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 However, to maintain historical accuracy, this blog uses outdated and sometimes offensive ethnic terms found in historic documents.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.



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