumenbach to support his contention that the environment, not heredity, was responsible for determining a person’s intellectual abilities. I will rely heavily on Blumenbach’s original German and Latin texts, while only cautiously accepting the validity of Bendyshe’s 1865 English translations whose accuracy Demel (2012, 67) regards as “problematic.” Similarly Englestein (2008; 232), Douglas (2008; 43) and Bindman (2002; 195) have all questioned specific aspects of Bendyshe’s 1865 translation.

Blumenbach viewed human polytypic variation as a biological cline

Initially, Blumenbach (1776, 41-42) asserted that humanity primarily consisted of four major varieties.  However, in 1779 Blumenbach (1799, 63-64) proposed that humanity was mostly composed of five interrelated populations3. Spencer (1997, 185) referred to these five populations as Blumenbach’s “racial varieties”. It was not until 1793 that Blumenbach gave his racial varieties their now famous names: American, Caucasian, Ethiopian, Malay and Mongolian (Vermeulen 2015, 372). Although other scholars had previously introduced these five terms to describe racial or linguistic groups, Blumenbach popularized these five terms in his 1795 masterwork, De generis humani varietate nativa 3rd Edition (henceforth De Generis III) (Demel 2012, 61; Keevack 2011, 74; Augstine 1999a, 83 and 1999b, 64).

De Generis III can be traced to 1776, when Blumenbach published his 1775 doctoral dissertation in book form as De generis humani varietate nativa liber (henceforth De Generis I). In this book, Blumenbach wrote that “one variety of mankind does so sensibly pass into the other, that you cannot mark out the limits between them [et sensim unam in alteram transire hominum varietatem videbis ut vix ac ne vix quidem limites inter eas conslituere poteris]” (Blumenbach 1776, 4; Bendyshe 1865, 98-99). In other words, Blumenbach viewed the human species as a continuum of slightly different, inter-related adjacent populations that would now be called a “biological cline” or “racial spectrum”4.

In 1789, Blumenbach described his theory regarding how animals and humans diversify into varieties using pigs as an example (Blumenbach 1789, 1-13; Blumenbach/ Anonymous Trans. 1799, 284-290). Blumenbach proposed that when physically uniform wild pigs were raised by humans in different settings and with different diets, they transformed into the anatomically diverse domesticated breeds of pigs. Thus, Blumenbach was presenting what was known as an “environmentalist” viewpoint. He argued that if a pig or a person was placed in an environment that was different from that of their parents, that pig or person would be changed by the new environment.

Blumenbach (1811, 43; Bendyshe 1865, 340) asserted that the anatomy of humans is akin to that of a domesticated animal, and thus “Man is a domesticated animal [Der Mensch ist ein Hausthier].” But unlike domesticated animals, humans were uniquely “created by nature immediately a domestic animal. The exact original wild condition of most of the domestic animals is known. But no one knows the exact original wild condition of man [natürlichen wilden Zustand des Menschen]” (Bendyshe 1865, 294; Blumenbach 1806, 40). Furthermore Blumenbach was influenced by Buffon, who wrote that “A domestic animal is a slave [animal domestique est un esclave]” to mankind, whose ill treatment, combined with “the unnatural mode of his living, induce great alterations both in his manners and dispositions” (Buffon 1812b, 58; Buffon 1753, 169).

Blumenbach’s opposition to race supremacy is well documented. In 1787, he unambiguously wrote that “The negroes, in regards to their mental facilities and capacity [natürlichen Geistesanlanger und Fähigkeiten], are not inferior to the rest of the human race” (Blumenbach 1787, 4; Blumenbach/Anonymous Trans. 1799a, 143). Tiedemann (1836, 524) described his “venerable friend Blumenbach and Bishop Gregory” as “defenders of the intellectual powers of Negroes”. When Grégoire, a Jesuit abolitionist, was writing his classic “pro-Negro” treatise, De la Littérature des Négres, Blumenbach provided technical support (Curtin 1964, 241). In this book, Grégoire (1808, 114-115) described how Blumenbach had mailed him material indicating that in Islamic culture, trade was largely run by slaves such that  merchants would “gladly purchase black children, to whom they teach writing and arithmetic [achètent volontiers des enfans noirs, auxquels ils font apprendre l’écriture et l’arithmétique]”.

In 1795, Blumenbach synthesized his many publications together to create De Generis III, which included a graphic of five skulls (Figure 1) representing his five-fold typology (Blumenbach 1795, 342). De Generis III proved popular enough to be translated into many languages (Kroke 2010, 21-25). However, with the rise of Darwinism, Blumenbach’s research faded into obscurity.

Six case studies, five skull holotypes, and four Negro savants

Blumenbach served as the curator of Göttingen University’s collection of “whole skulls and fragments [ganze Schädel und Schädelfragmente]” (Bendyshe 1865, 348; Wagner 1856, 235). Under Blumenbach’s curatorship, this collection grew from 85 to 245 specimens. Between 1789 and 1828, Blumenbach published a series of seven papers describing 65 of these skulls (Kroke 2010, 40-42). Because the first six of these articles each described ten skulls, these articles are jointly known as the Decades Cranorium [Skulls in Groups of Ten]. Blumenbach published three of these articles (henceforth Decades I-III) in 1789, 1792, and 1795. Thus, in the year 1795, he possessed 30 rigorously examined skulls.

Of those 30 skull specimens, 11 were immature, jawless, or mostly toothless.6 Only 19 skulls were adults that were complete enough to be suitable for a thorough evaluation. Blumenbach (1795, 324-326) selected just five of the 19 skulls as prime examples of each of his racial varieties: American, Caucasian, Ethiopian, Malay, and Mongolian. Modern anthropologists would describe such prime examples “holotypes” 7. In 1795, Blumenbach published the illustration of his five holotype skulls (Figure 1) as an appendix to De Generis III. However, in 1796 he also published Abbildungen naturhistorischer Gegenstände [Illustrations of Natural History Specimens] which included drawings (Figure 2), and brief biographical case studies, of five individuals whom he described as the living equivalents of his five skull holotypes (Blumenbach 1796, (8-24)).

An element that is common to all five of Blumenbach’s 1796 case studies is that they were each born in one culture, yet achieved success in another culture. Feodor Iwanowitsch’s parents were Calmuck Mongols from Siberia, yet he became a successful artist in Europe (Lieber 1857, 79). Theyendanegea was a British-educated Mohawk who commanded troops allied with the British Army (Kelsay 1984, 290). Omia was a Tahitian who sailed to Britain with Captain Cook and charmed London’s high society. (Connaughton 2007, xv-xviii). Jacobus Capitein, a Ghanaian by birth, became the first black African graduate of a Dutch university (Finkelmann 2006, 236-237). Yusuf Agah Efendi was a Turk who was successful as the first Ottoman ambassador to England (Lewis 1982, 133). In 1810, Blumenbach (1810, (16)) replaced Yusuf Agah with Mir Jumla, (Figure 3) an ethnic Saudi Arab who served as the governor of a province in India (Sarkar 1979, 2). Thus, all six case studies illustrated Blumenbach’s argument that a human’s intellect is not pre-determined by inherited traits, but rather is shaped by the environment which nurtures it.

Figal (2005, 291) did not address Mir Jumla, but she did aptly observe that Blumenbach chose his first five case studies to “dispel myths about natural racial limitations”. Blumenbach (1806, 88-91) also collected books written by authors of West African heritage like Benjamin Banneker and Phillis Wheatley, known as a “Negro Savant”. Blumenbach used these books to refute the race supremacist claims of his Göttingen colleague, Christoph Meiners (Spencer 1997, 185). Furthermore, Blumenbach also corresponded with literate West African-born Britons including the author Olaudah Equiano and the stage actor Ignatius Sancho, whom Blumenbach eventually met (Blumenbach 1806, 90). These four Negro savants were either former slaves or the descendants of slaves, which was also the case for two of Blumenbach’s case studies, and two of his skull holotypes. Thus, there is a discernible pattern throughout Blumenbach’s writings in which slaves served as evidence supporting his environmentalist position.

Blumenbach’s case studies of enslaved peoples of the Caucasus Mountains

Blumenbach (1796, (18)) illustrated his Caucasian racial variety with a case study of Yusuf Agah Efendi or “Jusaf Aguia Efendie”. The word “Efendi” is a title indicating a rank akin to that of a “lord”. As the first Ottoman ambassador to Britain, Yusuf Agah periodically met with Prime Minister William Pitt and the king (Yalçınkaya 2010, 72 and 143). Discussions often addressed shipping commerce conducted by Greek subjects of the Ottoman Empire (Yalçınkaya 2010, 123). Although Yusuf Agah was a Turk, he spoke Greek and some Italian. He was born in southern Greece to a leading Turkish family from that region (Yalçınkaya 2010, 48).

Blumenbach (1796, (18)) explained that he chose Yusuf Agah as his case study because his Turkish homeland was closer to the Caucasus Mountains than other western European notables like Raphael or Milton. However, it is also plausible that Blumenbach assumed that an Ottoman noble like Yusuf Agah had ancestors who were Caucasus Mountaineers. In a publication which Blumenbach (1795, 123) read, Buffon noted that Persians frequently interbred with Circassians and the “beautiful… ladies of Georgia” who were kept as harem slaves. As a result, there was, “hardly a man of rank in Persia [homme de qualité en Perle] who is not born of a Georgian or Circassian mother …even the King” (Buffon 1812a, 349: 1753, 421). Buffon made this statement based on a quote from Jean Chardin, who travelled throughout the near east in the late 17th century (Chardin 1724, xii). Thus, based on Chardin’s eyewitness testimony, there was reason to assume that Yusuf Agah was partially or mostly descended from Caucasus Mountaineer harem slaves.

When Blumenbach selected a skull holotype for his Caucasian racial variety, he chose one which came from a harem girl who was born in Christian Georgia but was owned by a Muslim master from a territory bordering southern Russia. Blumenbach (1795, 325) described her as a “young woman of Georgia [feminae juvenis Georgianae]”. As of 1795, Blumenbach’s collection included five adult skulls with jaws that he regarded as belonging to his Caucasian racial variety.  The well-drawn illustrations in Decades I-III clearly indicate that two of these five skulls were missing teeth (Decades ID 2-11, a “Gypsy [Cingari]”; ID 3-22 a “Latvian [Litvani]”). The remaining three skulls were in excellent condition. Blumenbach chose the one known to be a slave (ID 3-21, a “Georgian [Georgianae]”), instead of the other two (ID 1-2, a “Turk [Turcae]”; ID 2-12, a “Tatar [Tatari]”.) Thus, Blumenbach’s choice of Yusuf Agah parallels his choice of the Woman of Georgia.

The provenance of the Woman of Georgia’s skull was documented by Asch, who mailed her skull to Blumenbach. Asch wrote to Blumenbach that it came from a “venerische Gruserin” or a “sexually attractive Georgian” in Russia (Dougherty 2012, 256). The word venerishce (venereal) currently implies disease. But in Blumenbach’s era it meant “relating to love”, with the implication that she was used for sex like a prostitute or harem girl. (Johnson 1798, VEN/VEN; Ebers 1799, 615). Blumenbach (1795, 325) wrote that “during the recent Turkish war” the Woman of Georgia was “captured by the Russians and carried off to Moscow [et Moscoviam translate]” where she “succumbed there to a sudden and unexpected death [morte subitanea obiisset]”. She was then autopsied by an anatomist who “carefully preserved the skull because of the exceeding elegance of its shape [formae elegatiam]” (Blumenbach 1795, 325).

The description of the Woman of Georgia as a “venerische Gruserin” harem girl is consistent with travel narratives that Blumenbach read. Like Buffon, Blumenbach (1795, 303) was informed by the writings of Chardin, who wrote that Circassians were a “deceitful, mischievous, treacherous” people whose women are “depraved”, and whose churchmen “get drunk and keep beautiful female slaves [s’enivrent, et tiennent chez eux de belles esclaves]” (Chardin 1686, 267-268). Like most orientalists of his time, Chardin reported that the women of the Caucasus region were the epitome of feminine beauty. Within De Generis III, Blumenbach (1795, 303) included a quote from Chardin (1686, 267) in French which Vogüé, (1891, 132) translated as “More charming faces and finer figures [de plus charmans visages, ni de plus belle tailles] than those of Georgian women cannot be painted”.

The supposed beauty of Caucasus women also related to their being trafficked as harem slaves, as was noted by the geographer Johann Georgi. He wrote a field report about Siberia and central Asia which Blumenbach (1795, 241) read. Georgi (1780, 106; 1777, 136) observed that in the Caucasus region “red hair is thought so great a beauty in the women [findet man rothe Haare für das Frauenzimmer so verschönernd]”, that those with dark hair dye it red. Furthermore, the beauty and “vivacity” of their woman had “rendered them famous”. Georgi (1780, 118) reported that Georgians were commonly taken as slaves, while Caucasians were “so expert in the arts of stealing cattle and carrying off women” that they “make a trade of it”. Such Caucasians would carry off:

“beautiful virgins or handsome women; and such as they take, they keep as concubines for themselves, or yield them up to their princes. Others are sold to the Armenians, who supply the Turkish harams (sic)… they obtain 7000 piastres (sic), Turkish money for a young and handsome red haired girl [und für eine junge, schöne rothhärige Dirne]… none but the rich can make such purchases, so that these victims to voluptuousness stand a fair chance of being better provided for at least than they could have been at home” (Georgi 1780, 119-120; 1777, 141).

The Caucasus Mountaineer slave narratives reported by Chardin and Georgi are traceable to medieval Islamic society and the culture of the pre-Christian Circassians, now known as Adyghe. Circassian origin myths describe a founding population of strong, beautiful women and athletic hero warriors. These Nart Sagas feature Satayana, a matriarchal fertility figure of unsurpassed beauty and wisdom who was the mother of all the Narts or heroes (Stokes 2009:151). In the Muslim world, Circassians of both sexes were traditionally viewed as fine physical specimens. Their men served as Mamluks or mercenary slaves, some of whom found great success. Circassian Mamluks ruled Egypt from 1382 to 1516 (Stokes 2009, 151-152).

