Tag Archives: Samuel Morton

The Road to Comps Part 4: Emergent Specializations-Anthropology/Paleoanthropology

As I continue to look at the professionalization of disciplines in the later 19th century I believe I am beginning to see the historic thread that connects these things starting to match the thread of my personal interests in their modern incarnations. The greatest thing about these readings (and the few before in the last post) is that I have been part of their modern machinations. Aside from working in the Vertebrate Paleo lab (such as it is) at Lamar for most of my undergrad, I spend a summer field season in Belize with the University of Texas following the Maya. Not only did it help me see I was more interested in the history of archaeology as a direction of inquiry (I still follow the latest Central–and some southern-American discoveries) than actually making a career working with those personalities, it has provided me with an already primed canvas to start smearing my own theories onto.

Ancestral Images

Let’s start, conveniently at the beginning. I read Moser’s work back when I was working on a display and reconstruction chapter in my Piltdown thesis. The beauty of this book is the unrolling of a large scroll of images of the past–both physical images, of which there are a handful; and subconscious images of which there are almost innumerable sort, but, like human ancestry can be traced back to their source, if you know where to look.

Stone Age artists at work by Charles Knight
Stone Age artists at work by Charles Knight

The idea of cavemen with clubs and skins are the very essence of understanding humanity’s past. Kids drawings contain this although they can’t always tell you why. The most matter of fact ones will say “because that is the way they were.” They don’t know that, and we don’t know that. If we know anything it is that is wasn’t that way. The first neanderthals were brutes, partly due to the misidentification of pathological disease on the first skeleton, but in reality all led by a host of ideas about the “other.” That is going to come up again and again in this post and hopefully it will makes sense to us both by the time I get to the end.

The caveman situation is not the beginning of that iconography. It isn’t even the middle. Wildmen, hairy and misshapen, come to us from some of the earliest sources translated. Marco Polo’s travel reports gave us the odd communities of mono-pods and the torso-faced. These were other. They weren’t Greeks, they weren’t Roman, and they certainly weren’t civilized. These sorts of otherness qualities run hairily though the Renaissance as well. Even the Bible recorded instances of either people reverting to wild men living off grass, etc. while others as hosts to demons live outside the city away from civilization. Just like the biblical imagery in Rudwick’s analysis of paleontological scenes, these march badly forward through time not necessarily within the waking consciousness of man, but most definitely part of the grey matter. The “modern stone age family” isn’t as much of a caricature as you might think.

The past is a foreign country and the first visitors there fell into the same category as other foreigners. The pasts borders were filled with people so unlike modern humanity that they defied regular classification. Even as those classifications arose in the 20th and more recently the 21st century, the iconography of their existence and lives have remained relatively unchanged, although with the finds of the last few years, Arthur Keith’s necklace-wearing caveman has been vindicated.

There is no better way to tie these two books together than this Far Side cartoon
There is no better way to tie these two books together than this Far Side cartoon

The discoveries that led to the eventual depictions of neanderthal were part of a larger collecting effort. In order to understand the fullest picture of life on earth in the past paleontologist were scouring the entire habitable planet to find specimens of the long dead. That methodology crossed over into other new branches of science. Material culture was one thing, bowls, pots, weapons, could all be employed in arguments of a technologically driven process of evolution, but the questions that needed to be answered was that of race. Namely was man a single specie–not so much as in the variation of mockingbirds or tortoises, but questions of racial hierarchy and classification had to be answered.

The Skull CollectorsAnyone who works with statistics will implore you to increase you n. The large the sample size the more your analysis can smooth out or accommodate oddities. Such was Samuel Morton’s drive in his collection of human skulls. Definitely macabre by any standards and offensive to a great number of tastes people are still arguing over the ideology of Morton and others of his day who went about dealing in body parts of others while never thinking to have their family members boiled, de-fleshed and numbered.

Aside from the count, Morton’s collection stands as a testament to early American scientific methods. Morton’s collection grew as people from across the globe sent him skulls. A trade network of what Fabian calls the “unburied dead” existed for most of the century. In its earliest guise it was grave robbers selling corpses to medical schools, but as the recent turn in tastes was anthropology, that was where the enterprise lay. Since most “civilized” people could afford burial in a protected area, Morton’s collection skews heavily towards the poor and minority groups. This says as much as anything and if you are into that kind of study, definitely add Fabian’s book to your library, it is one of the best on the subject. For my purposes those it reveals the power of specimen-ization. The clips below show nearly the same thing. Darwin in South American bartering for a skull specimen and an outlaw in the American Southwest doing the same. The differences to our eyes are one was a living breathing prehistoric beast and the other was a living breathing human. The hardest point to get through here, beyond the whys and wherewithalls is to many people, especially the collectors and early anthropologists, this distinction simply did not exist.


