Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840) was frustrated by the subjective methods used by Enlightenment scholars like Carolus Linnaeus to study humanity. Blumenbach felt that they allowed their prejudices to interfere by creating arbitrary categories and even including “monsters” in their schema. His solution was to apply more scientific means to understand human diversity, adding a host of bodily measurements, especially of skulls, to the conventional focus on skin color, hair, and facial features. Like many of his contemporaries, he presumed culture and environment were determining factors but also held fast to the presumption that some characteristics persisted over generations. On the Natural Variety of Mankind (first published in 1775 and much expanded later) articulates a taxonomy that formed the basis for the increasingly rigid racial classifications of the nineteenth century. In the 1795 edition, Blumenbach focused more heavily on skin color, introducing the term “Caucasian” to describe white people, and ranked the groups hierarchically according to aesthetic judgments.
Blumenbach himself was ambivalent about his own schema. He argued that it was important for scholarly purposes to try to create categories, and in laying these out he was clearly shaped by contemporary racist prejudices that confounded his scientific pretensions–“beauty” is hardly a term of objective analysis. At the same time, he acknowledged that his neat academic categories were not fixed and could never contain the messy reality of a diverse and changeable humankind. In this way Blumenbach embodies the contradictions in Enlightenment efforts to simultaneously classify humanity and assert its unity.
80. Innumerable varieties of mankind run into another by insensible degrees. We have now completed a universal survey of the genuine varieties of mankind. And as, on the other hand, we have not found a single one which does not (as is shown in the last section but one) even among other warm-blooded animals, especially the domestic ones, very plainly, and in a very remarkable way, take place as it were under our eyes, and deduce its origin from manifest causes of degeneration; so, on the other hand…, no variety exists, whether of colour, countenance, or stature, &c., so singular as not to be connected with others of the same kind by such an imperceptible transition, that it is very clear they are all related, or only differ from each other in degree.
81. Five principle varieties of mankind may be reckoned. As, however, even among these arbitrary kind of divisions, one is said to be better and preferable to another; after a long and attentive consideration, all mankind, as far as it is at present known to us, seems to me as if it may best, according to natural truth, be divided into the five following varieties; which may be designated and distinguished from each other by the names Caucasian, Mongolian, Ethiopian, American, and Malay. I have allotted the first place to the Caucasian, for the reasons given below, which make me esteem it the primeval one. This diverges in both directions into two, most remote and very different from each other; on the one side, namely, into the Ethiopian, and on the other into the Mongolian. The remaining two occupy the intermediate positions between the primeval one and these two extreme varieties; that is, the American between the Caucasian and Mongolian; the Malay between the same Caucasian and Ethiopian.
82. Characters and limits of these varieties. In the following notes and descriptions these five varieties must be generally defined. To this enumeration, however, I must prefix a double warning; first, that on account of the multifarious diversity of the characters, according to their degrees one or two alone are not sufficient, but we must take several joined together; and then that this union of characters is not so constant but what it is liable to innumerable exceptions in all and singular of these varieties. Still this enumeration is so conceived as to give a sufficiently plain and perspicuous notion of them in general.
Caucasian variety. Colour white, cheeks rosy…; hair brown or chestnut-coloured…; head subglobular…; face oval, straight, its parts moderately defined, forehead smooth, nose narrow, slightly hooked, mouth small… The primary teeth placed perpendicularly to each jaw…; the lips (especially the lower one) moderately open, the chin full and rounded… In general, that kind of appearance which, according to our opinion of symmetry, we consider the most handsome and becoming. To this first variety belong the inhabitants of Europe (except the Lapps and the remaining descendants of the Finns) and those of Eastern Asia, as far as the river Obi, the Caspian Sea and the Ganges; and lastly, those of Northern Africa.
Mongolian variety. Colour yellow…; hair black, stiff, straight, and scanty…; head almost square…; face broad, at the same time flat and depressed, the parts therefore less distinct, as it were running into one another; glabella flat, very broad; nose small, apish; cheeks usually globular, prominent outwardly; the opening of the eyelids narrow, linear; chin slightly prominent. … This variety comprehends the remaining inhabitants of Asia (except the Malays on the extremity of the trans-Gangetic peninsula) and the Finnish populations of the cold part of Europe, the Lapps, &c. and the race of Esquimaux, so widely diffused over North America, from Behring’s straits to the inhabited extremity of Greenland.
