Early 19th Century versus Modern Interpretations of Blumenbach

In my previous post I mentioned that Gould and other modern writers have portrayed Blumenbach as a man who felt that Caucasians were “the most beautiful” variety of human. My contention is that this view is based on a bad translation of Blumenbach by Thomas Bendyshe who essentially hijacked Blumenbach’s Latin texts, and translated them to conform with Bendyshe’s belief that different races evolved from different kinds of apes.  I recently looked into how authors before Bendyshe viewed Blumenbach’s views on beauty and race.  This is what I came up with so far:

1791 – “Mankind differ (sic) in colour in form in stature and in their manners in all the intermediate degrees between the East and the West and the North and the South. Buffon has elegantly described these differences Doctor Hunter made seven varieties of mankind founded on their colour only and Blumenbach has made only five founded on the colour of the skin and the formation of the face and stature.  His first variety comprehends the inhabitants of all Europe of the western part of Asia and of the northern part of Africa, the inhabitants of Greenland and of Esquimaux (sic). These have a white skin and a beautiful form.” – From “Vaughn’s Exposition on the Principles of Anatomy,” The Critical Review: Or, Annals of Literature, Vol. 2, (London: A. Hamilton, 1791), 332.

1796 – “Dr. B defines the five varieties which he assumes of the human species one and indivisible: 1. the Caucasian variety; the model, according to our estimate, of beauty…The Caucasian he considers as the primitive variety because the others recede from this in regular gradation to the Negroe or Æthiopic on one side, and to the Mongolic on the other; also because from his chemical hypothesis as mentioned above he conceives the degeneracy much more easy from white to black than the contrary…” – From The Monthly Review, Vol, 21 (London: R. Griffith, 1796), 5.22.

1796 – “Prof. Blumenbach has concluded his collection of skulls… with the third decade containing ten plates and 16 pages… In this decade is the skull of a young female georgian which exhibits the most beautiful form. Its elegant proportion of parts smoothness of surface and easy flow of outline with the nearly spherical figure of the cranium are well preserved in the delineation.” – From The Analytical Review, Or History of Literature, Domestic and Foreign, on an Enlarged Plan, Vol. 23 (London: J. Johnson, 1796), 557.

1809 – “This method he [Blumenbach] calls the norma verticalis: and illustrates by means of three heads. The middle of the three, distinguished by the beauty and symmetry of all its parts, is that of a Georgian female; the two outer ones are examples of heads differing from this in the opposite extremes. That which is elongated in front is the head of a Negress, from the coast of Guinea: the other, which is expanded laterally and flattened in front, is the cranium of a Tungoose, from the north-east of Asia. The margin of the orbits and the zygoma are elegantly contracted in the Georgian; and the jaws are hidden by the symmetrical expansion of the forehead.” – From William Nicholson, ed The British Encyclopedia: Or, Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, Vol. (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, 1809), un-numbered page under the heading “Man.”

1822 – “The name of this variety is derived from Mount Caucasus; because in its neighborhood, and particularly towards the south, we meet with a very beautiful race of men, the Georgians. (See the quotation from Chardin at p. 81, V. 2;) and because, so far as the imperfect lights of history and tradition extend, the original abode of the species seems to have been near the same quarter.” – From William Lawrence, Lectures on Physiology, Zoology and the Natural History of Man, Vol. 2, (London: Kaygill Printer, 1822), 268.

Note: The above text appears to be a nearly direct translation of Blumenbach’s Latin text from Section 85 of De Generis Humani Varietate Nativa (1795). This same text  that was translated somewhat differently by Bendyshe in 1865 (page 269) as follows: Caucasian variety: I have taken the name of this variety from Mount Caucasus both because its neighbourhood and especially its southern slope produces the most beautiful race of men I mean the Georgian (Footnote 1) and because all physiological reasons converge to this that in that region if anywhere it seems we ought with the greatest probability to place the autochthones of mankind.”

1822 – “Blumenbach is inclined to believe that the primitive form of the human race was that which belongs to the Caucasian variety, of which the most beautiful specimens are now exhibited by the Georgians, Turks, Greeks, and some Europeans. From the finely formed skull of this race, as from a primitive configuration the other forms descend, by an easy and simple gradation on the one hand to the Mongolian, and on the other to the Ethiopian variety. The greatest mental powers have been bestowed on this variety; so that they have discovered nearly all the arts and sciences; indeed, almost our whole treasure of literature and knowledge has been derived from the same quarter. These nations have the most intelligent and expressive countenance, and the most beautiful bodily proportions: they occupy the middle regions of the globe, while the extremities are filled by others.” – From William Lawrence, Lectures on Physiology, Zoology and the Natural History of Man, Vol. 2, (London: Kaygill Printer, 1822), 268.