For Morton, and those who collected for him, the pieces of what once made up individuals became important pieces of a larger puzzle, nameless, if not faceless, data points used to try and answer the same questions about man that were being addressed involving  say, the evolution of the horse. For many of Morton’s collectors, and maybe Morton himself, the remains were no more or less than that of horses. They would see “primitive” burial practices as quaint, and wait for the ceremony to be over before swiping the skull and mailing it back to Pennsylvania. There was always someone willing to help. Even John James Audubon of bird and quadruped fame shipped Morton skulls from the battlefield of San Jacinto in Texas. Spanish-Indian he surmised.

Audubon sends Morton skulls from San Jacinto

With the oddities pouring in, and more than a few bags of skulls coming in from the Pacific Northwest and California it would sound like Morton had many experimental measurements but nothing so much as a standard or a control. The American Civil War provided an abundant opportunity for the skulls of white men to be added to Morton’s collection. In fact this time of windfall was exactly what one of Morton’s collectors pegged as the best opportunity for collecting–death on such a scale that the living have no time, energy, or ability to buried their dead. Embalming and funerary history aside, this is one of the races for the new middle class to have their family members embalmed and returned to the cities. Many of them knew the fate of the unburied dead.

In Morton’s lifetime he saw the end to this type of scientific collecting as the Smithsonian’s Bureau of Ethnography began undertaking government-sponsored large scale collecting expeditions and gone were the days that individuals without government authority would collect skulls. Decades later the move to repatriate remains reduced the collection but because not all of the skulls had claimants it wasn’t completely dismantled. In fact, this further skews the original Morton collection towards the poorest class as many of the native american remains have been claimed and repatriated  while skulls of those from tenements and asylums are still part of the collection at UPENN. Most recently (2013/14) the exhibit Year of Proof: Making and Unmaking Race, displayed some of the remaining skulls inside the craniometers that Morton used to measure the skulls in minute detail. As you can surmise many people were put off by the display.

The Smithsonian and The American Indian

After the war, the USGS was still helping America push West along newly united transcontinental railways. Veterans of the war with more skill or cunning or, (more likely) connections made their way into advanced posts in government positions. John Wesley Powell creates the Bureau of American Ethnology in order to preserve the material culture of the vanishing race of American Indians as well as throw his hat into the debates of race, evolution, progress, and what it means for culture.  The Smithsonian’s relationship with its own past is somewhat of an inconvenience these days. The fact that they are attuned to it is promising as you can see the difference in this version of the book in 1994 after being originally released in 1981 under a quite different title:

Savages and Scientists

It wasn’t necessarily a question of de-humanizing the American Indian in the case of the bureau. The Indian had been a vanishing race since before George Catlin and others went west to preserve what they could of the culture with their art. In the post Civil War West the “vanishing” was less than romantic. Nearly to a man all comers to the “Indian question” offered the same two options (a very victorian matter of fact either/or conundrum) the native people must either assimilate or be exterminated. Either choice meant an end to Indian culture as it was practiced in the 1870s through. This was a blanket justification for the bureau. Here, again, we see the other as specimen. Their culture (and their bodies) were things to be collected, studied, catalogued, and explained. (That explanation will come near the end with the last book I will talk about in this post Iron Cages). Incidentally it was the bureau’s work–methodology, scale, and financing–that kept others from amassing collections like Morton. In this sense, anthrology was pulling from the playbook of geology. In fact, Frederick Max Müller called the Bureau of American Ethnography “intellectual geology.”

Wonderful Things Vol. 1

From the perspective of the anthropologists, why not? They were not only riding the tide of understanding the earth, in deep time and for them more recent, and for linguist, perhaps even real time. The Indians were either developing modern Republican sensibilities or were being killed. Either way the race, culture, and civilization of the American Indian in all its guises was vanishing or had vanished. Egyptomania was gripping the American East coast even as modern civilization’s wonderful things were headed west. A vanished civilization with high art and an only recently deciphered language (Champollion cracked the Rosetta Stone in 1822).  Native American Indian Culture was as ripe for the picking as anything buried in Egyptian sands. There were also mummy unwrapping parties, after all why just dehumanize indigenous remains?