Painter (2010, 83-84) has argued that the Woman of Georgia was “taken captive” by “Russian forces” and was a “sex slave in Moscow” with low social status. Painter later asserted that the Woman of Georgia was “a sex slave from Georgia (in the Caucasus) who was raped to death in Moscow” (Quoted in Kuryla 2015). However, Georgi’s writing’s suggest that the Woman of Georgia was of a high enough social status to served as a diplomatic hostage. Georgi (1780, 101-102) described some Chechens who fought “against the Russians in the late war with Turkey. In the year 1771, this people returned to their obedience by taking anew the oath of fidelity and sending hostages to Russia”. Furthermore, Georgi (1780, 96) wrote that some Ossetians were “under the protection of Russia; but in the last war against the Turks failing in their engagements, they were compelled in the year 1771 to take a new oath and to give hostages”. This diplomatic hostage scenario is also supported by Wilson (1860, 324) who wrote, “Among the captives taken by the Russians in one of their frequent inroads on the country lying between Mount Caucasus and the Euxine was a Georgian woman who was carried prisoner to Moscow and died suddenly there”.

As a diplomatic hostage, it would have been strategically unwise for Russian military men to sexually mistreat the Woman of Georgia. An alternative scenario is that Woman of Georgia did not meet her end due to sexual maltreatment by her captors, but died after being exposed to infectious diseases circulating through Moscow’s urban population. The status of Woman of Georgia as a high value harem slave explains why Blumenbach chose her as his Caucasian skull holotype and Yusuf Agah as his Caucasian case study. Both of them were potentially descended from the same stock – Caucasus Mountaineer slaves – and so had the same anatomical features. Yet, she died a slave, while Yusuf Agah was what Blumenbach (1769 (18)) called a “respected man [angesehenen Mann]”. Thus, the Caucasus Mountaineers provided Blumenbach with a living example of his environmentalist theory: the mental abilities of a people, and the cultural achievements that spring from it, were not predetermined by inheritance, but rather developed based on environmental conditions.

In all likelihood, Blumenbach chose the Woman of Georgia as his Caucasian holotype because of her status as slave. As a slave, she was displaced from her native land to some unknown Muslim state. In 1810, Blumenbach (1810, (18)) provided another example of displacement when he deleted Yusuf Agah as his case study and replaced him with Jumla, who found success in India. Jumla was the son of an impoverished Persian oil merchant of “Sayyid” or Saudi Arab ancestry (Sarkar 1979, 2). Yet, he became a general and governor of the Mughal Empire in India. (Richards 1995, 155-158). Blumenbach is known to have read Dow (1803, 384) who reported that Jumla “arose to the summit of greatness from a low degree”.

With Jumla, a pattern emerges in which Blumenbach highlighted three displaced people. Yusuf Agah the Turk thrived in England. It was in central Asia that the peasant-born Woman of Georgia attained a high enough economic value (as a slave) or a high enough social rank in the entourage of a warlord (perhaps the mother of his son) that she was worthy of taking as a diplomatic hostage. And the fact that Jumla was an impoverished Arab who thrived in India indicates that Blumenbach did not espouse the ethnocentric view that it was only European culture which could improve the low born.

HOW THE TERMS “CAUCASIAN” AND “MONGOLIAN”BECAME POPULARIZED: Blumenbach Presented Slaves as Case Studies to Illustrate his “Environmentalist” Theory of Human Polytypic Variation. (Part 2 of 3)

Blumenbach’s case studies of enslaved Mongolians

By designating Yusuf Agah as his case study for the Caucasian racial variety, Blumenbach chose a successful man who may well have had slave ancestry. Similarly, when providing a case study for the Mongolian racial variety, Blumenbach (1796, (14)) chose Iwanowitsch, a former slave born in Asian Russia. Iwanowitsch came from the Calmuck people, now known as the Oirats, who are the western-most population of Mongols. It was reported that as a child, Iwanowtisch was enslaved by Cossacks. He then became the property of a family of means in European Russia. His Russian mistress freed and adopted him (Lieber 1857, 79). A talented professional artist, Iwanowtisch studied in Rome and travelled to Greece with the Earl of Elgin, famous for shipping the Elgin Marbles to England (Ackermann 1824, 70).

When choosing his Mongolian skull holotype, Blumenbach (1795, 324) selected a “Reindeer Tungus” from Russian Asia named Chevin Amureyev [or “Tschewin Amureew”], which is “Чевин Амуреев” in Russian. As of 1795, Blumenbach’s collection – as excellently illustrated in Decades I-III – included five East Asian adult skulls with jaws, three of which had few or no teeth (Decades ID 1-5 a “Calmuck [Calmucci]”, ID 2-15 a “Yakut [Iacutae]”, and ID 3-23 a “Chinese [Sinensis]”). The two jawed skulls with most of their teeth were a Calmuck (ID 2-14, a Calmuck) which was chipped around the nose, and the skull of Amurevey (ID 2-16, a Tungus “[Tungusae]”), which was largely undamaged. Blumenbach (1795, 324) wrote that Amureyev died after hanging himself, which Bendyshe (1865, 162) incorrectly translated as “cut his own throat”. Reports by Georgi (1780, 70 and 88) noted that the Tungus called themselves “Euveuinikis”, and were divided into “Dog Tungus” who hunted or fished, and “Reindeer Tungus” who herded reindeer. Georgi wrote that Tungus children have “an air altogether Kalmouk” (Georgi 1780, 77). It would reason that Blumenbach selected Amureyev as a skull holotype because his skull was in good condition. Because the Tungus were reportedly similar in form to Calmucks, Blumenbach chose the Calmuck Iwanowitsch as his case study.

Although records indicate that individual Tungus were enslaved (Gentes 2010, 174), they were never known to be a commonly enslaved people (Georgi 1780, 70-117). However, Georgi (1780, 294) noted that Calmucks were famously “valued as harem girls, and even wives”, by neighboring nations like the Kyrgyz who believed that Calmuck women retained “the marks of youth”. Thus, when selecting a case study for his Mongolian racial variety, Blumenbach chose Iwanowitsch, a former slave from a community (Calmuck Mongols) whose women were harem slaves, just like the Woman of Georgia.

Blumenbach accepted as valid the reports that that Calmuck Mongols, like Caucasus Mountaineers, were known for their beauty. In De Generis I, Blumenbach (1776, 62) noted Calmucks were attractive according to first-hand observations of Pallas, who twice explored central Asia (Vermeulen 2015, 335; Demel 2012, 71). Furthermore, Blumenbach (1776, 62) refuted de Fisher’s (143, 24) claim that Calmucks were ugly.

Within De Generis I, Blumenbach (1776, 62) referenced an anatomy textbook written by de Fischer which included an image (Figure 4) of a Calmuck skull with unrealistically square jaws (de Fischer 1743, Fig. 1).

De Fischer’s (143, 24) described this drawing as a “calvaria horrida [ugly skull]” that was “approaching a square shape [quadratam prope specicm (sic) accedit]”, and “testified itself to barbarity [barbariam ipsam testator]”. In De Generis I, Blumenbach (1776, 62) states (with my bold) that, J. B. de Fischer’s drawing showed a Calmuck, which “J. B. de Fischer said” was “ugly, nearly square, and indicative of barbarity [eamque horridam et ad quandratam prope speciem accedentem, imo multis modis barbariam ipsam testantem, dixit I. B. de Fischer]”. Blumenbach then refutes what de Fischer’s “said [dixit]”, and instead asserts that this single example of a Calmuck skull:

“…shows how unfair it is to draw conclusions as to the conformation of a whole race from one or two specimens. For Pallas describes the Calmucks as men of a symmetrical, beautiful [symmetricae et elegantis imo rotundae], and even round appearance, so that he says their girls would find admirers in cultivated Europe” (Bendyshe 1865, 116-117; Blumenbach 1776, 62).

Thus, Blumenbach rejected de Fischer’s claims, while endorsing Pallas’ observation that Calmucks were attractive, even by European standards. However, Bendyshe’s 1865 translation contained a small error which made it incorrectly appear that Blumenbach agreed with de Fischer. Bendyshe’s rendering reads:

“J. B. de Fischer has published a drawing of a Calmuck’s skull, and it is ugly, and nearly approaches a square in shape, and in many ways testifies to barbarism” (Bendyshe 1865, 116-117).

Citing Bendyshe’s mistranslation, Bindman (2002, 161) and Zammitto (2006, 48) argued that Blumenbach harbored an ethnocentric bias which held Calmucks to be ugly. But to paraphrase Blumenbach, it is incautious to draw conclusions as to the conformation of a man’s view from but one publication. An examination of the whole corpus of Blumenbach’s writings indicates that he named his Far East Asian racial variety after the reportedly beautiful enslaved Calmuck Mongols, employing the same rationale he used to name whites/Europeans after the Caucasus Mountaineers. For Blumenbach, the lowly enslaved Caucasus Mountaineers had the same innate potential as their high achieving Romans relatives. Likewise, the Calmuck Mongols slaves had the same innate potential as the imperial Chinese, whose physical form they shared.

 Blumenbach’s case studies of enslaved West Africans

Just as Blumenbach chose Iwanowitsch, a successful former child slave, as his case study for his Mongolian racial variety case study, so he selected Jacobus Capitein as a parallel case study for the Ethiopian Racial variety. Capitein was Ghanaian-born slave shipped to the Netherlands as a child and adopted by his master (Blumenbach 1796, (23)). Capitein excelled at school and became the first native African to graduate from a Dutch university. He became a missionary in Ghana, but was unsuccessful because he was so culturally Dutch that his ancestral people could not relate to him. In the late 18th century, his scholarly talents were cited by those who supported racial equality. However, his failures late in life were cited by those who opposed it (Finkleman 2006, 236-237; Appiah and Gates 2010, 241).

Although Capitein was not a sex slave, the skull holotype which Blumenbach used to illustrate his Ethiopian racial variety came from a Guinean-born female “concubine of a Dutchman [Batavi cujusdam concubinae]” (Blumenbach 1769, 326; Bendyshe 1865, 162). Blumenbach’s use of the word “concubine” to describe the Woman of Guinea – who died in Amsterdam – suggests that she may have been a prostitute. However, it was not uncommon for Dutch sailors to marry former prostitutes they met overseas (Boxer 1957, 128-130). The fact that a Dutchman had paid to sail this Guinean woman to his homeland suggests that she had become his wife. As of 1795, Blumenbach’s collection included six adult skulls with jaws that he regarded as belonging to his Ethiopian racial variety. Four of them, as drawn in detail in Decades I-III, were missing multiple teeth (Decades IDs 1-6, 1-7, 2-17, and 2-18 all generically described as “Ethiopian [Aethiopum or Aethiopis]”.)  Blumenbach had two remaining skulls in good condition, and instead of choosing a male skull (ID 1-8, an “Ethiopian [Aethiopum]”), he selected the Woman of Guinea (ID 2-19, a “Guinean [Guineensis]”). She, like the Woman of Georgia, was reportedly a sex slave displaced from her native land.

There is no evidence that Blumenbach regarded either Ghanaians or Guineans as nationalities that were traditionally celebrated for their beauty, like Caucasus Mountaineers and Calmuck Mongols. Nonetheless, Blumenbach was of the opinion that West Africans could be beautiful, even by European standards. Thus, there is the possibility that he regarded the concubine Woman of Guinea as possessing a beauty that paralleled the harem girls from the Caucasus Mountains or Mongolia.

Blumenbach was quite open in stating that West African women had the same potential for beauty as European women. In 1787, he published a paper describing a visit to Yverdun, Switzerland, in which he detailed (with my bold) how he entered the courtyard of a friend’s house and:

“I saw only a woman, standing with her back towards me, whose elegant form attracted my notice. But how much was I surprised, when on accosting her she turned round, to find a Negress… Her face was such, that even the nose, and somewhat thicker lips, had nothing peculiar, certainly nothing unpleasant in their appearance; and had the same features occurred in a white skin, they would have excited very general admiration. [doch sogar nichts auffallendes, geschweige denn unangenehmes hatte, dass die gleichen Züge bey einer weissen Haut gewiss allgemein gefallen haben müssten.] To this were added, the most sprightly and cheerful vivacity, a sound judgment, and as I afterwards discovered, peculiar knowledge and skill in midwifery. The pretty Negress of Yverdun [lieben hübsche Negresse von Yverdun] is widely celebrated as the best midwife in that part of Switzerland” (Blumenbach/Trans. Anonymous 1799, 141; Blumenbach 1787, 3).

This woman was Pauline Hippolyte Buisson, who was born in West Africa. After being enslaved on Santa Domingo, she eventually lived as a free resident of Switzerland (Debrunner 1979, 142-143). According to Armistead (1848, 44), Blumenbach described Buisson (with my bold) as having “countenance, of which no part, not even the nose, and rather strongly marked lips, were very striking, much less, displeasing: the same features, with an European complexion would certainly have been generally agreeable”. Bachman (1850, 165-166) also concluded that Blumenbach’s report of meeting Buisson was evidence that Blumenbach found West Africans to be aesthetically pleasing people. Unfortunately, Bendyshe (1865, 307) mistranslated Blumenbach’s description of Buisson so that it read “if one could have set aside the disagreeable skin, the same features with a white skin would have been universally pleased (sic)”. Citing Bendyshe’s poor translation, Dain (2002, 61) wrote that Blumenbach “found black skin repugnant”. Yet again, Bendyshe errors have proved to be problematic.

Blumenbach presented displaced slaves as key illustrations when discussing his Ethiopian racial variety, just as he did when discussing his Caucasian and Mongolian racial varieties. Thus, there is a pattern in which Blumenbach repeatedly presents the practice of slavery as in-the-field evidence supporting his theory of environmentalism. His message is that West African slaves, individually and as a group, possess an inherent potential to be intellectually advanced, just like lowly Caucasus Mountaineer and Calmuck Mongol slaves. Far from ranking one racial variety above all others, Blumenbach was demonstrating that they all possessed naturally engendered similarities and an equal potential for achievement.

