Chapter 4: Anthropology is Born & Hijacked

(You can read the complete pdf of this chapter here: Blumenbach Ch4vW. The first few paragraphs of this chapter, without the footnotes, is presented below.)

In the title of this book, I use the word hijacked to describe how Blumenbach’s anti-racist writings were manipulated by later scholars (like Morton and Bendyshe) to support racist positions that Blumenbach himself never accepted. Blumenbach, however, was not the only pioneer of anthropology hijacked by racists. For example, in 1743 Joannes Benjamin de Fischer (1720-1814) published a paper called Dissertatio Osteologica de Modo, quo Ossa se Vicinis Accommodant Partibus (Osteological dissertation about the way the bones have adapted themselves to the neighboring parts). In it, he describes the skull of an individual who belonged to the western-most population of Mongols, now known as Oirats or Kalmyks. Fischer described this skull as “Calamucki autem calvaria horrida,” which can translate as “Moreover, the rough (or rugged, rude, or frightening) Calmuck skull.” The key word in this phrase is horrida, which sounds like the English word horrid or horrible, but actually has a somewhat different meaning.

In Blumenbach’s 1776 edition of De Generis, he discusses de Fischer’s paper and its evaluation of the Calmuck skull (with my bold): “Horum unius calvariam curatissune delineatam exhibuit, eamque horridam et ad quadratam prope speciem accedentem, imo multis modis barbariam ipsam testantem, dixit I. B. de Fischer.” Again the word horridam is used to describe the Calmuck skull. Thomas Bendyshe’s 1864 English translation of Blumenbach’s discussion of de Fischer’s paper reads (with my bold):

“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. But this single example 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, and even round appearance, so that he says their girls would find admirers in cultivated Europe. Nor do the said skulls answer to the two very accurate representations of that Calmuck, a boy of eleven years old, who lately came from Russia with the court of Darmstadt, drawings of whom I received from Carlsruhe. They represent a young man of handsome shape, lofty forehead and eye brows; and whose face agrees in this respect with the description of Pallas, and diverges from the skull in question…”

It appears that Bendyshe mistranslated horridam as ugly. He also translated barbariam as barbarism, which may also be a mistranslation. The Latin word barbarus means foreign, as well as barbarous or uncivilized. It strikes me that de Fischer may have been saying that the Calmuck skull was beaten up and weathered (scarred perhaps) which was the result of the rough-and-tumble life of the uncivilized Mongol from whom it came. Blumenbach then said that he thought de Fischer was being unfair to base his findings on just one skull that may have been deformed due to the rough-and-tumble lifestyle of its owner. Furthermore, Blumenbach said that the sketch of the skull, as presented in de Fischer’s paper, does not look like any of the Calmuck skulls he has seen. Of course, this is assuming the Bendyshe properly translated the latter parts of the paragraph, and I have my I doubts about that. Regardless, I submit that Bendyshe hijacked Blumenbach by implying that Blumenbach used the aesthetically judgmental term ugly to describe Calmuck skulls.

Bendyshe was not the last one to hijack Blumenbach. In 2002, art historian David Bindman wrote an impressive book, Ape to Apollo: Aesthetics and the Idea of Race in the 18th Century. According to Bindman, Blumenbach felt that the malleability of a skull (the way it can change in shape as it grows) makes it difficult to draw conclusions from just one skull:

“As he [Blumenbach] notes with a Calmuck skull: ‘it is ugly and nearly approaches square in shape and in many way testifies to barbarism. But this single example shows how unfair it is to draw conclusions as to the conformation of a whole race from one or two specimens.’ He sets against this ‘ugly skull’ evidence of the beauty of some Calmucks.”

Though his intentions were noble and not in any way racist, Bindman inadvertently participated in the hijacking of Blumenbach that was started by Bendyshe. According to Bindman, it was Blumenbach who deemed the skull to be ugly. However the description of the skull was made by de Fischer, and was only reported by Blumenbach. And on top of that, the word ugly was generated by Bendyshe, not de Fischer or Blumenbach. As a result of this 259 year whisper-down-the-lane, Blumenbach is painted as a man who subjectively demeans some skulls as ugly and praises others as beautiful. The implication is that Blumenbach was inconsistent and a bit untrustworthy because he was not always the rational scientific man he claimed to be.

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