Ethiopian variety. Colour black…; hair black and curly…; head narrow, compressed at the sides…; forehead knotty, uneven; malar bones protruding outwards, eyes very prominent; nose thick, mixed up as it were with the wide jaws…; alveolar edge narrow, elongated in front; the upper primaries obliquely prominent…; the lips (especially the upper) very puffy; chin retreating. … Many are bandy-legged. … To this variety belong all the Africans, except those of the north.
American variety. Copper-coloured…; hair black, stiff, straight and scanty…; forehead short; eyes set very deep; nose somewhat apish, but prominent; the face invariably broad, with cheeks prominent, but not flat or depressed; its parts, if seen in profile, very distinct, and as it were deeply chiselled…; the shape of the forehead and head in many artificially distorted. This variety comprehends the inhabitants of America except the Esquimaux.
Malay variety. Tawny-coloured…; hair black, soft, curly, thick and plentiful…; head moderately narrowed; forehead slightly swelling…; nose full, rather wide, as it were diffuse, end thick; mouth large…, upper jaw somewhat prominent with the parts of the face when seen in profile, sufficiently prominent and distinct from each other. … This last variety includes the islanders of the Pacific Ocean, together with the inhabitants of the Marianne, the Philippine, the Molucca and the Sunda Islands, and of the Malayan peninsula.
84. Notes on the five varieties of Mankind. But we must return to our pentad of the varieties of mankind. I have indicated separately all and each of the characters which I attribute to them in the sections above. Now, I will string together, at the end of my little work, as a finish, some scattered notes which belong to each of them in general.
85. Caucasian variety. I have taken the name of this variety from Mount Caucasus, both because its neighbourhood, and especially its southern slope, produced 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 autochthones 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 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, since, as we have shown above…, it is very easy for that to degenerate into brown, but very much more difficult for dark to became white, when the secretion and precipitation of this carbonaceous pigment… has once deeply struck root.
86. Mongolian variety. This is the same as what was formally called, though in a vague and ambiguous way, the Tartar variety; which denomination has given rise to wonderful mistakes in the study of the varieties of mankind which we are now busy about. So that Buffon and his followers, seduced by that title, have erroneously transferred to the genuine Tartars, who beyond doubt belong to our first variety, the racial characters of the Mongols, borrowed from ancient authors, who described them under the name of Tartars. But the Tartars shade away through the Kirghis and the neighbouring races into the Mongolis, in the same way as these may be said to pass through the “Tibetans” to the Indians, through the Esquimaux to the Americans, and also in a sort of way through the Philippine Islanders to the men of the Malay variety.
87. Ethiopian variety. This variety, principally because it is so different in colour from our own, has included many to consider it, with the witty, but badly instructed in physiology, Voltaire, as a peculiar species of mankind. But it is not necessary for me to spend any time here upon refuting this opinion, when it has so clearly been shown above that there is no single character so peculiar and so universal among the Ethiopians, but what may be observed on the one hand everywhere in other varieties of men; and on the other that many Negroes are seen to be without each. And besides there is no character which does not shade away by insensible gradation from this variety of mankind to its neighbours, which is clear to every one who has carefully considered the difference between a few stocks of this variety, such as the Foulahs, the Wolufs, and Mandingos, and how by these shades of difference they pass away into the Moors and Arabs.
The assertion that is made about the Ethiopians, that they come nearer the apes than other men, I willingly allow so far as this, that it is in the same way that the solid-hoofed… variety of the domestic sow may said to come nearer to the horse than other sows. But how little weight is for the most part to be attached to this sort of comparison is clear from this, that there is scarcely any other out of the principal varieties of mankind, of which one nation or other, and that too by careful observers, has not been compared, as far as the face goes, with the apes; as we find said in the express words of Lapps, the Esquimaux, the Caaiguas of South America, and the inhabitants of the Island Mallicollo.