Case studies of culturally displaced Americans and Pacific Islanders

Blumenbach’s case studies for his American and Malay racial varieties continued his pattern of highlighting individuals who found success in cultures into which they were not born. His Malay case study was Omia, also called Mia or O’Mia (Blumenbach 1796, (22)). Omia found fame in Europe after sailing from his native Tahiti to Britain with Captain Cook’s flotilla. Omia charmed King George III and London society with his exotic ways, his politeness, and his intelligent, inquisitive manner. He later returned to Tahiti, but died before the age of thirty of an infectious disease (Connaughton 2007, xv-xvii). Omia was not a slave. Although Tahitian society was highly stratified by class, it was not a slave culture. Nor were the Tahitians an enslaved people (Rodriguez 1997, 645).

As of 1795, Blumenbach’s collection included only two skulls that he regarded as members of his Malay racial variety. As the detailed drawings in Decades I-III indicate, both Malay skulls were missing many teeth. Blumenbach (1795, (14)) selected an anonymous Tahitian (Decades ID 3-26, a “Tahitian [Otaheitae]”) thus matching Omia’s ethnicity. The skull that Blumenbach did not select was a native Australian (ID 3-27, a “New Hollander [Novo-Hollandi]”).

The case study Blumenbach used for his American racial variety was Thayendanegea [or “Tayadaneega”], also called Joseph Brant. He was born in Ohio to Christian Mohawk parents, and educated in Connecticut at a school later known as Dartmouth College (Kelsay 1984, 40 and 72). In 1775, he travelled to England and met with King George III (Kelsay 1984, 165). Thayendanegea fought for the Crown against Gen. Washington’s Army, and in 1780 became a commissioned officer in the British Army (Kelsay 1984, 290). Decades later, Thayendanegea met with President Washington to discuss U. S. relations with native nations (Kelsay 1984, 470).

As of 1795, Blumenbach’s collection included only one Native American adult skull with a jaw (ID 1-10, a “Carib [Caribaei]”), and he used it as his American skull holotype. Blumenbach (1795, 325) described the specimen as a “ducis Caribaei [Carib chief]” from the small island nation of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. Although records indicate that individual Caribs were enslaved (Forbes, 54-55), they were never known to be a commonly enslaved people like their neighbors the Aarawak (Henke 2001, 1). Rather, the Caribs were known for violently resisting European colonists beginning in the 1490s. Caribs famously engaged in a protracted military conflict with French and English forces lasting from the 1620s until the 1790s (Lafleur 1993, 3-4). Thus, Blumenbach’s Carib “chief” had some parallels to Thayendanegea, a commander of indigenous troops who fought against European colonists.

The ancillary role of aesthetics in Blumenbach’s overall research program.

As noted above, a number of modern scholars have asserted that Blumenbach’s research was substantially compromised by his Eurocentric aesthetic bias. Thus, it has been argued that aesthetics was a driving factor in his decision to use the word “Caucasian” to describe white/Europeans as a racial variety. However, the examination of the whole corpus of Blumenbach’s work presented herein indicates that aesthetics had only an ancillary influence on his research.

For example, Painter (2010, 43) aptly documented how the image of a beautiful, chained, and naked Caucasian slave girl – known to art historians as an “odalisque” – gained popularity in the orientalist art movement of 19th century Europe. As Painter (2010, 83-84) presented it, the beautiful yet helpless female slave imagery of the odalisque should be considered when examining Blumenbach’s choice of a captured Georgian harem girl to represent his Caucasian racial variety.

However, Blumenbach’s writings do not address odalisque works of art. Rather, Blumenbach specifically focused his attention on a famous white marble bust of a clothed Roman matron known as “Townley’s Clytie” (Blumenbach 1789-1828, III-5). This statue was the favorite possession of Charles Townley, a British “gentlemen of large fortune” who collected ancient Roman marbles (Channing 1851, 148; Delon 2013, 82; Dyson 2008, 136). While visiting London, Blumenbach viewed Townley’s collection. Thereafter, Blumenbach (1789-1828, III-5) reported that the “proportion and beauty symmetrical [symmetrica proportio et venustas]” that was found in the skull of the Woman of Georgia was comparable to “another female figure of the divine works of ancient Greek art… the marble bust of Clytie of inexpressible conspicuous beauty [Clyties ineffabili pulcritudine conspicuae]”.

Furthermore, trying to accurately assess Blumenbach’s aesthetics can be especially problematic because Blumenbach may well have defined the word “beauty” (or its Latin and German equivalents) differently from its modern English definition. In Blumenbach’s era, “beauty” could have an anatomical application such as when Burmeister (1849, 42) described “der schöne Schädel von Mastodonsaurus [the beautiful skull of a mastodonsaurus]”, which is an amphibian whose face looks like that of a crocodile. Burmeister’s use of the German word schön to indicate high quality structure or condition is similar to the late 18th century English definition of beauty which was: “That assemblage of graces, which pleases the eye” (Johnson 1768, BED/BED). By the early 20th century, “beauty” had evolved into its current more emotive meaning: “That quality of objects that gratifies the aesthetic nature” (Fernald 1921, 59).

Blumenbach’s colleague Goethe (1909, 57) once described a “very beautiful elephant skull [ein sehr schöner Elefantenschädel]”. In a 1794 letter to Blumenbach, Goethe described the skull of artist Raphael as “bildschön” which means “marvelously beautiful” or “picture perfect” (Dougherty 2012, 303). Similarly, Blumenbach described the skull of the Woman of Georgia as “bildschön-proportionirter [marvellously beautifully proportioned]” (Dougherty 2012, 257). Blumenbach also wrote a letter to Asch which mentioned a “schön-proportionirter Schedel [beautifully proportioned skull]” of a Turk (Dougherty 2012, 303). In one letter, Blumenbach even described the Woman of Georgia’s skull using the mixed German and English phrase “unberührte Beauty”, or “untouched beauty” (Dougherty 2012, 256).

It is difficult to determine if Blumenbach viewed the Woman of Georgia as an attractive person, or her skull as a picture-perfect object (or both!). Nonetheless, he was clear in his assertion that beauty was subjective and culturally based. Blumenbach (1796, (18)) explained (with his italics) that he chose Yusuf Agah as a “representative of the Caucasian race, to which the best formed humans – according to our concepts of beauty [nach unser Begriffen von Schönheit] – belong”, even though he could have chosen some other well-formed European, like “a Milton or a Raphael”. Blumenbach (1799, 62) later described Caucasians as having a “most exemplary [musterhaftesten]” face and skull, but only “according to the European concepts of beauty, [nach den europäischen Begriffen von Schönheit]”.

Conclusion: Slavery had a significant influence on Blumenbach’s research

The above evaluation of Blumenbach’s publications reveals a discernible pattern in which Blumenbach used slaves as examples to illustrate his environmentalist biological theories. As he saw it, human intelligence was not inherited; rather it developed based on environmental conditions. Thus, slaves and other displaced persons who found success outside their ancestral homelands were ideal case studies for his argument. Similarly, when he sought to label his five primary racial varieties, Blumenbach selected two names – Caucasian and Mongolian – which were associated with enslaved nationalities. In doing so, he was making a statement that whites/Europeans, whose history was largely dominated by the culture Greco-Roman civilization, were physically the same as commonly enslaved Caucasus Mountaineers. Likewise, he chose the enslaved Mongols to describe Far East Asians, rather than the Chinese, whose civilization dominated that part of the world. This interpretation of Blumenbach’s research program diverges from the notion initially proposed by Schiebinger that aesthetics was a key driver in his work. However, the “environmentalist” interpretation presented herein is founded on a wide sample of primary source publications by Blumenbach, Georgi and de Fischer, most of which were not examined Schiebinger (1993, 270-274).

HOW THE TERMS “CAUCASIAN” AND “MONGOLIAN”BECAME POPULARIZED: Blumenbach Presented Slaves as Case Studies to Illustrate his “Environmentalist” Theory of Human Polytypic Variation. (Part 3 of 3)

End Notes:

  1. The observation that some species are are polytypic (showing a diverse spectrum of traits) can be traced to 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”.
  1. It can be problematic to use the words “racist” and “antiracist” when discussing Blumenbach’s work since these terms originated in the 1930s, long after he died (OED 1989 Vol. 13, 74-75). However, the term “white supremacy” appears as far back as 1825, and “superior race” was used during the late 18th century (Winn 1825, 8; Winterbotham 1796, 111). Thus, in this paper, the term “race supremacist” will be used.
  1. Blumenbach (1795a, xxviii-xxx; 1794, 193) noted that his five principle racial varieties did not include 1.) Cossacks and Kyrgyz, 2.) Egyptians and Romani, and 3.) “Eskimotae”. He regarded these three populations as what might now be described as genetic bridges. As far back as 1850, Bachman noted that the “theory of Blumenbach” was “to a considerable extent arbitrary” such that Blumenbach “himself gives us so many exceptions to the rule, that in a vast number of instances we are at a loss under which of his five varieties we can place many tribes, and a vast number of individuals” (Bachman 1850, 231).
  1. Livingstone’s (1962, 279) contention that “there are no races, only clines”, 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).
  1. These 11 specimens are quite clearly illustrated in Decades I-III in Figures 3, 5, 9, 15, 20, 23, 24, 25, 28, 29, and 30.
  1. The first unearthed Neanderthal fossil discovered in 1865 is now known as the Neanderthal “type specimen” or “holotype” (Kring et al. 1999, 581; Serre and Pääbo 2008, 212).


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The author would like to thank Nicolaas Rupke of Washington and Lee University, Wolfgang Böker of the University of Göttingen’s Blumenbach Online Project, and Ann E. Michael of De Sales University for their encouragement. Thanks also to Robert E. Shillenn of Shillenn, Ltd., Silver Springs, MD who provided input on translations for selected Latin, German, French, and Russian texts.

A Letter to Nathan Cofnas: Please Stop Misrepresenting my Research.

In February of 2015, my 1988 paper was cited in a paper by Nathan Cofnas, a professor with the Department of Philosophy, Lingnan University, Tuen Mun, Hong Kong. His paper, entitled “Science Is Not Always “Self-Correcting,”” was published in the Journal of the Association for Foundations of Science, Language and Cognition. The abstract to this paper reads:

“Some prominent scientists and philosophers have stated openly that moral and political considerations should influence whether we accept or promulgate scientific theories. This widespread view has significantly influenced the development, and public perception, of intelligence research. Theories related to group differences in intelligence are often rejected a priori on explicitly moral grounds. Thus the idea, frequently expressed by commentators on science, that science is “self-correcting”—that hypotheses are simply abandoned when they are undermined by empirical evidence—may not be correct in all contexts. In this paper, documentation spanning from the early 1970s to the present is collected, which reveals the influence of scientists’ moral and political commitments on the study of intelligence. It is suggested that misrepresenting findings in science to achieve desirable social goals will ultimately harm both science and society.”


After reading this paper, I felt that Prof. Cofnas had misrepresented my 1988 research. And so, I sent the following letter to the magazine editor, but did not get a reply.

March 6, 2015

Diederik Aerts, Editor
Foundations of Science
Journal of the Association for Foundations of Science, Language and Cognition

Dear Mr. Aerts,

The February 2015 edition of your journal included a paper by Nathan Cofnas (Science is Not Always “Self-Correcting”) which referenced my 1988 article, “A New Look at Morton’s’ Research.” Unfortunately, Cofnas has misrepresented the conclusions of my paper to make it appear that my findings verified the craniological research and overall conclusions of Samuel George Morton. Although my re-measurements of the Morton collection of skull did indicate that Morton’s measuring technique generated data that was “reasonable accurate,” I also prominently noted that the way in which Morton classified human into races (as he defined the term race) was “meaningless.” Thus, Morton was measuring arbitrary subsets. As a result, his anthropometric research was pointless. Morton might as well have been accurately measuring the skulls of twenty-four categories of humans whose names began with different letters of the alphabet. I am dismayed that Cofnas has failed to mention the most important aspect of my research. It is only recently that I found out Cofnas’ colleague, Neven Sesardic also misrepresented my work in a similar way in his 2005 book Making Sense of Heritability.

I would also like to note that in Cofnas’s paper, he uncritically refers to “black” and “white” Americans. Both of these categories are arbitrary subsets. In the New World, most “blacks,” (a term with different meanings in different nations like Haiti and Brazil) are descended from both Europeans and Africans. Also, a substantial number of American whites, including myself, have some small African ancestry. American blacks and whites are genetically one creolized population which ranges from darker to lighter. Thus, Cofnas’s paper, which appears to endorse the statistical evaluation of arbitrary subsets, perpetuates the same arbitrary terminology as found in Morton’s flawed research; Stephen Jay Gould’s poorly executed 1978 critique of Morton’s research; and Sesardic’s somewhat excessive 2005 critique of Gould.

To reiterate, Morton’s research was flawed because he regarded races as distinct units of population, and failed to view human variation as a constantly evolving racial spectrum (one of many naturally occurring biological clines), in which there are gradual physical changes from one location to the next. Sadly, Gould, Sesardic, and now Cofnas have also made the same fundamental mistake, thus rendering their discussions of Morton’s research, invalid. Like other human talents, the ability to score well on an IQ test may or may not be influenced by genetic factors and so warrants investigation. However, using arbitrary subsets of human populations as part of that investigation is a wasted effort, just as Morton’s evaluation of internal cranial capacity was a wasted effort.

