Chapter 5: The Mongolian with a Negro’s Jaw

(You can read the complete pdf of this chapter here: Blumenbach Ch5vW. The first few paragraphs of this chapter, without the footnotes, is presented below.)

One can argue over whether Camper’s arrangement of skulls was, as Bindman put it, “disingenuous” or just pathetically naïve. Either way, it is clear that Camper was effective in making his point that the facial angle was a key factor in discerning the difference between types of apes and types of humans. In a sense, one can view Camper’s facial angle as if it were the speedometer on a car. When you drive 10 km/hr you are driving “slow,” while 100 km/hr (60 mph for us Americans) is “fast.” When you need to speed up, you press on the accelerator and go from 10 to 100 km/hr, but the car does not speed up in just one jump. To get from 10 to 100, you must first go from 10 to 11 to 12, and so on till you get to 98, 99, and 100. The increase is a matter of degrees: small, slight changes. Driving at 10 to 15 km/hr might be described as driving in “the slower zone” of speed while driving 40 to 50 km/hr would be “moderate zone.” But the two zones grade into each other. Similarly, Camper saw a facial angle of 75 degrees as being in the “Negro zone” – though he never used the word zone – and an angle of 80 as being in the “European zone.” In between the Negro and European zones, Camper placed (or observed) the “Calmuck zone.” Like Blumenbach, Camper saw a racial spectrum, where one race gradually changed into the other.

But if Camper thought that human races were just shades of grey, why did he use a dark black Negro and a tan yellow Calmuck as his examples? If I were to write a paper about the gradual north to south change of racial features, I would present the skulls of an Austrian, a Greek, a Lebanese, an Egyptian, an Ethiopian, and a Kenyan. That would (at least) demonstrate the full spectrum of skin tone from white to tan to brown to black. But one must realize, Camper did not have access to that many skulls. He lived in an era before railroads, and so the only way to acquire skulls from other continents was to transport them on sailing ships manned by superstitious sailors. Crewmen commonly held that “good fortune left a ship” when she carried a corpse on board. If a dead body remained on board, a storm would not cease, a compass would not point north, and if the captain touched it, the crew would die. A publication from 1885 noted that, “Dead bodies on board were regarded as certain to cause disaster which might ensue from the presence of portions of the skeleton, or the dried mummy of the corpse.” Such concerns were express in a dialoged from Shakespeare’s circa 1609 play, Pericles, Prince of Tyre:

“First Sailor. – Sir, your queen must overboard; the sea works high, the wind is loud and will not lie till the ship be cleared of the dead.

Pericles.–That’s your superstition.

First Sailor. – Pardon us sir; with us at sea it hath been still observed and we are strong in custom. Therefore; briefly, yield her, for she must overboard straight.”

Even in 1841, one of the men who sent Egyptian skulls to Morton, was concerned that the captain of the ship that carried them might “throw them overboard in a gale of wind.” The difficulty in importing skulls to Europe can in part explain why early racial theorists like Camper and Blumenbach used Camulks and Mongolians as their examples of far eastern yellow peoples rather than the Chinese, who, given their large numbers, would seem to be the natural choice. However, Mongolian skulls could be carried over land through Russia on a horse-drawn stage coach, simply hidden in a suitcase or trunk. Chinese skulls might have to be smuggled onto a sailing ship, like some sort of stowaway the crew did not want to carry. It is easy for us in today’s world to criticize men like Camper and Blumenbach for basing their racial theories on such a small sample of skulls. Blumenbach, despite being a well-known professor with international connections, only had 254 skulls; and some were fragments. And before we judge them too harshly, we should remember that a multitude of modern, proper scientific publications have been written about Neanderthals, when the actual number of remains we have of their bones is not especially large. There is an appendix in the 1993 book In Search of the Neanderthals which gives a thorough listing of known archaeological sites that produced Neanderthal bones. There are fewer than 40 of these locations.

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