Occidental Origins of Race-Theory (III)

(a.3) Prominent Theorists (continued from part II)


During the eighteen century Europeans discovered numerous inhabitants across the world who differed markedly in their physical appearance from the pale skinned and fine-boned European explorers. The anthropologist and professor of medicine at Gottingen, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach1, having discovered in the course of his studies that both plants and animals changed as a result of differing environments over sufficient periods of time came to the conclusion that this accounted for the disparate traits found among the various groups scattered hither and yon about the globe. As a consequence of this hypothesis, Prof. Blumenbach devised five widely encompassing racial categories and published them in his De Generis Humani Varietate Nativa Liber (17762), they were: Caucasian (Europeans), Malayan (Southeast Asians, Easter Islanders), Mongolian (East & Central Asians), American (Amerindians) and Ethiopian (sub-Saharan Africans). Whilst most of these words as descriptors of racial categorization have largely fallen out of favor, “Caucasian” has persisted to this day (2018, as of the initial writing). The reason Blumenbach gave for his choice of terminology, “I have taken the name of this variety from Mount Caucasus3, both because its neighbourhood, and especially its southern slope, produces the most beautiful race of men, I mean the Georgian; and because all physiological reasons converge to this, that in that region, if anywhere, it seems we ought with the greatest probability to place the autochthones4 of mankind. For in the first place, that stock displays, as we have seen the most beautiful form of the skull, from which, as from a mean and primeval type, the others diverge by most easy gradations on both sides to the two most ultimate extremes (that is, on the one side the Mongolian, on the other the Ethiopian). Besides, it is white in colour, which we may fairly assume to have been the primitive colour of mankind….5

Blumenbach – whilst a very talented writer – was incorrect in his hypothesis that the Caucasian race was the originary breed of all humanity. Regardless, his intricate categorization was (and remains) highly influential upon later taxonomic schemas.

11752-1840. One of the founding fathers of the field of anthropology.

2The same date upon which the American War of Independence was formally initiated.

3Mount Caucasus is a mountain range which lies in West Asia between the Black and Caspian Sea. Its peak is Mount Elbrus.

4Autochthone is a Greek word combining auto (self) and khthon (soil) meaning, “people sprung from the earth itself.” The word is utilized to refer to the original inhabitants of a country and in that way is synonymous with “indigenous.” In Greek mythology the autochthones were those tribes of men who emerged from the earth or trees; the Sparti, who were believed to have sprung from a field sown with dragon teeth, were considered autochthones. The belief in autochthones is an early example of polygenic theory.

5Bendyshe T., translator. (1865) The Anthropological Treatises of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach. London: Longmans.

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