John S. Michael


Since I did not get a reply from the editor, I emailed a copy to Prof. Cofnas and a number of the board members of the journal that published his paper. On March 11, 2015, Prof. Confas then sent a reply in which he argued that he had not misrepresented my paper. (Note: After I posted the above letter and a summary of his response, Confnas contacted me on March 22, 2015 and requested I post his letter in full. Readers should be aware that Mr. Confas owns the copyright to his letter and has given me written permission it post it in this blog.)  Prof. Cofnas’s response letter read:

Dear Mr. Michael,

In “Science Is Not Always ‘Self-Correcting'” (in press at Foundations of Science), there are two sentences about your paper:

Michael (1988) actually did remeasure more than 20% of Morton’s skulls (the collection has been preserved), and found no evidence of bias on Morton’s part. Gould repeated his accusation against Morton in the revised edition of The Mismeasure of Man (1996) without mentioning Michael’s study.

In Michael (1988), you write:

Of the crania measured by Morton, 201 were randomly selected for remeasurement. (p. 351)

Contrary to Gould’s interpretation, I conclude that Morton’s research was conducted with integrity….He was attempting to understand racial variation and not, as Gould claims, trying to prove Caucasian racial or intellectual superiority. (p. 353)

Although Gould is mistaken in many of his assumptions about Morton and his work, he is correct in asserting that these tables are scientifically unsound. He fails, however, to mention the overriding reason for rejecting them, namely, Morton’s acceptance of the existence of race. Most anthropologists feel that there is too little evidence to conclude with certainty whether the concept of race is a biological reality or simply an artifact of classification (Weiss and Maruyama 1976:47). If race does not really exist, then Morton’s samples are meaningless…. (p. 353)

As you can clearly see, you make two claims in your (1988) paper: (1) Morton accurately measured the skulls; (2) the concept of race has no biological reality. (1) is an empirical finding. (2) is your opinion. In my FOS paper, I quote you in connection with (1). It is absurd to say that I “misrepresented the conclusions of [your] paper to make it appear that [your] findings verified the craniological research and overall conclusions of Samuel George Morton.” Even if you consider your assertion that race is “meaningless” to be the “most important aspect of [your] research,” it is not misrepresentation for me to cite your empirical claim without discussing an opinion that you express in the same paper.

If you want to submit an article on the biological unreality of race to FOS or any other journal, I suggest that you do more than simply point out that races (human groups–whatever you want to call them) overlap. Even Neven Sesardic and I know that.

Also, you write in your response to me that “the ability to score well on an IQ test may or may not be influenced by genetic factors and so warrants investigation.” If you submit this for publication, it is likely that referees will take issue with this statement. The influence of genetic factors on IQ has been investigated extensively (spoiler alert: there is a big influence).

Best wishes,

The way I see it, Cofnas chose to mention that Morton accurately measured skulls, which Cofnas regarded as an empirically derived finding. Cofnas then stated that he chose NOT to mention that I stated that the concept of race is biologically meaningless because, as Cofnas viewed it, such a concept was simply my personal opinion, and nothing more. I do not agree with him on this. Since I did cite Weiss and Maruyama (1976:47), no one can say that I was expressing my own opinion. One might disagree with Weiss and Maruyama, but to say that their findings are my personal opinion is not correct.

I then wrote the following response:

Prof. Cofnas,

The notion that human races exist as distinct biologically-valid units has been disproved by DNA studies. That observation is not my opinion. Although races do not exist, there is indeed clinal racial variation within humans, akin to the variation of ladybugs as documented by Dobzhansky long ago. I would propose that it is in fact YOUR OPINION that races exist as distinct units that have statistical significance. Clearly, you and I are not in agreement on this issue. Hopefully the editors of FOS will publish my letter so that their readers may judge whether your arguments are more convincing than mine.

By failing to present those aspects of my paper which you personally deem to be “my opinion,” you are in fact misrepresenting my paper. If my paper is, as you indicate in your last email, flawed by my “opinion,” then why quote it at all? Lewis et al. deemed my paper to be “uninformative,” which you fail to mention. At least they were consistent in their critique, which you were not. If you think that my paper is of value, then you should present all of my findings, and not just the ones with which you agree. You should note what you perceive to be its substantial flaws, as Lewis et al. rightly did. If you feel my paper is too flawed to be of value, then do not cite it at all.

You have indeed misrepresented my paper. As Gould did in so much of his research, you have cherry-picked only those findings that you personally deemed worthy of mention. In so doing, you have given the false impression that my paper as a whole supports your position. Hopefully, my letter will be published by FOS, so that it can be openly reviewed by the journal’s readers. If these readers come to regard my views as misinformed and naïve, so be it. At least they will get an honest representation of my views, and not your selectively-edited misrepresentation.

I would also argue that the word “empirical” should not be used to describe the measurements I made of the Morton Collection. I accurately measured the Morton skulls, as did Morton. However, the racial classifications he used (and the ones I used as well) were arbitrary subsets. I have never claimed otherwise. In summary, I do not regard measuring meaningless samples as an “empirical” endeavor, even if each measurement is reasonably accurate.

Lastly, as someone who is quite familiar with Morton’s writings and has worked with his arbitrarily-gathered skull collection, I would caution you to refrain from suggesting that Morton’s research was a useful contribution to science. He was an overt racist who endorsed the bogus theory of Arrested Development, a fact which Gould never mentioned. Morton’s publications were riddled with mathematical and factual errors, not just the few that Gould cherry-picked. Darwin even warned Lyell not to trust Morton’s research. Morton’s publications were fatally flawed by sloppy research, as were Gould’s. The tacit implication in your paper and the writings of Sesardic is that Morton was “right” and Gould was “wrong.” In reality, both were wrong.


John S. Michael


A FINAL THOUGHT: I doubt Prof Cofnas and I will ever agree on this issue. Since he is an academic, who publishes in journals, and I am not (and thus cannot realistically hope to publish in a journal), it is difficult for us to communicate. I write blogs, which are quickly posted, and sometime quickly refuted, while his works are more carefully considered over a period of years. Unfortunately for me, when my 1988 paper is misrepresented – as it has been in the past few decades – that misrepresentation spread quickly through the internet. The sad reality is that even if a journal were to publish a letter from me, few people would read it. So, in order for me to restore my tarnished on-line reputation, I have to act quickly.  I am not sure who has the upper hand; Cofnas with his slow but respectable journals, or me with my fast but non-peer reviewed internet blogs.  Regardless, this is the only media outlet I have, so I just have to make due.

Is it Better to Measure a Skull with Seed or Lead Shot? Answer: Neither.

This blog is based largely on text from Chapter 27 of my book, a pdf of which is posted on this webpage. Detailed footnotes and citations are presented in the pdf. The author does not support racism, eugenics, or even the existence of biologically distinct human races. However, to maintain historical accuracy, this blog uses outdated and sometimes offensive ethnic terms found in historic documents. No offense is intended.

In this blog post I will answer a question that has been nagging me for nearly thirty years. In 1986 I measured the cranial capacity (braincase) of some 200 skulls from the Morton Collection of Human Crania. To measure those skulls, I filled them with acrylic plastic balls. However, when Morton measured them in the mid-1800s he used either seeds or lead shot. In 1839, he measured 256 skulls, by his count, with seed. In Crania America he described this seed as “white pepper seed” which was “selected on account of its spherical form, its hardness, and the equal size of the grains. It was also sifted to render the quality still greater.” Some years later, Morton remeasured most of these skull and a few hundred more using lead shot. Morton explained his reason for changing from peppercorn to shot in a notice published in the April 1841 Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia:

“Morton made some observations on a mode of ascertaining the internal capacity of the human cranium, by means of the tin tube and graduated rod as described by him in Crania Americana…The material hitherto used by Dr. Morton for the purpose of filling the crania, was white pepper seed, which was selected on account of its spherical form, and the general uniformity in the size of the grains… Dr. Morton then tried leaden shot of the size called BB measuring 1/8th of an inch in diameter which being perfectly smooth and spherical of uniform size and therefore not liable like the seeds to variations from packing”

Eight years later, in 1849, Morton published a catalog describing all the skulls in his collection which included a note explaining that:

“All the measurements in this Catalogue, both of the facial angle and internal capacity, have been made with my own hands. I at one time employed a person to aid me in these elaborate and fatiguing details; but having detected some errors in his measurements, I have been at the pains to revise all that part of the series that had not been previously measured by myself. I can now therefore vouch for the accuracy of these multitudinous data, which I cannot but regard as a novel and important contribution to Ethnological science.

It is necessary to add, that the measurements originally published in the Crania Americana were made with seeds, which will explain the discrepancy between the numbers observable in that work and this catalogue. The measurements of the Crania Aegyptiaca having been originally made with shot, require no revision: nor can I avoid expressing my satisfaction at the singular accuracy of this method since a skull of an hundred cubic inches if measured any number of times with reasonable care will not vary a single cubic inch.”

In other words, Morton hired an assistant to measure the skulls, but did not get what Morton regarded as good results. So, he tried to correct this situation by doing all the measurements himself, and also by using shot which he regarded as a better medium for measuring the skulls.

Although Morton was enthusiastic about the accuracy of his measuring technique, later scholars were not as impressed. Later in the 19th century Carl Vogt, agreed with Morton’s overall findings but not Morton’s measuring technique. In 1864, Vogt praised Morton for concluding that whites had larger skulls than black, thus disproving Tiedemann. Vogt dismissed the “erroneous results formerly propagated by Tiedemann,” which “asserted that the cranial capacity of the Negro was not less than that of the European.” Yet, Vogt faulted Morton for not sufficiently compressing the lead shot when filling the skull, which was a technique used by French anatomist Paul Broca (1824-1880). Vogt wrote that Morton’s skull measurements:

“… as well as those of Welcker, were made with small shot, with which the cranium was filled, and shaken until no more could be introduced. Broca has observed, that no exact measurement is obtained by this method, the differences arising when the same skull is measured several times, amounting to from twenty to thirty five cubic centimeters owing to the fact that, in many skulls, some parts of the internal cavity of the cranium rise above the level of the occipital foramen, through which the shot is introduced. Broca, therefore, by means of a long cuneiform instrument, presses the shot in every direction, until no more can be introduced. His results, though comparable with each other present therefore somewhat higher numbers. Again, the skulls examined by the American observers were selected specimens, whilst those of Broca were obtained from disturbed churchyards.”

Simply put, Vogt felt that Morton should have compressed the shot. Vogt also seems to hint that that Morton’s samples were “selected specimens” rather than a random sample exhumed from a grave. Vogt did however reference Morton’s measurements of Malay skulls to refute claims that they were nearly as large as Europeans. So it seems that Vogt supported those of Morton’s findings that confirmed his own conclusions. Indeed, confirmation bias is an indelible part of the human condition.

Vogt proposed that Morton improperly failed to compact the lead shot that he used to measure skulls. A century later, Stephen Jay Gould postulated that Morton did not compact the skulls with shot, but did compact the skulls when he was measuring them with peppercorns. As Gould wrote in the Mismeasure of Man (page 97)

“I assumed that measures by seed would be lower. Seeds are light and variable in size, even after sieving. Hence, they do not pack well. By vigorous shaking or pressing of the thumb at the foramen magnum (the hole at the base of a skull), seeds can be made to settle, providing room for more. Measures by seed were very variable; Morton reported differences of several cubic inches for recalibrations of the same skull. He eventually became discouraged, firing his assistants, and redid all his measurements personally, with lead shot. Recalibrations never varied by more than a cubic inch, and we may accept Morton’s judgement that measures by shot were objective, accurate and repeatable – while earlier measures my seed were highly subjective and erratic.”

Later on the same page, Gould speculated as to how Morton’s seed measurements may have generated different results from the shot measurements. Gould wrote:

“Plausible scenarios are easy to construct. Morton, measuring by seed, picks up a threateningly large black skull, fills it lightly and gives it a few desultory shakes. Next, he takes a distressingly small Caucasian skull, shakes hard, and pushes mightily at the foramen magnum with his thumb. It is easily done, without conscious motivation; expectation is a powerful guide to action.”

In a 1984 PBS Nova program, Gould was filmed explaining that he had reanalyzed “Morton’s data one summer a few years back. And I discovered that his ranking of whites, Indian and blacks was based more on his hopes than any reality of his data.” Gould then went on to accuse Morton of under-measuring black skulls and over-measuring white skulls, saying:

“Morton picks up the skull of a black man. Gee, it looks kind of disconcertingly large, he’s a little worried about it. You pour in the mustard seed, you shake it very gently try to get it to settle, pour it out again. Then you pick up a white skull which is disconcertingly small and you pour in the mustard seed. You take your thumb and you push on the foramen magnum as hard as you can, you push down, you pour some in some more. It’s… it’s not hard. I mean that must have been what happened.”

In the video, Gould can be seen pantomiming Morton using his thumb to push more seed into Caucasian skulls. And also note that Gould referred to “mustard seed,” not white pepper.

It should be noted that neither Vogt nor Gould actually re-measured Morton’s skulls and Gould never even laid eyes on them. So, both of these men were making assumptions. The question I had for many years was: Were these assumptions true? Does lead shot actually generate more reliable measurements than pepper seed?

In 2014, I decided to run a test. I bought a plastic model human skull from a medical supply store. I measured it with white pepper seed, lead shot and some other materials, like millet which was used by Tiedemann. I bought the white a pepper seed at a Korean grocery store. Shot is hard to find and expensive, so I bought used scuba divers’ weights which are filled with shot. I did not sift the shot or any of the seed materials, so my findings are not “lab quality.” Also, I measured the plastic skull and its contents with my kitchen scale. I invite any enterprising undergrad to re-run this test. If I’m wrong, so be it. My results should therefore be viewed as PRELIMINARY. I would however note that I actually have experience measuring skulls and this is not my first time conducting such research.

My methodology was quite simple. I measured the cranial capacity of my skull in three ways with the assumption that I would get three different results.

1. I measured the skull by filling it with material and only shifting the skull from side to side. One must tilt a skull a bit fill it up. My goal was to try to avoid any settling or compaction of the materials. I call this technique “NOT SHAKEN.”

2. I measured the skull by filling it with material and then I shook it to make it settle. But, I did not push my fingers into the skull to compact it. This is the normal way that modern researchers measure a skull, and this was the technique I used for my 1988 paper. I call this technique “SHAKEN ONLY.”

