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.

2 thoughts on “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)

  1. Caucasians of comparable skin pigment which may be the reason for a “substantially lower incidence of fine wrinkles” in Asians when compared to Caucasians, and this lower incidence of fine wrinkles may be the reason for the “myth” that Asian faces age slower than Caucasian faces.

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