Organized Session

Racial Bodies of Knowledge: Reformulations of Human Difference in Physical Anthropology

Organizer

Paul Wolff Mitchell

University of Pennsylvania

Chair

Erik Peterson

University of Alabama

Metadata

Session Abstract

From skin to bone, race became a feature of bodies liable to systematic anatomical investigation through the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This period saw a move away from both emphasis on environmental explanations for human bodily difference and primary reliance upon methodologies founded on observation and the compiling of anecdotes and traveler's reports. The embodiment of race meant that dissection halls and anatomical museums became authoritative sites in which knowledge about racial difference was constructed. In the creation of racialized forms of medical knowledge and the amassing of huge collections of often stolen human remains from across the globe in American and European universities, scientific societies, and museums, the afterlives of incipient physical anthropology remain with us. Despite critical attention to the haunting of contemporary biomedicine by race and the postwar, mid-twentieth century disavowal of the typological race concept which undergirded physical anthropology's disciplinary formation, race resolutely sticks to the discipline and the bodies of knowledge it fashioned and set in motion. This panel considers the contexts of racial knowledge creation in skeletal collections and medical schools through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Europe and the United States, the political motivations and assumptions that enlivened its practice, and the undead remnants of race that endure despite reformulations in the theory and practice of physical anthropology.

Presenter 1

Redacting Human Unity: A Newly Discovered Early Draft of Morton’s Crania Americana (1839)

Paul Wolff Mitchell

University of Pennsylvania

Abstract

Philadelphia naturalist Samuel George Morton's (1799-1851) Crania Americana (1839) furnished an influential argument for racial hierarchy and polygenism, the notion that human races are distinct species. Its claims were grounded on comparative measurements of brain size in human races, divided following J.F. Blumenbach's five-part taxonomy. As the first of Morton's craniological texts, Crania Americana was the root of the "American School of Ethnology" that widely propounded polygenism through the 1850s and fomented much of nineteenth century anthropology's craniological obsession. Although a handwritten draft similar to the published text of Crania Americana has been known for decades, a newly discovered early draft presents claims antithetical to the published version. In this early draft, circa mid-1830s, Morton asserts monogenism, ie. unitary human origins, but divides humankind into an idiosyncratic ten-part racial taxonomy. Both the institutional context of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, where Morton conducted his craniological studies, and clues in his correspondence suggest why Morton revised earlier claims about human unity and exchanged his own taxonomy for Blumenbach's. The craniological treatises of German anatomist Friedrich Tiedemann, who supported monogenism, racial equality, and abolition, were likely crucial in turning Morton toward an openly polygenist position and toward a classification which would make his cranial measurements comparable with Tiedemann's. This new draft of Morton's seminal work reveals unrecognized complexities and contingencies both at a decisive moment in the history of racial science and within the intellectual biography of one of its significant figures. Moreover, consideration of competing anti-racist and racist articulations of physical anthropology in the mid-nineteenth century suggests that an egalitarian, progressive craniology directly instigated a more influential, politically opposed, response.

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Presenter 2

Old Bones in New Databases: Pearson, Howells, and ForDisc

Iris Clever

University of Chicago

Abstract

This paper traces the data journey of a cranial database of Egyptian skulls to reveal the tenacity of physical anthropology to reuse and reanalyze data with new automation technologies including statistics and computerization. The story begins in the early 20th century in Karl Pearson's Biometric Laboratory in London. Person aimed to revamp anthropology's methodology by applying new statistical methods to questions of race. Fundamental to the development of Pearson's racial methodology was a collection of 1800 Egyptian skulls that archaeologist Flinders Petrie had excavated for him from Egypt. This "E series" provided the lab with a uniquely long series of skulls and led Pearson to develop a standard formula for racial classification. After Pearson's retirement, the collection was moved to the Duckworth Laboratory at Cambridge University, where it remains today. In the 1960s, American physical anthropologist William Howells remeasured the E-series along with collections of 16 other populations for his global study Cranial Variation in Man (1973). Howells wished to transform older notions of race with the study of populations and by extending Pearsonian multivariate analysis of cranial variation. The Howells cranial database, including his Egyptian data, today lives on in ForDisc, software developed to automate the metric estimation of ancestry or "social race" by comparing measurements of an unknown skeleton to reference samples with multivariate analysis of variance. The software has been a source of controversy: researchers reveal that ForDisc misclassifies skulls of known origins using datasets like Howell's Egyptian data. What's more, they argue that the program builds on early 20th-century notions of race. Thus, this paper reveals how anthropologists in the 20th and 21st century trust new technologies to transform physical anthropology, while older notions of race and related controversies continue to stick to the skulls and data they reuse.

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Presenter 3

Medical Mastery: Teaching Physical Anthropology in the Antebellum Anatomical Theater

Christopher Willoughby

Pennsylvania State University

Abstract

An excerpt from my book manuscript, this paper examines the content and methods for lecturing on racial anatomy in antebellum medical schools. Focused primarily on the two leading anatomy professors of the late antebellum era Joseph Leidy (University of Pennsylvania) and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (Harvard University), I uncover the specific content on racial difference that anatomy professors developed, including discussion of the origins of racial difference, putting human variance into white supremacist hierarchies, and training students in the faulty methods of measuring racial difference (facial angles and cranial capacity, in particular). First and foremost, then, this paper argues that rather than a casual, off-the-cuff racial remark, anatomy professors systematically incorporated racial science into medical schools' curriculums.
Second, this paper unpacks the multi-sensory methods of lectures, arguing that professors encouraged students to use auditory, visual, and tactile approaches to learn about race. Compared to just discussing human anatomy, images and models gave students the impression that imagined racial differences were materially "real." As Holmes explained in an 1847 lecture, "I have attempted, therefore, to render visible everything which the eye could take cognizance of, and so turn abstractions and catalogues of names into substantial and objective realities." Beyond just representations, professors utilized objects from the anatomy museum. Just as professors orated medical arguments for white supremacy, they held and surrounded themselves with the stolen remains of non-white bodies, performing anatomical and racial forms of mastery. Thus, I argue that in medical schools' anatomy theaters, professors transformed intellectual debates about race into a series of practices that trained physicians to be intellectual masters of racial difference that could explain physical anthropology to their lay patients.

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Commentator

Terence Keel

University of California Los Angeles