3. I measured the skull by filling it with material and then I shook it to make it settle and then pushed my fingers into the skull to compact it. I call this technique “COMPACTED.”

I then repeated this process using five different materials: White Pepper, White Mustard,
Millet Seed, White Rice, and Lead Shot. I repeated the measurements for each type and technique ten times. I then took all my data and determined a coefficient of variance (CV) for each type of material and technique. CV is a standard statistical measurement. In very broad terms, a lower CV indicates a more consistent measurement. At the end of this blog I have posted my raw data and calculations.

Once everything was finished, I had generated the fifteen CVs that are presented below:

CV – Material, Technique
0.6 – White Pepper, Compacted
0.8 – Yellow Mustard, Compacted
0.9 – Millet Seed, Not Shaken
1.0 – White Rice, Compacted
1.1 – Lead Shot, Shaken Only
1.1 – Millet Seed, Compacted
1.1 – Lead Shot, Compacted
1.3 -Yellow Mustard, Not Shaken
1.4 -Yellow Mustard, Shaken Only
1.8 – White Pepper, Not Shaken
1.8 – White Pepper, Shaken Only
2.0 – White Rice, Shaken Only
2.2 – Millet Seed, Shaken Only
2.8 – White Rice, Not Shaken
3.2 – Lead Shot, Not Shaken

The main conclusion is that shot is not an especially accurate measurement material relative to other materials. Compressing does not give worse or better results regardless of material. Gould’s assumption, which has been unquestioned for decades, has no foundation. If anything, his assertion shows how little he actually knew about the technique of measuring skulls. But then again, his expertise was studying snails. One would never presume that an anthropologist would have any expertise with snails, thus there is no reason that Gould would be an expert on skulls.

Some practical findings of my research were:

1. It appears that compacting the materials when filling a skull with ANY materials is just a bad idea. It put too much pressure on the skull. When I compressed the materials, (regardless of what they were) the material all moved into the face area, where there are more holes. This is also where there are more fine bones. I would not recommend doing this on a real skull because you would end up breaking some of the internal face bones. Gould assumed that Morton employed compression to make white skulls seem larger. But for that ASSUMPTION to be true, Morton had to have been willing to damage his white skulls.

2. Mustard seed is a mess and is annoying to use. It gets all charged up with static electricity and spills out of eye holes and such. I hated using it due to the mess. Also, I had to work to get the last few seeds out of the inside of the skull.

3. Lead shot is difficult to use and could easily damage many skulls. When my plastic skull was full of lead shot it weighed 19 pounds. The largest bowling ball is 16 pounds. A skull is round and has no good handles. I was afraid I would drop it and smash it. The muscles in my arms got sore hoisting it to the scale. Also, for some reason, a few table spoons of shot balls stayed in the skull. I had to shake it rigorously to get them out. My plastic skull had a removable top that was held together by magnets. The skull popped open the first time I filled it with the shot. It spilled all over the floor. So, I had to tape the skull shut. In summary, shot is hard to use and could easily crack both the thicker and thinner bones in a dry skull. Also, shot was just as easy to compact as any seed material. So for me, it had no special benefits the seeds lacked.

4. Rice was easy, but only worked well when compressed.

5. White pepper was easy to use, but only got good results when compressed. That observation suggests that a lab worker would need to practice a very consistent technique which required some training. So, Morton could have been right that his lab tech got inconsistent results.

6. Millet was the preferable material for many reasons. It was not messy at all. It was light weight, thus doing minimal damage to the skull. It was also easy to pour out of the skull. Most importantly, Millet generated a low CV without even shaking it. It was also quicker. In the 1930s, LIFE magazine ran an article of Harvard anthropologist Earnest Hooton. (“Hooton of Harvard,” LIFE, August 7, 1939). A photo on page 61 shows him measuring a skull with (according to the caption) millet, not shot.

In conclusion, Gould’s assumption that shot was somehow a better material than seed is was a false assumption. Also, it is just as easy to compact shot as seed. If as Gould proposed, Morton’s bias led him to unconsciously mis-measure with seed, then how come that strong bias did not affect his shot measurements? Did Morton’s racial bias inexplicably turn off at some point? A more likely scenario, which I have proposed on other blog posts, is that Morton simply lied. His work was riddled with random errors. I think that when his measurements got results he didn’t like, he would just write down something else. Given that he was an overt racist, he would periodically lie to make Anglo-Saxons appear superior to other races. But that is a case of lying, not subconscious bias secretly corrupting his data set. We have to remember that Morton was not a modern scientist, honor bound to publish only those results that are rigorously tested in a lab setting. He was not, nor did he ever claim to be the objectivist Gould said he was.

Gould uncritically accepted Morton’s false claims that the shot was the ideal material for measuring skulls. My research (as seen in other posts on this web site) suggests that Morton conducted his measurements in part to refute the craniological research of Tiedemann who used millet. So, Morton may have sold (or oversold) the accuracy of shot, so as to make Tiedemann look like an old fashioned guy with an outdated technique that should not be trusted. Ironically, my results show that millet is the preferable material, thus supporting Tiedemann’s findings. The way I see it, if the question is asked, “Who is RIGHT about measuring skulls, Morton or Gould?” The answer is, “Tiedemann.”

I reiterate that the research present on this blog should be regarded as preliminary, and I eagerly encourage some undergraduate, or even a high school student, to duplicate it. Until I am proven wrong, I am the only person who has taken on this task. My work, faulty as it may be, is currently the best done to date. It may not be perfect, but at least from my perspective, I finally have a halfway decent answer to a question that has been bugging me for decades.

PDFSeed-Shot Morton_v5

Ancient Egypt and Bad Math: Morton’s Research Ran Rife with Errors

This blog is based on text from Chapter 29 of my book, a pdf of which is posted on this webpage. Detailed footnotes and citations are presented in the pdf. The author does not support racism, eugenics, or even the existence of biologically distinct human races. However, to maintain historical accuracy, this blog uses outdated and sometimes offensive ethnic terms found in historic documents. No offense is intended.

Samuel George Morton’s Crania Aegyptiaca is a case study in his staggeringly bad employment of basic mathematics. Within Crania Aegyptiaca, Morton published the craniological measurements of a set of 100 skulls from Egypt, most of which were ancient Egyptians. Morton summarized his findings on these skulls in the table shown below.

Egypt Blog 1The above table contains a blatant error regarding the Semitic (or Arabic) skulls, three of which are from Thebes. According to Morton, the smallest of the three Semitic Thebans is 79 cubic inches, and the mean is also 79 cubic inches. This is mathematically impossible. Furthermore, four of the five means values presented in the sixth column do not actually generate the mean reported in the seventh column, which I shall call the second mean.
In 2011, I recalculated second means in the above table. Figure 2 below presents the means and second means reported by Morton in 1844 along with the corrected second means. This figure shows that four of the five second means reported by Morton were lower than they should have been. Morton’s Pelasgic Form, Semitic Form, and Negro Form were all incorrectly inflated by 3 cubic inches. Morton’s Egyptian Form was boosted up one inch.

Egypt Blog 2After I found the above-noted errors, I decided to recreate Morton’s 1844 Table using Morton’s raw data, which he published in Crania Aegyptiaca. The internal volumes of the 100 skulls he measured are included in a 15-page inventory within the book. Recreating this table was no simple task because Morton was not consistent with the terms he used to describe the ethnicity of the skulls he measured. For example, his Ethnographic Divisions Table (Figure 2) does not describe any skulls as being mixed race. However, on page 19 of Crania Aegyptiaca, he presented a table (Figure 3 below) describing five of his 100 skulls as mixed. My challenge was to find out to which Ethnographic Division these five mixed skulls were assigned within Morton’s Ethnographic Division Table.

Egypt Blog 3To complicate matters even more, the above table refers to mixed skulls, but the term mixed is not used in the 15-page inventory. Furthermore, on page 7 of Crania Aegyptiaca, Morton describes Skull No. 795 as “Egyptian blended with the Negroid form?” indicating that Morton regarded it as having mixed ethnicity. And yet on page 31, this same skull is included in a listing of “Egyptian Group” skulls. On page 8, Morton describes Skull No. 802 as “Egypto-Pelasgic Form,” but it is included in a list of “Pelasgic Group” skulls on page 30. Morton’s inconsistent definitions make his inventory and his tables unclear and confusing. However, I was able to deduce what skulls Morton measured and how he classified them by combining all the information presented in his 15-page inventory, along with tables on pages 19 and 21, and the listing of skulls in the Pelasgic, Egyptian, and Negroid Groups, found on pages 30 and 31. (I spent a few weeks just sorting out this Gordian knot, a testament to either my obsessiveness or thoroughness. Take your pick.)

Figure 4 shows a spreadsheet with all the information I gathered from the tables and text within Crania Aegyptiaca. The final column of Figure 4 presents the ethnicities I was able to deduce from Morton’s information. I was fortunate in that I was able to cross reference all of Morton’s lists and tables, and from them assign every mixed skull to one of the categories on Morton’s Ethnographic Divisions table. I cannot fathom why Morton published his information in such a convoluted manner. His organization system defies common sense. It was only with the aid of a computer datasheet that I was able to untangle it all, and finally account for each of his 100 skulls.

Egypt Blog 4aEgypt Blog 4b

Using the data listed in Figure 4 above, I re-created Morton’s Ethnographic Division Table as shown below in Figure 5.

Egypt Blog 5Ultimately, I was able to determine that Morton’s 1844 Ethnographic Tables contained 13 mathematical errors, as shown above in Figure 5. There are a total of 65 units of data (numbers) listed on this table. Thus, the 13 errors indicate that 20 percent of the information on this table is in error. Stanton (1960), Gould (1978), Michael (1988), and Lewes (2011) all failed to note the errors on this table, including the blatantly incorrect mean for the three Semitic skulls from Thebes. We all spent hours and hours gazing our eyeballs directly at Morton’s table and none of us noticed that the mean for the Semitic-Thebans was utterly impossible. That fact is somewhat distressing, and Lord knows I was as guilty as the rest. It is also distressing to realize that Morton, who was held in such high esteem by his colleagues, could have generated a table in which approximately one fifth of the data was in error.

There have been those who have argued that Morton’s craniological research is a diagnostic example of bias, unconscious bias, science correcting itself, or science failing to correct itself. To them, I would argue that his research is so flawed that it is not a good example of anything… save a man who did sloppy work.

Blumenbach’s Skull Research was not Compromised by Aesthetic Desires as Claimed by Londa Schiebinger

This blog is based on text from Chapter 22 of my book, a pdf of which is posted on this webpage. Detailed footnotes and citations are presented in the pdf. The author does not support racism, eugenics, or even the existence of biologically distinct human races. However, to maintain historical accuracy, this blog uses outdated and sometimes offensive ethnic terms found in historic documents. No offense is intended.

Perhaps the most unwarranted critique of Blumenbach’s research can be found in in Nature’s Body: Gender in the Making of Modern Science by the American historian Londa Schiebinger. In this book, she argued that Blumenbach chose to call white Europeans “Caucasians” for mostly aesthetic reasons. As Schiebinger wrote:

“An extraordinary example of the sway that notions of beauty, and female beauty in particular, held over science can be seen in Blumenbach’s coining the term Caucasian… In one stroke Blumenbach assigned the greatest beauty to a particular people, gave them the honor of being the original humans, and bequeathed a name to this premier race that stands even to this day as a potent marker of privilege.”

Schiebinger went on to say (and note that here again she is employing the word honor):

“According to his own account, Blumenbach took the name from the Caucasus Mountain range… because this region, especially its southern slope, produced what he considered the most beautiful of all humans – the Georgians. He chose the Caucasus for this honor because, “all physiological evidence converged on this region” as the birthplace of human kind.” As proof, he pointed to the unsullied whiteness of its inhabitants. “It is very easy” Blumenbach reasoned, “for white skin to degenerate into brown, but very much more difficult for a darker skin already impregnated with carbonaceous pigments to become white…” Even more important than skin color for Blumenbach was the pleasing symmetry of the Georgian skull. For him the Caucasian’s great beauty simply revealed them as the original humans – the archetype from which all other races degenerated.”

Like many other 20th Century scholars, Schiebinger relied on an uncritical reading of Thomas Bendyshe’s bad translation of Blumenbach, and added to it a number of assumptions about Blumenbach that are incorrect. For a start, Blumenbach never stated that being the first (autochthonous) human was an honor. Schiebinger also referred to the “unsullied whiteness” of Georgians, which again was a concept that Blumenbach himself never expressed. He never claimed that dark pigment was a form of filth. In fact, he praised the attractiveness of darker skinned people in a number of his writings. Schiebinger accepted Bendyshe’s translation as literal, assuming that when Bendyshe used the word beautiful, it was because Blumenbach used just that one word. Nowhere in her book does Schiebinger note that the word beauty had a different meaning in 1776. Furthermore, within Schiebinger’s book, I did not find any text in which she explained that the term de-generation was not the same as degeneration. I can only assume that she genuinely believed that Blumenbach regarded dark skinned people as a deteriorated form of white people. However, he did not.

As I see it, Schiebinger was looking only for that evidence that would support her philosophical interpretation of history, which to her credit she openly presented at the beginning of her book. As part of this statement she wrote:

“Twentieth-century historians of science have tended to treat racial and sexual science in separate studies. While eighteenth-century studies of race and sex admittedly formed distinct literatures, they7 also shared an intimate history having to do with the rise of what Michele Foucault has called “political anatomy”. The body – stripped clean of history and culture as it was of clothes and often skin – became the touchstone of political rights and social privileges.”

According to Schiebinger, Blumenbach created the term Caucasian, not because there was a scientific basis for it, but rather because he was so enamored by the beauty of Georgian women. His choice was not really evidence-based or logical but rather driven by desire, which overrode his rational mind. Schiebinger proposed that Blumenbach was not simply influenced by the medieval notion that Georgian women were beautiful, but rather “Deeper reasons… lay behind the beauty of assessment of beauty of Georgian woman that so influenced Blumenbach.”