1830 – “Fig. 4 of a Georgian female distinguished by the symmetry and beauty of all its parts. It is in the collection of Professor Blumenbach from whose work the annexed outline is taken The form of this head is of such distinguished elegance that it attracts the attention of all who visit the collection in which it is Contained. It corresponds exactly with the marble statue of a nymph in the collection of the late Mr. Townley of which Blumenbach possesses a plaster east. It is rendered doubly interesting as it tends to confirm the testimony of the numerous travelers who have unanimously concurred in extolling the beauty of the inhabitants of Georgia and the adjoining country.” – From David Brewster, ed., “Craniometry,” The Edinburgh Encyclopedia, Vol. 7, (Edinburgh: William Blackwood, 1830), 320.

1831 – “The 1st great class [of humans] comprehends all the inhabitants of the world that were known to the ancients, excepting the Laplanders. Of this great class Blumenbach supposes the Caucassian Family to have been the original stock. I have taken my characters of this class from the skull of a Circassian girl, of ten or twelve years of age, which is of singular beauty in its form and proportions, and which corresponds very nearly to the Georgian skull represented by Blumenbach. The contour of the whole skull is elegant.” – From Alexander Monro, Anatomy of the Human Body in its Sound State, Vol. 1, (Edinburgh: John Carfrae and Sons, 1831), 205.

1836 – “The idea here obviously suggests itself of connecting the figure of the head and consequently of the brain among the Greeks with the high distinction attained by that people in philosophy and the fine arts But before we can determine that this relation is essential and real we must explain why other nations who partake of the same form have never displayed the same genius According to Blumenbach the skull of a Georgian female in his collection is equal in beauty of conformation to the Greek indeed he only gives to the Grecian skull the second place but the natives of Georgia have never been supposed to be possessed of any intellectual superiority It may also occur to those who would refer the great mental power of the Greeks to the organization of their brains to ask themselves the question why if that opinion were true did the Greeks cease soon after the Roman world had become enslaved to show any proofs of high intellect” – From James Cowles Prichard, Researches into the Physical History of Mankind, Vol. 1, #rd Ed.  (London: Sherwood, Gilbert and Piper, 1836), 304-305

1839 – “He [Blumenbach] regards the Caucasian race as the primitive stock, or as the standard and type of the rest. It appears, indeed, to occupy an intermediate place between the Mongolian race, on the one side, and the Ethiopian on the other… The various intermixtures which have taken place between these several races, in different parts of the world, render it very difficult, at the present day, to draw those precise lines of distinction which have probably, in remoter times, characterized the primitive races now enumerated.” – From Peter Roget, Outlines of Physiology: With an Appendix on Phrenology, (Phildelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1839), 362-363.

1847 – “The most intelligent writers have been fully aware of the diversity which may be found among Negroes, if looked for.  Blumenbach has mentioned several instances of Negro heads with European features, and which gave no other proof of genuine negro descent, than the colour of the skin and the texture of the hair… Blumenbach has cited Le Maire, Adanson, Ulloa, and others who assert that there are many Negresses whose features are beautiful according to the European standard of beauty.” – From James Cowles Prichard, Researches into the Physical History of Mankind, Vol. 1, (London: Sherwood, Gilbert and Piper, 1847), 197.

1860 – “Little could the poor Georgian captive dream of the posthumous honours and admiration that were to atone to her for her living wrongs… Blumenbach regarded her symmetrical cranium as a peculiarly valuable prize. It was in the Third Decade of his anatomical descriptions of skulls published in 1795 that the skull of the fair Georgia was introduced accompanied by a glowing description of its elegance and unequalled grace and a reference to the beauty of the Georgian women which as his example proved lives even in their fleshless bones. A comparison of the skull with a cast of one of the most beautiful classic busts in the Townley collection seemed to the enthusiastic craniologist as though he had acquired the actual skull of the head from which the ancient marble was copied and when placed alongside of the only Greek skull in his collection the Georgian was superior to it the Greek being next in rank.” –  From E. Chapman, ed., The Canadian Journal of Industry Science and Art, Vol. 5. (Toronto: The Canadian Institute, 1860), 342-325.

I give that last word in this blog to Thomas Huxley (who indeed was prone to disparaging non-whites), to demonstrate that I am not the first one to be concerned that Blumenbach’s views have been misrepresented.

1901 – “Of all the odd myths that have arisen in the scientific world, the “Caucasian mystery,” invented quite innocently by Blumenbach, is the oddest. A Georgian woman’s skull was the handsomest in his collection. Hence it became his model exemplar of human skulls, from which all others might be regarded as deviations; and out of this, by some strange intellectual hocus-pocus, grew up the notion that the Caucasian man is the prototypic “Adamic” man, and his country the primitive centre of our kind. Perhaps the most curious thing of all is, that the said Georgian skull, after all, is not a skull of average form, but distinctly belongs to the brachycephalic group. – From Collected Essays of Thomas Huxley: Man’s Place in Nature and Other Anthropological Essays, (London: MacMillan, 1901), 244-245.



