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.