Although, to her credit, she did say that, “To Blumenbach’s credit, he did not place the cradle of humanity in his native Germany.”

To Schiebinger’s way of thinking, Blumenbach’s choice of a Georgian female’s skull was highly significant and rich with symbolic importance:

“Blumenbach’s reverence for beauty may also explain why he singled out a female skull to represent the Caucasian race. Departing from medical traditions that for centuries had established the male as the paragon of human excellence, Blumenbach chose from his vast anthropological collection the skull of a young Georgian woman to represent “the Caucasian.””

What Schiebinger failed to notice is that Blumenbach also chose female skulls to represent his Ethiopian and Malay variety. According to Schiebinger’s rationale, Blumenbach must have also had a “reverence” for the beauty of black Africans and Polynesians.

When I first read Schiebinger’s above quote, something struck me odd about it. Schiebinger refers to Blumenbach’s “vast collection,” which from my perspective was not vast at all. Back in 1986, when I spent three weeks measuring the Morton skulls, I was actually rather disappointed with how small the collection was. Although it contains about 1,000 skulls, it only fills two rows of cabinets, each about 25 to 30 feet long. You could store all those cabinets in a garage and still have room for a sub-compact car. If Morton’s collection was that small, Blumenbach’s must have been small enough to store in a couple of large bookshelves.

I decided to do some research to see if I could figure out how just how large Blumenbach’s collection was in 1795 when he came up with the word “Caucasian.” Fortunately for me, Blumenbach published a series of seven small articles about his skull collection between 1789 and 1828. The first six of these articles presented a drawing of ten skulls and a description of each of them along with Blumenbach’s comments. Thus these articles are now jointly known as the Decas Cranorium (Ten Skulls). According to the Decas Cranorium, by 1795 Blumenbach had only collected 30 skulls, although he may have had more specimens he did not list. Even if he had 100 skulls, that is not what I would call a vast collection.

There was something else that I noticed while reading Blumenbach’s Decas Cranorium. Some of the skulls he illustrated were chipped, broken, or had missing teeth, which reminded me of the Morton collection.. Some of the skulls in Morton’s collection were in great condition, solid and un-cracked, with all of their teeth. Most of the skulls, however, had some sort of minor damage, often a few missing teeth, or were chipped along the thin bones within the nose or in the back of the eyes. Many skulls were also missing jaws. A good portion of the skulls, perhaps a quarter, were substantially damaged. For example, many had cracks around the sutures, like an old guitar whose back had cracked at the seam. Others were simply punctured as if hit by a hammer or more likely the shovel that was used to dig them up. It was also common to see holes from water damage, or in the case of desert skulls, damage from wide erosion.

Having been somewhat educated as a paleontologist (I dropped out of a master’s program in mammal paleontology), I was aware that anyone who studies a bone has to follow a rule which dictates that the bone being studied must be a physically ideal specimen. There are exceptions; but in general, a scholar should not make definitive statements about a bone if it is poorly preserved or shows evidence of disease. In paleontology, the term “type specimen” or “holotype” is used to describe a bone or skeleton that is the definitive example of an extinct animal. It should be in excellent condition, with no evidence of disease, and come from an adult, not a juvenile. Usually, when a new fossil is discovered (for example, a fish), the scientist who first describes it in a paper will choose the best preserved example of that species of fish (assuming she has a few to choose from), and declare it to be the type specimen. From then on, any other paleontologist who finds a similar looking fish can compare it to the type specimen. If the newly discovered fish matches the type specimen, then they are the same species. If not, they are different species. Of course, it does not always work out so neatly. For years it was thought that there were two types of large ape that lived in South Asia long before humans evolved. The big one was called Sivapithecus while the small one was called Ramapithecus. They each had a type specimen until somebody realized that the big one was the male version of the small one. They were both the same species.

The notion that Blumenbach might have been seeking out a racial type specimen led me to look at the drawings of the five skulls that he used as examples of his five varieties (American, Caucasian, Ethiopian, Malay and Mongolian.) They were all in good to excellent condition, like a type specimen, except for the Malay which was missing most of its teeth. I suspected that Blumenbach was forced to use a less than ideal Malay skull because his collection had only a few specimens from that population. To verify my suspicion, I conducted an analysis of all skulls illustrated in Decades Cranium. I gave them a score from 5 to 1 based in the following guidelines:

5. No chips
4. Chipping in one location
3. Chipping in two locations
2. Major cracks
1. Substantial damage or areas with mummified skin still attached

Using these admittedly arbitrary guidelines, and an examination of the drawings of the skulls rather than an actual examination of the skulls, I developed the table presented in Figure 1. This table indicates that Blumenbach only had 14 Caucasian skulls as of 1795. Of these 14 skulls, only two were free of chips, and had their jaws and all their teeth. One was a Jewish Girl who was not an adult (#3-38) and the other was a Woman from Georgia (#3-21). Both these skulls were present in his collection in 1795. This evidence suggest that the reason Blumenbach chose the Georgian skull as his “type specimen” was because it was the only Caucasian skull he had that was an adult specimen in good condition.

D3-12_F2D3-12_F1If my contention about the Woman of Georgia’s skull is correct, then I should be able show that Blumenbach chose the other type specimens based on the same non-aesthetic criteria. As it happens, four out of the five skulls Blumenbach chose to illustrate his varieties (American, Caucasian, Ethiopian, Malay, and Mongolian), were in excellent condition. As Figure 1 shows, Blumenbach had 11 American skulls, only two of which had jaws, a full set of teeth, and no chips. But he only had one of these two skulls in 1795, and that was the Carib of St. Vincent Isle (#1-10), which he chose as his American type specimen. Blumenbach only had 16 Caucasian skulls, of which three were adults in prime condition. One was Turk from Turkey, one was a Tatar presumably from Crimea, and one was a Georgian form that Caucasus Region. He chose the Woman of Georgia. Indeed, she may have been his favorite skull, but she was also the only Caucasian he had at the time. Schiebinger’s claim that Blumenbach chose the Woman of Georgia for aesthetic reasons assumed that he could have chosen her out of many in his “vast collection.” But the above evidence indicates that his collection only had one skull from the Caucasus. His choices were severely limited.

Blumenbach was Not Obsessed with Beauty, but His 19th Century Translator Sure Was

This blog is based on text from Chapter 21 of my book, a pdf of which is posted on this webpage. Detailed footnotes and citations are presented in the pdf. The author does not support racism, eugenics, or even the existence of biologically distinct human races. However, to maintain historical accuracy, this blog uses outdated and sometimes offensive ethnic terms found in historic documents. No offense is intended.

Throughout my book I have stressed how in 1865, Thomas Bendyshe published a racist mistranslation of Blumenbach’s anti-racist writings led 20th century authors such as Bruce Dain to assume that Blumenbach harbored a white supremacist racial bias, at least early in his career. My initial suspicion that Blumenbach was mistranslated by Bendyshe led me to seek out the services of a professional Latin translator. In 2014, I was fortunate enough to hire a professional translation firm, Shillenn LLC, whom I will henceforth refer to as my 2014 Translator.

My 2014 Translator translated a number of passages from Blumenbach’s works that I suspected were mistranslated by Bendyshe. Before I discuss them, I need to briefly explain that within Blumenbach’s original text a “§” symbol was used to denote a chapter, thus § 62 refers to Chapter 62. Most of the chapters in De Generis of 1795 are just a few paragraphs long. In modern terms, they would be called sections. The image below is taken from Blumenbach’s original text which was bound into a book about the size of a small paperback you might buy in an airport. The left side of this image presents one entire page.

D2-12_F1When my 2014 Translator provided me with his translations, he also included notes which you can read in the pdf of Chapter 20. I found the 2014 Translator’s comments to be fascinating because they illustrate the complexities of translating the Latin used in Enlightenment Era Germany. My 2014 Translator’s rendering of Chapter 62 reads (with my bold):

Ҥ 62. Ethnic varieties of skulls
It seems that all the diversity of the skull of the various ethnic groups and that of the ethnic groups which we have surveyed (§ 56) can also be reduced to five prime varieties; plate II shows examples of these [varieties] (selected from many).

1. The middle place is held by an excellently symmetric, somewhat rounded specimen, whose forehead is moderately flattened out; the cheek bones are rather narrow, nowhere protruding, running down from the malar process of the frontal bone; the alveolar ridge [is] somewhat round; the front teeth of each jaw are positioned perpendicularly. The most elegant skull of a Georgian woman is shown as the example in plate II, figure 3. This charming shape of the skull is midway between the two extremes; of which one of the two…” [At this point Blumenbach goes on to describe Mongolians and Ethiopians.]

Bendyshe’s 1865 translation is presented below. This image is taken from the original text, which has a much more modern look than Blumenbach’s 18th century version. As you read Bendyshe’s translation, you will notice that Bendyshe used the words beautifully and beautiful.

D2-12_F2Comparing my 2014 Translator’s text and Bendyshe’s1865 translation for two phrases dealing with beauty indicates that Bendyshe was overusing the word beautiful as seen below:

D2-12_F3The topic of beauty also arises in Chapter 85 of De Generis of 1795, as presented below:

D2-12_F4As seen below, my 2014 Translator’s text indicates that Blumenbach regarded the Georgian people from of the Caucasus Mountain to be “the most beautiful race” of humans:

Ҥ 85. A) The Caucasian variety
The name for this variety is from the Caucasus mountains, because the surrounding area, especially its southern region, nurtures the most beautiful race of humans, i.e. the Georgian, and since all the physiological measures point in the same direction, [i.e.] that the “original types” of the human species most likely ought to be located, if anywhere, in this same region.

In the first place, as we have seen (§ 62), this stock exhibits the most beautiful shape of the skull, from which, as from a mediate and original shaping, the other [varieties] very gradually diverge in both directions toward to the two furthest extremes (in one direction the Mongolian and in the other the Ethiopian).

Moreover since this same [variety] is white in color, which we may consider to be the original [color] of the human species since, as we have shown above [§ 45], it is easy for [white] to degenerate into dark, while it is far more difficult [to move] from dark into white (namely when the secretion and precipitation of carbonaceous pigment (§ 44) over a long time has taken root).”

Bendyshe’s translation of 1865, as seen below, also indicated Blumenbach’s perception of the Georgians as being beautiful.

D2-12_F5And so we are left with two translators who agree that Blumenbach did indeed think that the Georgians were the most beautiful of branch of humanity (pucherrimam homien stirpum). Both Behndyshe and the 2013 translations agreed that the Georgians had the most beautiful shape of skulls (venustissuam ut videmus cranai formam).
One could argue that Bendyshe’s mistranslations were due to his inability to read Blumenbach’s arcane form of Latin. However, Bendyshe also mistranslated Blumenbach’s German writings in a way that fraudulently made it appear the Blumenbach held whites to be not just beautiful, but the most beautiful, while and blacks were not just ugly, but the ugliest. For example, Bendyshe also mistranslated Blumenbach’s 1806 German publication Beytrage zur Naturgeschichte. In this book, Blumenbach describes meeting the charming and beautiful African-born Haitian midwife who he met in Yverdun, Switzerland. The following passage regarding this black African woman was translated into English by my 2014 Translator. Based on his translation, Blumenbach’s describe the Haitian midwife as having (with my bold):

“A face, which absolutely – even in the nose and the somewhat thick lips – did not even have anything striking – let alone unpleasant, that the same traits with white skin, would have certainly had to be generally pleasing, just as Le Maire says in his journey to Senegal and Gambia: there are Negresses, who, abstracting from the color, are allegedly as well formed as our European ladies. Also Adanson, the meticulous naturalist, confirms this about the Senegal-Gambian Negresses: “they have,” he says, “beautiful eyes, a small mouth and lips and well-proportioned facial traits: some are found having perfect beauty *): they are full of vivacity and eminently have a light, free and pleasing decorum.”

In this quote, Blumenbach notes that the Haitian midwife had thick lips and a wide nose. Furthermore, he suggests that those very African-looking facial features were nonetheless attractive, and would have been attractive if they occurred on a woman with white skin. Blumenbach then gives two more examples of respected naturalists who also agree that black African women can be just as pretty as whites. However, when Bendyshe translated this text, he rendered it to imply that Blumenbach regarded black skin as being “disagreeable.” Bendyshe’s translation reads (with my bold):

“Such a countenance – even in the nose and the somewhat thick lips – was so far from being surprising, that if one could have set aside the disagreeable skin, the same features with a white skin must have universally pleased, just as Le Maire says in his travels through Senegal and Gambia, that there are negresses, who, abstraction being made of the colour, are as well formed as our European ladies. So also Adanson, that accurate naturalist, asserts the same of the Senegambia negresses; they have beautiful eyes small mouth and lips and well-proportioned features; some, too, are found of perfect beauty; they are full of vivacity, and have especially an easy, free and agreeable presence.”

In 2002, Bendyshe’s version of this text was used by American historian Bruce Dain to argue that Blumenbach “found black skin repugnant,” yet he “could see fineness in relative terms. Round-headed, black, full-featured people could be beautifully, finely made, hence highly intelligent.” Dain’s statement was mistaken in a number of respects. First, Dain uncritically accepted Bendyshe’s warped translation as being an accurate reflection of Blumenbach’s views. Then Dain used this mistranslation to suggest that Blumenbach equated physical beauty with intelligence, an idea that would have sat well with Blumenbach’s intellectual arch rival Christophe Meiners, but not Blumenbach. Lastly, Dain assumed that Blumenbach, writing in 18th century Germany, defined the word beautiful (or its German equivalent,) the same way that we do in 21st Century America. And that leads to the question, how exactly did Blumenbach define beauty way back then?

When Blumenbach said that the Georgians were the most beautiful people on earth, did he mean that they were like the kind of ravishingly gorgeous women and brutally handsome men who grace the magazines that I see while in line at the grocery store? Or was Blumenbach referring to another form of beauty? After all, other things that can be beautiful, like a sunset, an insect’s diaphanous wing, the interior of a cathedral, or a screaming newborn child. Perhaps Blumenbach, the biologist and anatomist, was impressed by the structure of the Georgian’s physiology, just as he might be impressed by the tail feathers of a peacock.