Jungle of Stone

To further accelerate American archaeology you have John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood exploring the lost cities of the Maya. In 1841 they published the first book of American archeology: Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán. To tie the two together Stephens had explored Egypt, and The Holy Land (with a book published in 1837), Greece, Turkey (published in 1838) and other places before setting out for Central American jungles in 1839 the same year that Morton published his Crania Americana. In 1844 Morton published Crania Aegyptiaca; or, Observations on Egyptian ethnography, derived from anatomy, history, and the monuments.  

Egyptian Obelisk in New York's Central Park. Installed February 22, 1881
Egyptian Obelisk in New York’s Central Park. Installed February 22, 1881

That following year Edger Allan Poe published a satirical short story “Some Words with a Mummy” in the American Review: a Whig Journal. Poe had attended a mummy unwrapping ceremony whose star had, through ever increasing exaggeration by the press,  been billed an “Egyptian Princess.” As the unwrapping concluded with evidence that she was intact not a real princess, but not even a real she, Poe introduced the world, through one Doctor Ponnonner, to Allamistakeo. I think this might set precedent for all the amazingly bad puns for things like this. There is even an episode of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon that introduces the ancient Amun Turt-El in 1991.  We will spend much more time with Poe later.

Experts are in an increasing accord that the men in this photograph are Samuel Morton, Joseph Leidy, and Edgar Allan Poe.
Experts are in an increasing accord that the men in this photograph are Samuel Morton, Joseph Leidy, and Edgar Allan Poe.

To tie almost all of this together in a less than neat bow is Takaki’s revised edition of Iron Cages. Here Takaki takes all the individual looks at American white attitudes towards different minorities and plays them out in context of each other, as they happened, in real time, from the Revolution to the Spanish -American War in the text and then as far as Post civil rights in the Epilogue. This is not an exercise to again arrange according to race who was treated the worst by the European Americans. One of the things I notice about that term is that is hardly ever includes the Spanish, Portuguese, or the Italians. The Scots are sometimes differentiated from the English and the Irish are right out. In effect it just works that the British, French, and (broadly) German.

Iron Cages

Following the settlement of the continent Takaki’s whites are pressed to incorporate themselves into staunch republicanism and non Britishness while they also deal with the millstone of slavery and continuing, often hostile contact with Native Americans. For the time period covered the book is relatively short (only 303 pages not including notes and an annotated bibliography) so it jettisons through emancipation, the newly freed black industrial “body” of the new south working for the increasing middle class white “mind.” They south is still separated form the north in terms of working class. The new industrial push sees labor in the north consolidating and unionizing to the dismay of the industrialists. While the argument that the newly freed workforce of the south is still as content in labor to make a dollar as they had been under the yoke of slavery.

The drive west brings more “other.” As the east is cleared by indian removal, and the north east especially has generations removed from Indian contact, new methods of describing the increased threat to modern Republicanism as it unfurled on the American West. With expansion comes new Americans. That is to say Mexicans living in lands that belonged to Mexico until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Now these people were Americans and they had the equivalence of five minutes to start acting like industrial, protestant infused working Republicans. Many ended up working in the copper mines to (as Takaki oft repeats) provide the raw material for the wires that brought electricity to the east. To make matters worse the treaty had only been worked out with the Mexican government and no thought was given to the indigenous tribes whose lands straddled the new borders. This should come as no surprise and in fact is repeated to the world’s great detriment after the end of the Great War as the European powers drew lines across the map and divided the spoils effectively planting the seeds of World War II. That is getting ahead of the story, and we must remember that this is a decent approximation of New York City in the 1840s:

Even jumping around the problems in the Southwest and British Northwest (present day Oregon) there were addition racial tensions as far west as the land went. California had seen an influx of Chinese immigrants arrive with the gold rush. They were classified of themselves and in relation to those existing others in North America. To paraphrase some of Takaki’s sources, the Chinese weren’t as brutish as the blacks, nor as lazy as the Indians. Takaki works in the alignment the Japanese had with Mexican workers in order to strike for better wages, only to not be able to register their union because the state wanted them to agree to a No Japanese membership (presumable knowing that on their own they would have less bargaining power).