8 thoughts on “Early 19th Century versus Modern Interpretations of Blumenbach

  1. “Its elegant proportion of parts smoothness of surface and easy flow of outline with the nearly spherical figure of the cranium are well preserved in the delineation”

    That sounds like a feminine ideal rather than a male one. The skull of a beautiful woman might not look average to the eyes of someone experienced in looking at skulls. I think the Georgian skull which Blumenbach chose to be the type specimen for Europeans was perceived by him to be ‘beautiful’ as an example of a female skull. Beautiful is hardly a word men apply to men. Only if Blumenbach had called a man’s skull beautiful would be obvious that he thought male Europeans beautiful; then we could speculate that Blumenbach thought Europeans beautiful irrespective of their sex.

    On theoretical grounds (Noah’s ark and Buffon’s ideas about the Caspian region having a moderate climate) Blumenbach was going to choose a skull from somewhere around the Caspian sea region; he thought the Georgian skull of a female beautiful, and that influenced him to choose it as the type specimen of Europeans. Blumenbach could think a European female skull was beautiful.
    As the skull was female it can’t even be said that Blumenbach was Eurocentric, because European females have been thought attractive by men of cultures with no exposure to European standards of beauty. Darwin wrote about this, noting that European men found Black African mens’ ranking of the attractiveness of women (black and white) did not differ from Europeans ranking. So, there is objective support for Blumenbach, but in regard to females only.

    • I don’t think I agree with you on the gender issue. Many of the skulls that I worked with where beautiful as objects of art regardless of gender. There was one skull in the Morton collection that was of a male native American from the great lakes that had perfect teeth and a green obsidian spattered lodged in its cheek (that had healed over). It was like an abstract sculpture. Other skulls look like (to be blunt) roadkill, and are dirty an pock marked and beginning to decompose. Indeed, they are not beautiful.

      I do however agree that he was looking for a type specimen in the vicinity of the Caucasians, whose women were know for their beauty (which may have just been a stereotype made up by Arab slave traders who wanted to sell Harem girls).

  2. The appearance of “elegant proportion of parts, smoothness of surface and easy flow of outline with the nearly spherical figure of the cranium” sounds beautiful as an example of a female. The same characteristics I would appear in a different light if the skull was a male.

    I mean, with living people we instantly know whether someone in male or female, it’s the first thing we notice, even if someone has only just registered on our peripheral vision, and sometimes when they are outside it. After assigning a person to the male or female category we assess them on that basis. I don’t think the same ‘beautiful’ skull could conjure up an image of a magnificent warrior or an attractive woman on a completely arbitrary basis. As I understand it, males’ skulls tend to be bossed and ridged. Would a skull of a male that showed the rather smooth head shape. of Sinead O’Connor or Megan Fox be thought suitable to be a type specimen?

    There was an unlimited supply of Africans in North Africa. Helen Gloag.

    • Frankly, I would not advise using Sinead O’Conner as a type specimen for anything! (She pretty much her own kind of human.) As for sexing skulls, I can testify that most of them look the same. As I recall even experts can only tell them apart 60% of the time. And some men have feminine skulls an vice versa. There is a scale that goes from hyper-feminine, feminine, neutral, male, and hyper-male. Looking at a skull is quite different from looking at a live human.

    • I have never seen a skull like that, the color variations are fasinattc and the details on the skull are so beautiful and interesting. Very unique and beautifully drawn and I love the background. I love how you place the art against the backgrounds. You are amazing Emma.

  3. Doesn’t all this talk of “beauty” and being fair or endowed with graces take us away from the science? Or is that the point you are trying to make–that any time a so-called neutral/scientific observer uses aesthetic or non-value-neutral terms (as if there were such things), we’re in suspect territory?

    In literature, men have been referred to as possessing great beauty since, oh, the time of Homer. Omorphia, androtēs, autokalon, eidos, kallos…

    It’s more recently that “beauty” (whether it’s a skull or something else) has become a term used mostly for women or the feminine, because it’s English (the word derives from Old French, and has a Latin basis in bellus); in English, “beautiful” generally connotes the feminine–as Sean intuits (above).

    So if Blumenbach’s text uses “bellus/bellitudo”, or “venustas,” he may have meant a female skull–if he even knew that was what he was seeing. “Pulchridas” or “formositas” might have different connotations.

    • In modern science, beauty is seen as being a non-scientific topic, but in Morton’s day that was not always the case. It is interesting that science still feels comfortable taking about intelligences which in a way is like having a beautiful mind, but not beauty. This whole topic is something I need to look into more. Specifically, there is a passage in which Morton refers to a dissected section of a brain as beautiful. I doubt that he meant it had feminine beauty. Also, I found an old Latin text on architecture that used many of the same terms for beauty that Blumenbach used. So I’m wondering if Morton and Blumenbach were borrowing from the lingo of architecture to describe skulls and body parts. Thus, Blumenbach might describe a skull as beautiful, even if the woman from who it came was ugly due to baldness, acne, and measles scars. I need to look into this more.

      Would you say that, in the modern world, describing a cathedral, a grizzly bear, or a mountain as “beautiful” has a feminine connotation?

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