In Figure 6, I have listed all of the instances that I was able to find in which Bendyshe used the word beautiful when translating passages from De Generis of 1776. As the figure shows, Bendyshe translated two Latin words, elegans and exellentem, as beautiful.

D2-12_F6Figure 7 lists instances where Bendyshe used the words beautiful, handsome, or becoming when translating De Generis of 1795. In these passages, the Latin word pulcher is translated as beautiful in three places. The words venustus is rendered as beautiful in two instances, but appears as handsome only once. Adding these three words to the two words noted (above elegans and exellentem), we now have five words that Bendyshe translated as beautiful. Unfortunately, I have no way to determine exactly what these five Latin words meant in the form of Latin used by German scholars in the 18th century. However, I am wary enough to suggest that they may not have the exact same meaning they do today.

D2-12_F7There is currently no way to know what English words Blumenbach would have used to describe all the different Latin terms describing beauty or attractiveness. However, Blumenbach did published one paper in English, in which he used but one word that related to aesthetics. Blumenbach had proficiency in English but was not totally fluent in it. Thus, the following quote represents Blumenbach’s direct un-translated writing, a rare occurrence in this or any of the other English-language books that discuss him (with my bold):
“The maxilla were sensibly prominent, but by no means so much as in a true Guinea face; and not more so than is often seen on handsome negroes, and not seldom on European countenances.”

In this passage, Blumenbach is describing the face of a mummy which he had examined while visiting England. He is saying that its face was prognathic, with a mouth and teeth that jutted out. However, this mummy’s face was not as prognathic as is common in black Africans from Guinea. Blumenbach’s conclusion was that this mummy had a mouth that was like the mouths found in some Europeans and in “handsome negros,” a term which requires some investigation. I cannot determine if Blumenbach was using the term negro to mean all blacks everywhere, or only West Africans who were not from Guinea. It is also possible that he was referring to only people from Negroland, which in this context would likely be Senegambia. Regardless, Blumenbach stated that these “negros” were handsome, a word that is currently used to describe an attractive man, rather than an infant or a sunset. However, handsome had a somewhat different meaning in Blumenbach’s day. In 1802, Samuel Johnsons’ dictionary defined it this way:

“HANDSOME. Adj. [handsaem, Dutch, ready, dexterous.] 1. Ready; gainly; convenient… 2. Beautiful with dignity; graceful… 3. Elegant; graceful… 4 Ample; liberal, as a handsome fortune… 5. Generous; noble as a handsome action.”

In 1825, Richard Thomas Gore translated Blumenbach’s A Manual of the Elements of Natural History, which was originally written in German. Gore was a British surgeon and anatomist who I regard as the most qualified translator of Blumenbach, of any century. Gore’s translation of A Manual of the Elements of Natural History provides an excellent summary of Blumenbach’s world view during the latter part of his career. I was able to find the word beauty twelve times this document, but only once did it refer to humans, as shown below (with my bold):

(Abbild. Nat. Hist. Gegenst. Tab. 3 and 51)
Colour more or less white; with florid cheeks, hair long, soft, and brown (running on the one hand into white, on the other into black); according to the European ideas of beauty, the form of the face and skull most perfect. It includes all the Europeans, with the exception of the Laplanders; the western Asiatics on this side of the Ob, the Caspian Sea and the Ganges; lastly, the northern Africans; altogether the inhabitants of the world known by the ancient Grecians and Romans.”
To double check Gore, I had my 2014 Translator translate the same text that Gore did. My 2014 Translator came up with a similar rendering, although he more closely followed Blumenbach’s sentence structure:

“The Europeans, with the exception of the Lapps and other actual Finns and the West Asians, on this side of the Ob, the Caspian Sea and the Ganges, together with the North Africans. In a word, approximately the inhabitants of the world known to the ancient Greeks and Romans. They are more or less white in color, with red cheeks, and, according to the European concepts of beauty, they are the best formed humans in the shape of their face and skull.

Both of these translations include the key phrase “according to the European ideas/concepts of beauty,” which in the original German is “der nach den europaischen Begriffen von schonheit.” This text suggests that when Blumenbach wrote that Europeans were beautiful, he was qualifying it by noting that such beauty was based on the arbitrary standards set by Europeans. In 1810, Blumenbach also emphasized the arbitrary nature of beauty. At that time, he published the German text shown in Figure 8, which is not a translation from Latin.
D2-12_F8I provided this text and the paragraph that followed it to my 2014 Translator. His translation reads (with Blumenbach’s italics and my bold):
“Jusuf Aguiah Efendi: As a representative of the Caucasian race, to which the best formed humans – according to our concepts of beauty – belong, I could have therefore just as properly cited any other particularly regularly formed European, a MILTON or a RAPHAEL and the like; however, I have selected this respected man who, as is well known, is now in London as an envoy from the Ottoman Port, because his homeland is located nearer to the Caucasus, from which this whole race takes its name, and in the vicinity of which it was likewise originally at home.”

What is striking about the sentence shown in Figure 8 is that Blumenbach emphasized the word unsern which means our by placing it in italics. It appears that he is indicating that beauty is subjective and not a quantifiable fact. Perhaps Blumenbach’s discussion of the arbitrary nature of beauty was a back-handed insult of his fellow professors who assumed their own race was the most beautiful. This jibe may have even been focused on his intellectual arch foe, Christophe Meiners, who regarded all of humanity as divided into either ugly races or beautiful races. Such a subtle dig at blithely bigoted intellectuals would be consistent with Blumenbach’s oft quoted satire of race chauvinists: “If a toad could speak, and were asked which was the loveliest creature upon God’s earth, it would say simpering, that modesty forbade it to give a real opinion on that point.”
In summary, Blumenbach was not obsessed by beauty, but his translator, Thomas Bendyshe sure was.


Blumenbach was an Anti-Racist: His 19th Century Racist Translator Fooled Schiebinger and Gould

This blog is based on text from Chapter 21 of my book, a pdf of which is posted on this webpage. Detailed footnotes and citations are presented in the pdf. The author does not support racism, eugenics, or even the existence of biologically distinct human races. However, to maintain historical accuracy, this blog uses outdated and sometimes offensive ethnic terms found in historic documents. No offense is intended.

Throughout my book, I have stressed how in 1865, Thomas Bendyshe published a racist mistranslation of Blumenbach’s anti-racist writings which led 20th century authors to incorrectly assume that Blumenbach harbored a white supremacist racial bias, at least early in his career. My initial suspicion that Blumenbach was mistranslated by Bendyshe led me to seek out the services of a professional Latin translator. In 2014, I was fortunate enough to hire a professional translation firm, Shillenn LLC, whom I will henceforth refer to as my 2014 Translator. Because my 2014 Translator spoke both German and Latin, he was able to inform me that Blumenbach’s Latin grammar was a little bit too Germanic. When Blumenbach composed his sentences in Latin, he would sometimes write the words out in the order in which they would appear if he were writing in German. In a sense, you could say that he wrote Latin with a German accent.

My 2014 Translator translated a number of passages from Blumenbach’s works that I suspected were mistranslated by Bendyshe. Before I discuss them, I need to briefly explain that within Blumenbach’s original text a “§” symbol was used to denote a chapter, thus § 62 refers to Chapter 62. Most of the chapters in De Generis of 1795 are just a few paragraphs long. In modern terms, they would be called sections. The image below is taken from Blumenbach’s original text which was bound into a book about the size of a small paperback you might buy in an airport. This image presents one entire page of what is a five-and-a half page chapter.

Dec14_Blog-F1My 2014 Translator’s rendering of the above text included a phrase of utmost importance which I have put in bold:

Ҥ 81. Five principal varieties of the human species established

However, since from among the arbitrary bases for these kinds of divisions, one may be said to stand out and to be preferred over the other, after all things have been considered at length at with care, the whole human species, to the extent it has become known to us, as it seems to me, can be divided, in a manner that is most fitting to truth of nature itself, into the five following varieties and distinguished from one another with the [following] names:
A) Caucasian,
B) Mongolian,
C) Ethiopian,
D) American and
E) Malayan.

I have placed the Caucasian [variety] as being in the first place because of being the original one, for the reasons that will be explained below.

This [variety] went off into two extremes that are furthest removed and most different from one another; namely in one direction into the Mongolian variety and into the other direction into the Ethiopian variety. The median positions between the primeval variety and these extreme varieties are held by the remaining two varieties; The American [variety] namely between the Caucasian and the Mongolian; And the Malayan [variety] between this same Caucasian [variety] and the Ethiopian [variety].”

In his text, Blumenbach explains that there are a number of different classification systems (or arbitrary bases) that a scholar can use to classify human beings. However, in Blumenbach’s opinion, only one of these classification systems “may be said to stand out and to be preferred over the other.” In other words, he is being a bit egotistical in stating that there are many classification systems, but the only one that is worth following is the one Blumenbach himself has created. Unfortunately, when Bendyshe translated this text he came up with a markedly different interpretation. According to Bendyshe, it is not Blumenbach’s system that is the preferred of all systems, but rather is the Caucasian race that is the preferred of all races.
Dec14_Blog-F2By mistranslating just one sentence – either by accident or on purpose – Bendyshe made it appear that Blumenbach held Europeans to be superior to all other races, which was not true. To reiterate, while Blumenbach is saying that one method of classifying races is better than the other, Bendyshe is saying one race is better than the others.
The 2014 translation of Blumenbach also includes a phrase which differs significantly from Bendyshe’s as noted below (with my bold):

Dec14_Blog-F3The version of this passage as translated by my 2014 Translator indicates that Blumenbach is admitting that his five part classification system is a concoction of his own mind (to paraphrase Camper). Blumenbach accepts that his own man-made system is not perfect, but rather it is “most fitting” to nature. The validity of my 2014 Translator’s text is supported by a passage Blumenbach wrote himself in his only English publication (with my bold):

“Adopting, as I think it conformable to nature, five races of the human species, viz. 1. the Caucasian; 2. the Mongolian; 3. the Malay; 4. the Ethiopian; 5. the American; I think the Egyptians will find their place between the Caucasian and the Ethiopian, but that they differ from none more than from the Mongolian, to which the Chinese belong.”

In this English text, we can see that Blumenbach was not brashly declaring to all comers that he had discovered a natural phenomenon that anyone could see. Rather, he used the wiggle words “as I think it conformable,” so as to hammer home that this was only his own view of nature , as opposed to a clear-cut characteristic of nature, such as ice is solid and water is liquid. However, Bendyshe’s translation implies that Blumenbach was claiming to have discovered a naturally existing pattern actually found in nature. Bendyshe mistranslated this passage to make it appear as if Blumenbach was stating the exact opposite of what Blumenbach intended. In summary, Blumenbach was saying that races were not naturally isolated units, while Bendyshe was saying that they were.

Simply put, Blumenbach was an anti-Racist whose research stands apart from that of most his contemporaries, most of whom were indeed over racists. Schiebinger’s and Gould’s contentions that Blumenbach’s work was tainted by racism are ungrounded because they were based on evidence that was fraudulently manufactured by Thomas Bendyshe in 1865.

Blumenbach’s Racial Spectrum Theory: Not Just Five “Races”

This blog is based on text from Chapter 1 of my book, a pdf of which is posted on this webpage. Detailed footnotes and citations are presented in the pdf. The author does not support racism, eugenics, or even the existence of biologically distinct human races. However, to maintain historical accuracy, this blog uses outdated and sometimes offensive ethnic terms found in historic documents. No offense is intended.

During his lifetime, Blumenbach became famous for his collection of over 100 human skulls from throughout the world. But he also sought out to different kinds of people in the flesh to observe how they behaved. Once while visiting the international port city of Amsterdam, Blumenbach made a point of observing “twenty one living Chinese.” He also collected pictures and paintings to see how they dressed and lived. Blumenbach noted that there were many drawings available depicting exotic peoples, but “when they are critically examined, very few are found which you can trust.” His drawings included a Turkish woman, two Chinese sailors, a “Boshman with wife and child,” a Native American from Tierra Del Fuego and a “New Zealand chief.” It was as if he was studying the wings of sparrows, but instead of simply dissecting wings, he collected paintings of them and, whenever possible, he went outside and took notes on how they flew. It was not enough observe their bones. Blumenbach wanted to see pictures of them and words written by them.

In 1810, Blumenbach’s presented parts of his collection in Abbildungen Naturhistorischer Gegenstände (Illustrations of Objects from Natural History). True to its title, it is chock-full of pen and ink illustrations like those in Figure 1.

Dec14-Mastadon ToothThis document is essentially an atlas of pictures representing everything from anthills and fossils, to domesticated dogs and newly hatched reptiles. It is not so much a field guide as a portable museum. This book also included illustrations of what he called the five varieties of humankind, as seen in Figure 2. In some of his publications, he used the word races instead of varieties. It is possible that he defined the word race to be a lineage or branch of humankind, and not a distinct unrelated group which is how race is defined today. I will discuss this somewhat confusing nomenclature in more detail in later blogs.

Dec14-Blum5FacesThe five portraits shown in Figure 2 were presented on six separate pages in the order that they are presented in the figure. The Mongolian was on the first page followed by the American, and so on. They were, in a sense, “field view” examples of Blumenbach’s different varieties, and all of them are presented in a dignified manner.

For Blumenbach, these pictures were not illustrations of anonymous biological samples, but real people with names. As a result, we can now scour historic records to find out something about who they were, how they lived (their habitus), and why Blumenbach chose them to be quintessential examples of their race.

The first picture depicts the dapper Fedor Iwanowtisch (1765-1832) who likely came from what is now far eastern Russia or one of its neighboring Asian republics. He was a successful illustrator born to the Calmuk people, now known as the Oirats, who are the western-most population of Mongols. As a child, Iwanowtisch was said to have been captured or enslaved by Cossacks, and later adopted by a Russian family of means. Trained as an artist, he studied in Rome for seven years, and later traveled to Greece with Thomas Bruce (1766-1741) the Earl Elgin, remembered mostly for bringing the Elgin Marbles to England.[1] In a way, Iwanowtisch was like Phillis Wheatley, but with a happy ending.