Eventually the Chinese make it to the East Coast, to some shock and horror as they are brought in to break strikes, just as the “blacks of the New South” had been after the war. I can’t confirm it with hard dates, but one gets the idea that around this time is when C.H. Woolston wrote the words to Jesus Loves the Little Children as it, in its original incantation includes “red and yellow, black and white” children. Woolston was born in 1856 and lived exclusively in New Jersey and Philadelphia after 1880 (if hymnary.org is to be believed).


The book would be great use in any course on American History in the 19th century for no other reason than the great breadth of scholarship that it contains. For me, the most interesting parts is the inclusion of contemporary literature. Takaki utilizes contemporary literary sources for enormous impact by bringing books like Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court out of their quaint classic-ness and into the realm of political and social commentary that it was written as. This example in particular showing the Yankee’s classification of the medieval British as “indian-like” “barbarous” and “savage.” And that is ignoring all the violence.

The ending, I think, is the best part of the book. Not for how it ties in Takaki’s thesis on race in American in the longue durée, but for how he uses Melville’s work as a mirror to modern society. I have been a fan of Melville’s works for years. Not just Moby Dick, but the more obscure Bartleby, the Scrivener, and Redburn. These all show up in Takaki’s conclusion, which should be no surprise given the number of times Takaki uses the word “monomaniac,” it is second only to the phrase “iron cages.” Melville, like Poe and Twain, was well aware of the position of American republicanism, industrial might, and moral ambiguity. To see the Pequod as metaphor for an industrial complex, with her crew a numb mindles body, even aware of perpetuating their own demise they don’t overthrow the captain. Ahab, the embodiment of all the industrial might, civilization, and even technology–one forgets his wish to be a remade–manufactured–man, as his wooden leg serves him better than flesh. Ahab also studies all the maps, currents, tides, winds &c in order to utilize any and all scientific means available in order to destroy the whale.

By the time they catch up to the whale they are in Japanese waters and Fedallah is "Ahab's shadow"
By the time they catch up to the whale they are in Japanese waters and Fedallah is “Ahab’s shadow”

I think, for me, the power in those last pieces of comparative literature comes from work I did over 14 years ago. In my Comp II course I wrote a comparative literature paper comparing Moby Dick to the Bible. It is one of the few things I no longer have a copy of, and it pains me sorely as I was proud of the paper for not only the exemplary grade, but for what I learned while writing it.  Holding on to that sense that Moby Dick was metaphor for the Bible and now (Takaki’s first edition was published in 1979) seeing that it can also serve as metaphor for the captains (ahem) of industry and what Catlin called the “splendid juggernaut of civilization” leads me to take another step back and, like Euclid (and later Lincoln) note that things that are equal to the same thing are equal to each other. In this sense removing Moby Dick the Bible becomes a metaphor for American Production (and vice versa). This is the entire tenant that deist, like Jefferson, and Freemasons, like Washington, are working with by working biblically, but not religiously. The Bible for them, was treated any other way an ancient text was, this is why Jefferson had no qualms about cutting it to pieces and reordering it in his own fashion for his own purposes.

If you have been following along you will notice paths are starting to cross and the centrifugal force is increasing as it was the Bureau, and The U.S. Ex. Ex (Wilkes Expedition) that brought ends to Morton’s style of collecting, that is ye olde gentleman drawing room scientists that I sent out of vogue with my Piltdown work. Egypt influences American practices in the fields out west, Poe, Twain, and Melville provide harsh realities and Whitman a foil to modern problems with optimism, especially where race is concerned. There will be more about them in future posts but for now, what is the entire take home for all the readings of other? Why is the “other” so important with regards to American Republicanism? It will sound like an oversimplification, but in the case of the evidence above, the entire idea of what is is to be American is defined by what it is not. That is to say, it is not red, yellow, black or brown. In some senses, it is not merely white, as it is not British or French. Without the others Americans, as they exist in the 19th century could not be. The fact that there are many others, and a drive for recognition on the scientific stage set mainly in Europe, required cataloging and maintaining a hierarchy of others, races, and progress. That they were able to align each of them so readily, so quickly, and so firmly as for them to outlast that need requires further study from a multitude of fields. But first, it requires facing many inconvenient truths.