Often thought of as the father of American scientific racism, Samuel George Morton casts a long shadow across American Egyptomania. A Philadelphia physician long recognized as an important figure in the history of American science, Morton was perhaps most famous during his lifetime for his collection of “crania:” hundreds and hundreds of human skulls collected from all over the world, sent to him for measurement and cataloguing, and classified by him according to racial type. Students of the human body had long recognized the wide variety of shapes found in human heads all across the world, but Morton took it upon himself to collect as many as possible, divide them up, and classify them according to race; the problem was that no one had ever done anything quite like this on such a large scale, and so it fell to Morton himself to practically invent the very racial categories he was to be using for classification. Using careful but deeply problematic measurements, Morton decided at what point in the variety of human skulls “Caucasians” stopped being Caucasians, and “Negroes” began being Negroes. Morton was thus a crucial figure not just in the history of American race science, but in the history of the very notion of race itself.
Interestingly, much of Morton’s collection of crania came from people long dead. With the rise of archaeology, Morton had access to a much larger set of skulls from across large expanses of time – and this meant that skulls from ancient Egyptians figured prominently in his collection. This also meant that Morton was on the frontlines of current debates about what would later be called evolution: whether certain groups of people changed in general physical “type” over great lengths of time, or whether ancient humans were physically the same as modern humans. Morton himself was fully aware of the stakes of this debate: if ancient crania were the same as modern crania, and, given the racial categories Morton was constructing, if ancient “negro” crania were the same as modern “negro” crania, then that meant that racial differences between humans were a permanent and everlasting aspect of human life – and, for some, that meant that negroes had always been and would always be inferior to whites.
To make matters worse, Morton was also associated with the two most openly racist figures in the history of American Egyptology, Josiah Clark Nott and George Robins Gliddon. Nott and Gliddon were transfixed by Morton’s research, and used it as the basis for their landmark 1854 Types of Mankind, which was both openly dedicated to Morton (Morton having died just prior to the publication of the Types), and openly dedicated to the proposition that negro types were inherently inferior to Caucasian types. Together with Nott and Gliddon, then, Morton is thought of as one of the three founders of what was (and still is) known as the American School of Ethnology, infamous for its combination of early Egyptology and proslavery politics.
This selection is one of Morton’s two major works: Crania Americana, published in 1839. (Morton’s other work, not coincidentally, was Crania Aegyptiaca, and was a study of ancient Egyptian skulls.) As its subtitle indicates, however, it is not just a study of American (by which Morton meant Native American and Central and South American) crania; included as the main front section is a general “essay on the varieties of the human species,” which today stands as Morton’s major statement on racial difference. (Not uninterestingly for a study of American Egyptomania, it opens with a long discussion of “the Nilotic family,” and offers some special discussions “On the Supposed Affinity between the Egyptians and Negroes.”) It is an often-cited but rarely read text, foundational to the study of American race science.
A COMPARATIVE VIEW
SKULLS OF VARIOUS ABORIGINAL NATIONS
NORTH AND SOUTH
TO WHICH IS PREFIXED
AN ESSAY ON THE VARIETIES OF THE HUMAN SPECIES.
Illustrated by Seventy-eight States and a Colored Map.
SAMUEL GEORGE MORTON, M. D.
PROFESSOR OF ANATOMY IN THE MEDICAL DEPARTMENT OF PENNSYLVANIA COLLEGE AT
PHILADELPHIA; MEMBER OF THE ACADEMY OF NATURAL SCIENCES OF PHILADELPHIA; OF
THE AMERICAN PHILOSOPHICAL SOCIETY; OF THE HISTORICAL SOCIETY OF
PENNSYLVANIA; OF THE BOSTON SOCIETY OF NATURAL HISTORY, &C., &C.
J. DOBSON, CHESTNUT STREET.
SIMPKIN, MARSHALL & CO.