Did Morton Pre-Sort Skulls before Measuring Them?


Lately I’ve been looking onto the records on the 100 ancient Egyptian skulls in Morton’s collection and finding some inconsistencies. In 1838, Samuel George Morton was sent 100 skulls from Egypt by George Gliddon, and Englishman who grew up there with this diplomat father. Morton used these skulls as the basis for his 1844 book Crania Aegyptiaca, in which Morton claimed that black Africans were used as slaves in ancient Egypt, and that ancient Egypt was ruled by a Greco-Roman aristocracy and populated by a native Egyptian peasant class. Morton wrote that he was sent the skulls by Gliddon who had, “paid no particular attention to Ethnography.” In other words, when Morton opened the packages and saw the skulls for the first time, only then did he use his own expertise to determine the race of each skull.

However, in the files of the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia, they have the original copy of the invoice that Gliddon provided to Morton in 1838. On that invoice, Gliddon presented ample information about where skulls came from and what their ethnicity was assumed to be. For example, Gliddon’s invoice describes skulls of Greeks, Jews, and Circassians that came from the graveyards of their ethnic enclaves.

Simply put, it appears that Morton may have outright lied about not knowing the ethnicity of the skulls, which if true, could have significant implications to his work. By the time Morton had written Crania Americana, he had already concluded that “Negroes” (or West Africans) had smaller and differently shaped skulls than northern Europeans. It is important to note that Morton thought that it was a combination of skull size and SHAPE which determined mental ability, not just size as has been widely reported. Thus, if Morton pre-sorted his Egyptian skulls, he may well have simply taken the smaller more oblong skulls and deemed them to be “Negroes.” Later, when he measured the skulls (which he did with acceptable accuracy), his Negro sample would have been smaller on average. Of course, Morton’s Egyptian sample was by definition East Africans, and in the 19th century the term Negro often referred only to East Africans, so Morton was being quite loose (and I would argue unacceptably loose) with his terminology.

Gould and others who sought to show that Morton (and other 19th century scholars of his ilk) had an underlying unconscious racial bias, largely overlooked evidence documenting what was Morton’s very conscious racial bias. Although Crania Americana, Morton’s first major craniological book, provided some external skull measurements that approach modern standards for scientific research, his second book Crania Aegyptiaca is, in my view, cluttered with arbitrary assumptions and outright stupid mistakes. It is a logically-flawed book that is less bombastic than, but comparable in overall racist ideology to, Nott and Gliddon’s overtly bigoted Types of Mankind.

It is clear from my 1988 measurements and those of Lewis in 2011 that some of the ethnic samples (most notably the Peruvians) in Morton’s collection were smaller than the collection as a whole. Such variation would be expected in any large sample of human crania, and so is of no more or less significance that the size of the pinky toe. The question is therefore, did Morton pre-sort and re-classify the 100 Egyptian skulls so as to, in a scene, exaggerate the modest differences between ethnic groups in his collection? My suspicion is that he did, but more research would be needed to prove or disprove it.

Further research that might resolve this issue might involve having an trained anthropologist determine the ethnic affinity for the 100 Egyptian skulls that were they focus of Crania Aegyptiaca, and then see if Morton’s designation was correct or not. That might indicate if he pre-sorted the skulls. This would make a nice undergrad thesis for any bright-eyed Penn anthropology student.

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