The second picture is Tayadanuga (1743-1807), a famous Mohawk chief, now known as Theyendanega or Joseph Brant. As the son of an influential chief who was allied with the British troops in colonial New York, Theyendanega was educated in the English system. He became a staunch supporter of the British during the American Revolution.The third image is that of Jusaf Aguia Efendie (1744-1824), now known as Yusuf Agah Efendi. He was the first Ottoman ambassador to England from 1793 to 1797.His weathered face and central Asian ethnicity will become important later on when I discuss how Blumenbach’s old fashioned definition of beauty, may or may not have differed from the definition we use today.

The handsome turban-clad Polynesian in the fourth picture is Omia (c.1751-1780), also called Mia or O’Mia. This young man traveled from his native Tahiti to Britain with Captain Cook’s flotilla. He charmed King George III (1738-1820) and London society with his exotic ways, his politeness, and his intelligent, inquisitive manner. He later returned to Tahiti and gave fine gifts to his people. Through this action, Omia antagonized the local chiefs, who looked bad by comparison to this young upstart of un-chiefly birth. He died before the age of thirty of an infectious disease, as was common for many south sea islanders who came in contact with Europeans. In Hawaii, the epidemic of 1832-1833 and the whooping cough and influenza epidemic of 1848-1849 each killed 10,000. The 1853 small pox epidemic killed at least 2,800 and probably more. It is estimated that prior to Cook’s arrival there were 400,000 to 800,000 native Hawaiians. By 1823, there were fewer than 135,000 and only 23,000 by 1919.

The fifth portrait is that of the formally-attired Jacobus Elisa Capitein (1718-1747), a Ghanaian slave who was taken to the Netherlands as a child and adopted as a son by his master. He excelled at school and became the first native African to graduate from the Dutch university. Capitein was a supporter of slavery, noting that it was consistent with Christian principles. He became a missionary in Ghana, but was unsuccessful since he was too Dutch to be accepted by his ancestral people. His attempt to marry a Ghanaian was stifled because she was not a Christian. He subsequently married a Dutch woman, and in his later years suffered ill-health and debt. In the late 18th century, his life story and scholarly talents were cited by those who supported racial equality. However, his later failures in life were cited by those who opposed it.

What is distinctive about these five portraits is that they all treat their subjects with equanimity. The Asian is not a weak-willed peasant, the American is not a painted savage, and the Caucasian is not a Nordic superman. The Polynesian is not a wild-eyed cannibal nor is the African a sub-human semi-ape. These drawings are not stereotypes. They are men, presented in the respectful way that Blumenbach intended. The common denominator linking all these people is that they were able to function and flourish in the highest echelons of white European (or European American) society, despite being born in exotic locales, thousands of miles away from each other. Through these examples, Blumenbach is showing us that it is the environment that shapes human beings. Give a barbarian child a book, and she will grow up to be become a civilized individual. Savagery is not an inherited condition, and so, neither is civilization.

The text Blumenbach wrote when first describing the five portraits presented in his 1810 book reads:

“Die physiognomischen Unterscheidungs zeichen dieser 5 Rassen habe ich in der 3ten Ausgabe der Schrift de generis humani varietate nativa S. 177 u. f. ausführlich angegeben; wo auch 5 musterhafte Schedel von denselben aus meiner Sammlung abgebildet sind, die man mit den gegenwärtigen 5 Porträts vergleichen kann.

Hier nur soviel: Die Caucasische Rasse ist nach allen physiologischen und historischen Datis wahrscheinlich der Urstamm, der mit der Zeit durch die verschiedenen Ursachen der Degeneration in die beiden Extreme, nämlich einerseits in die Mongolische B. mit dem platten Gesichte; und anderseits in die Aethiopische mit den prominirenden Kiefern, ausgeartet.

Translating Blumenbach’s work is difficult, and much of what he wrote is still not available in English or even modern German. I was unable to find a translation of his above text. Thus, I took a crack at it myself, using my high school knowledge of German, an on-line translator, and my undergraduate experience measuring a collection of 201 human skulls from throughout the world.

As far as I can tell, Blumenbach was noting that the five pictures presented in Figure 2 where good examples of the five major varieties of human beings. He suggested these five portraits should be compared with five skulls of each race that he had already discussed in a previous publication. Blumenbach also said that all the available evidence suggested that Caucasian race (or lineage) is probably the ancestral strain of all the forms of human kind. He went on to propose that there were various factors (not just one) that caused Caucasians to derivate – what we would now call evolve – into all the other races. He stated that the two races whose skulls are most different from Caucasians are the Mongolian and the Ethiopian, by which he meant West African. According to Blumenbach, the Mongolian skull has a flat face relative to the face of the Caucasian skull. Conversely, the Ethiopian skull has a more protruding upper and lower jaw than does the Caucasian. Thus Caucasian skulls have a face with a somewhat protruding jaw that is intermediate between the two other extremes.

Confused? Well, you should be. In this passage, Blumenbach is saying that the portraits of the five men can be compared to the illustrations of five skulls that he had published 35 years earlier in his anthropological masterwork De Generis Humani Varietate Nativa, 3rd Edition (which I will henceforth refer to as De Generis of 1795).. This book was a pioneering examination of human diversity and it was written in Blumenbach’s characteristically tortuous Latin. Its title translates as The Human Race’s Natural Variety. However the book has since come to be known as On the Natural Varieties of Mankind. The book itself, (I’ve paged through an original copy) is about six inches tall and four inches wide, about like a modern day field guide. It has no pictures, except for some plates at the very end. These pen and ink illustrations of five skulls, as shown in Figure 3 below, fold out like a map. You can see darkened lines where the paper was folded accordion style. These are the skulls that Blumenbach was comparing to the five portraits.

Dec14-Blum5SkullsIn this drawing, the five skulls are labeled (from left to right) Tungusae, Caribaci, Feminae Georgianae, Otaheitae, and Aethiopissae. Translated in to English, these terms are respectively: Tungus (a native Siberian people), Carib (the Kalingo Indians of the Caribbean Islands ), Female Georgian, Tahitian, and Ethiopian. These were presented as examples of the five primary varieties that Blumenbach called Mongolian, American, Caucasian, Malay, and Ethiopian. Blumenbach has been cited by both Gould and Bruce Dain as having “invented” the name Caucasian to describe Europeans, Middle Easterners, and South Asians. In fact, Blumenbach’s university colleague Christoph Meiners had previously used it. It would be more accurate to say that Blumenbach popularized the term.

Blumenbach’s Malay Variety was not what we would now call Malaysians, but rather a group encompassing Polynesians, Indonesians, Australians, and other peoples of the South Pacific. Blumenbach’s description of these skulls (as translated from Latin into English by Bendyshe) reads:

“Five very select skulls of my collection, to demonstrate the diversity of the five principal human races.

Fig. 1. A Tungus, one of those commonly called the Reindeer Tungus. His name was Tschewin Amureew, of the family of Gilgagirsk. He lived about 350 versts (sic) from the city Bargus; and cut his own throat in 1791. Schilling, the head army surgeon was sent thence by Werchnelldinski, to make a legal inquiry as to the cause of his death; he brought back the skull with his own hand and gave it to Baron de Asch.

Fig. 2. The head of a Carib chief who died at St Vincent eight years ago, and whose bones, at the request of Banks, were dug up there by Anderson, the head of the royal garden in that island.

Fig. 3. A young Georgian female, made captive in the last Turkish war by the Russians, and brought to Muscovy. There she died suddenly and an examination was made of the cause of death by Hiltebrandt, the most learned anatomical professor in Russia. He carefully preserved the skull for the extreme elegance of its shape, and sent it to St. Petersburg to de Asch.

Fig. 4. The skull of a Tahitian female, brought at the request of Banks by the brave and energetic Captain Bligh, on his return from his famous voyage, during which he transported with the greatest success stocks of the bread-fruit tree from the Society Islands to the East Indies.

Fig. 5. An Ethiopian female of Guinea, the concubine of a Dutchman, who died at Amsterdam in her 28th year. She was dissected by Steph. Jo. Van Geuns, the learned professor at Utrecht.”

Bendyshe’s translation has Blumenbach saying that there were five “principle human races,” but the original Latin is humani varitatum principalum or “main varieties of human.” Blumenbach was not saying that there were only five races. Rather, he was proposing that there were five main types (which is to say large populations) of humans. There were other “types” as well, but they were not as populous. Blumenbach’s notion that there were five types of human beings was largely accepted throughout the 19th and much of the 20th century. However, his idea that races were parts of one single unit did not break through into the public consciousness. The average man on the street viewed Blumenbach’s five groupings as five distinct and separate races. In many respects, these classes are still with us today. In terms of common usage, these can be described as red, yellow, black, white, and brown (although in America, brown tends to mean Hispanic). This simple racial color scheme still survives in the children’s song I learned in church school: “Jesus loves the little children, All the little children of the world, Red and yellow, black or white, All are precious in his sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world.”

However, Blumenbach never proposed that there are five (or four) distinct races of humanity. For him, the “Innumerable varieties of mankind run into one other by insensible degrees.” Blumenbach’s original Latin text used the term gradation invicem confluent (gradations into each other flow). With this language, he was proposing that races are much like the currents that course through the oceans of the world. One race gradually merges with the next just like the Atlantic Ocean gradually merges with the Pacific below the tip of South America. Ask yourself how many oceans there are, and you might come up with five to seven answers. But the only true answer is one, because there is but one body of salt water covering the earth. In theory, a heavy-duty rubber ducky dropped into any of the earth’s coastal waters could eventually float through all of them.

By his own admission, Blumenbach viewed his five-fold classification system as being imperfect, although – not surprisingly – he viewed his own system as being the best one available. And in a way, his classification did not have five divisions, but ten. He proposed that each of his five main varieties could be further divided into two subgroups, which can be charted out as seen in Figure 4. In this figure, I added text in italics to show how Blumenbach’s ten part subdivisions tend to be broken down in east-west or north-south divisions. Furthermore, Blumenbach regarded Egyptians as belonging to neither Caucasian nor the Ethiopian variety but rather as a “linking” group that joins the two, much as an isthmus joins two continents. Similarly, he regarded central Asian Cossacks as links between, but not belonging to, the Caucasian and Mongolian varieties. Joining the Mongolians and the Native American were the “Eskimotae.”

Dec14-Blum10RaceTableWhen viewed at this ten-part subdivision level, Blumenbach’s system looks less like a number of distinct categories and instead takes on the feature of a gradually changing continuum. Using modern terminology, I shall refer to Blumenbach’s system as a “racial spectrum” which is much like the color spectrum (infrared, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, and ultraviolet), all of which are wavelengths that transition into each other. This gradual change of traits from place to place is common in the natural world. Zoologists refer to such incremental geographical variation as a cline, but I am not going to use that word because most people are unfamiliar with it. Instead I will use spectrum.

My use of the word spectrum to describe human racial variation draws from the 1990 anthropological research of C. Loren Brace in which he compared measurements of the teeth and facial bones of 57 human populations. He wrote that, “there is a spectrum of variation in humans that is “rarely taken into account in appraisals of human evolution in general and individual fossil specimens in particular.” His findings were that, among the populations he measured, there were a range of tooth sizes, with Europeans having the smallest and native Australians having the largest teeth. And yet, Brace noted, centuries’ worth of contact (like sexual intercourse and blood transfusions) between Europeans and native Australians show beyond any shadow of a doubt that they are the same species. He cautioned:

“There is almost certainly some ethnocentrism inherent in viewing the spectrum as running from Europe to Australia, but this quite literally does extend from one geographical extreme of the earth to the other, and, dentally at least, the Australian aborigines can legitimately stand for a morphological extreme in contemporary H. sapiens and Europeans come quite close to representing their antithesis.”

In many ways, Brace’s 20th century lab-based finding of what he called a spectrum of traits has a strong parallel in Blumenbach’s 18th century observations. What is more important is that both these men came up with the same overall conclusions independently. Due to this more-or-less confirmation of Blumenbach’s ideas, I feel comfortable referring to Blumenbach’s concept as a racial spectrum, even though he did not use those words. It would appear they were both observing the same naturally occurring phenomenon: a cline.

A good analogy to explain the way in which Blumenbach viewed human populations involves the flow of water through a river system. For example, the Mississippi River down in New Orleans received its waters from other major rivers like the Ohio, the Illinois, and the Missouri. These rivers are also fed by branches of smaller rivers that collect water from creeks, streams, and ultimately tiny intermittent rivulets. All of these waterways are part of one interconnected network that together form a drainage basin. For Blumenbach, the notion that Negros and Caucasians were entirely separated sub-species would be as silly as saying the Ohio River and the Mississippi River were completely unconnected. And just as the Ohio River is home to some fish that cannot be found in the Mississippi, so Kenyans have some traits, like brown skin, that Austrians do not possesses. And yet Kenyans and Austrians are connected via the brown-skinned Ethiopians and Egyptians, the tan-skinned Lebanese and Greeks, and the Balkan peoples who live between Greece and Austria.

Blumenbach did not believe that there were separate races. Nor did he suggest, like 20th century British-American anthropologist Ashley Montague (1905-1999) and others, that race was a biologically invalid concept that simply does not exist. But then again, comparing Blumenbach’s ideas with Montague’s is not entirely fair, because they were living in different places and times. The definition of race that Blumenbach used in early 19th century Germany was not the same as was used later authors, from Adolph Hitler (1889-1945) in the 1920s to Gould or Michael (who is me) in the 1980s. To fully appreciate the vocabulary differences that separated the worlds of Blumenbach and Montague it is essential to know how people have viewed racial variation – or more accurately, ethnic variation within the human racial spectrum – since the days of ancient Egypt. I address this topic in Chapter 2 of my book.