Considered the “father of physical anthropology,” the famous German physiologist, anatomist, and naturalist began his lustrous academic career at the University of Jenna. Perfecting his studies in literature, rhetoric, and natural history (archaeology), Blumenbach finished his remaining medical studies at the University of Gottingen. Under the auspices of Heyne and Buttner, Blumenbach was offered the office of assistant, whose primary responsibility was to both lecture and organize the university’s natural history collection. After the successful completion of his remaining studies, he received his degree in 1775, a tutor in 1776, and professor of medicine in 1778. In the year of 1778, he married into the influential Brandes family. During his professional career at the university, he was elected to the faculty of honors and a senior of the medical faculty. He was also the director of the natural history museum.
Throughout his academic and professional career, he became a member of the Society of Sciences in 1784, aulic councilor in 1788, perpetual secretary of the physical and mathematics in 1812, and commander of the order in 1822. He was elected as an associate of 78 societies and lectured to potentates and scholars around the world. His commanding presence and genius can be seen in the multitude of published works, especially his work History and Description of the Bones of the Human Body (1786), Handbook of Comparative Anatomy (1805), and On the Natural Varieties of Mankind (1865). Described by his contemporaries as being kind, inquisitive, systematic, and highly intelligent, Blumenbach conducted himself with the utmost care and to the highest standard possible, securing his status not only as a scholar but also as a gentleman.
Contributions and Perspectives
During Blumenbach’s time, science in general and the future of anthropology in particular owes much to the contributions of Buffon, Linneaus, and Cuvier; yet the systematic study of our own species was left under the auspices of philosophers and theologians. The influence of Aristotle and Christianity upon scientific investigation at this time was certainly profound. Blumenbach, whose own Christian ideas influenced the formulation the unity of our species, sought to refine the system of classification set forth by Linneaus. Blumenbach redefined our species’ place in nature using three criteria: (1) distinction of mutable characteristics among our species from the rest of the animal kingdom, (2) consider only evidence and facts supported by rational speculation, (3) after comparing extremes, search for intermediate segments between the known extremes. Though philosophical in nature, this systematic approach, in conjunction with his intelligence and keen eye for detail, resulted in the classification of the variation found with our own species.
The distinct variation found within our species had been commented upon by previous scholars, most notably by Linnaeus. These classifications based on phenotypic expressions often can become problematic when ascertaining an intermediate specimen that shares characteristics, for example, morphology, of two or three established categories. Acknowledging this taxonomical problem, including the philosophical implications, Blumenbach stated that there are five varieties of humankind, but one species. These varieties are as follows: Caucasian, Mongolian, Ethiopian, American, and Malay. These categories are based on morphology and phenotypic expressions. Blumenbach, contrary to our modern-day evaluation skewed by a disjointed philosophical system within the discipline of anthropology, never asserted racist ideology within the context of his evaluation, though bias in opinion could be seen concerning the beauty of symmetry found within the Caucasian variety. Based on phenotypic expressions, Blumenbach’s categories and their common expressions can be seen below:
The Caucasian variety is found in Europe, Eastern Asia, and Northern Africa. They are depicted as having white pigmentation with brown hair (variation), oval face, narrow nasal opening, and a rounded chin.
The Mongolian variety can be found in Asia and the northern parts of Europe and America. They possess a yellowish pigmentation with straight black hair, broad and flat face, small nasal opening, and narrow eyelid openings.
The Ethiopian variety can be found in all Africans (with exception of Northern Africa, which is considered Caucasian). They posses black pigmentation, with curly black hair, narrow head, prominent eyes, wide nasal opening, and receding chin.
The American variety, equated with the indigenous peoples of the Americas, are found within America (except the most northern parts of America, where inhabitants are considered Mongolian). They are depicted as having copper pigmentation with straight black hair, deep eyes with a prominent nose, broad face with prominent cheeks (though the head maybe artificially distorted due to cultural practices).
The Malay variety is located in the Malayan peninsula and the Pacific Islands. They are depicted as possessing a yellowish-brown pigmentation with black curly hair, prominent facial features (profile), and narrowed head with a full-featured nose.
It can be easily seen how problematic the classification process can become, especially when considering the evolutionary process of regional adaptation and amalgamation (gene flow) that occurs at a greater rate than was seen in our species’ history. An increase in population, fast and safer travel, and eroding ethnocentric morays and laws will continue to add to the diversity found within the human species. As modern science progresses and a more complete understanding of the evolutionary process becomes available, Blumenbach’s classification can be reduced to genotypic and phenotypic variation. This newly acquired scientific knowledge (e.g., genetics) does not deter nor detract from Blumenbach’s contribution to science; rather, his contributions had contributed to the foundation of anthropology and the awareness concerning the diversity found in our species.
- Blumenbach, J. F. (1969). On the natural varieties of mankind. New York: Bergman.
- Brues, A. (1977). People and races. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.
- Cavalli-Sforza, L. L. (2000). Genes, peoples, and languages. Los Angeles: University of California Press.