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What should we study? The eighteenth-century luminary and poet Alexander Pope had this to say on the subject: "Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; The proper study of mankind is man " (An Essay on Man, 1733). He was not alone in this opinion. The philosophers of the Enlightenment--of which we may count Pope--all believed that humans would benefit most from a proper comprehension of temporal things, and most particularly humanity itself. For them, understanding humanity meant, first and foremost, understanding the human body. Naturally, then, the philosophes and their successors paid close attention to the body. They cut it up, took it apart, measured it and attempted to see how it worked. They were most interested in one part in particular--the human head. It was the seat of the human characteristic the Enlightenment scientists admired most: intelligence. If one could get a handle on the human cranium, then one would understand what it meant to be human. Or at least so they thought.
In her fascinating new book The Skull Collectors: Race, Science and America's Unburied Dead, Ann Fabian introduces us to a group of American philosophes who began to collect and study human crania in the first half of the nineteenth century. Not surprisingly, they took most of their cues from their European counterparts. They did, however, adapt craniology to a peculiar American context. Living in a social order in part built on supposed racial difference, the American skull collectors knew that what they said about Africans mattered. Their work could support the suppositions of slavery, or not. Moreover, living in a social order that was at the very time they were working involved in a quasi-genocidal campaign against indigenous peoples, the American skull collectors knew that what they said about Native Americans mattered as well. Their work might buttress the movement for Indian removal, or it might not. And being people of the "New World," the American skull collectors knew that they were looked down upon by many of their European colleagues. They needed to collect skulls aggressively in order to establish craniology as an American science.
As one might expect, the American skull collectors were, by our lights, a strange bunch. Racists, imperialists, and nationalists to be sure. But also scientists, curators, and founders of physical anthropology. Thanks to Ann for bringing them to us in all their contradictory richness.
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