88. American variety. It is astonishing and humiliating what quantities of fables were formerly spread about the racial characters of this variety. Some have denied beards to the men, others menstruation to the women. Some have attributed one and the same colour to each and all the Americans; others a perfectly similar countenance to all of them. It has been so clearly demonstrated now by the unanimous consent of accurate and truthful observers, that the Americans are not naturally beardless, that I am almost ashamed of the unnecessary trouble I formerly took to get together a heap of testimony, by which it is proved that not only throughout the whole of America, from the Esquimaux downwards to the inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego, are there groups of inhabitants who cherish a beard; but also it is quite undeniable as the other beardless ones that they eradicated and pluck out their own by artifice and on purpose, in the same way as has been customary among so many other nations, the Mongolians for example, and the Malays. We all know that the beard of the Americans is thin and scanty, as is also the case with so many Mongolian nations. They ought therefore no more to be called beardless, than men with scanty hair to be called bald. Those therefore who thought the Americans were naturally beardless fell into the same error as that which induced the ancients to suppose and persuade others, that the birds of paradise, from whose corpses the feet are often cut off, were naturally destitute of feet.
The fabulous report that the American women have no menstruation, seems to have had its origin in this, that the Europeans when they discovered the new world, although they saw numbers of the female inhabitants almost entirely naked, never seem to have observed in them the stains of that excretion. For this it seems likely that there were two reasons; first, that amongst those nations of America, the women during menstruation are, by a fortunate prejudice, considered as poisonous, and are prohibited from social intercourse, and for so long enjoy a beneficial repose in the more secluded huts far from the view of men; secondly, because, as has been noticed, they are so commendably clean in their bodies, and the commissure of their legs so conduces to modesty, that no vestiges of the catamenia ever strike the eye.
As to the colour of the skin of this variety, on the one hand it has been observed above, that it is by no means so constant as not in many cases to shade away into black…; and on the other, that it is easily seen, from the nature of the American climate, and the laws of degeneration when applied to the extremely probable origin of the Americans from northern Asia, why they are not liable to such great diversities of colour, as the other descendants of Asiatic autochthones, who peopled the ancient world. The same reason holds good as to the appearance of the Americans. Careful eye-witnesses long ago laughed at the foolish, or possibly facetious hyperbole of some, who asserted that the inhabitants of the new world were so exactly alike, that when a man had seen one, he could say that he had seen all, &c. It is, on the contrary, proved by the finished drawings of Americans by the best artists, and by the testimony of the most trustworthy eye-witnesses, that in this variety of mankind, as in others, countenances of all sorts occur; although in general that sort of racial conformation may be considered as properly belonging to them which we attributed to them above… It was justly observed by the first Europeans who visited the new continent, that the Americans came very near to the Mongolians, which adds fresh weight to the very probably origin that the Americans came from northern Asia, and derived their origin from the Mongolian nation. It is probably that migrations of that kind took place at different times, after considerable intervals, according as various physical, geological, or political catastrophes gave occasion to them; and hence, if any place is allowed for conjecture in these investigations, the reason may probably be derived, why the Esquimaux have still much more of the Mongolian appearance about them than the rest of the Americans: partly, because the catastrophe which drove them from northern Asia must be much more recent, and so they are a much later arrival; and partly because the climate of the new country, which they now inhabit, is much more homogeneous with that of their original country. In fact, unless I am much mistaken, we must attribute to the same influence I mentioned above…, which the climate has in preserving or restoring the racial appearance, the fact that the inhabitants of the cold southern extremity of South America, as the barbarous inhabitants of the Straits of Magellan, seem to come nearer, and as it were fall back, to the original Mongolian countenance.
89. The Malay variety. As the Americans in respect of racial appearance hold as it were a place between the medial variety of mankind, which we called the Caucasian, and one of the two extremes, that is the Mongolian; so the Malay variety makes the transition from the media variety to the other extreme; namely, the Ethiopian. I wish to call it the Malay, because the majority of the men of this variety, especially those who inhabit the Indian islands close to the Malacca peninsula, as well as the Sandwich, the Society, and the Friendly Islanders, and also the Malambi of Madagascar down to the inhabitants of Easter Island, use the Malay idiom.
Meanwhile even these differ so much between themselves through various degrees of beauty and other corporeal attributes, that there are some who divide the Otaheitans themselves into two distinct races; the first paler in colour, of lofty stature, with face which can scarcely be distinguished from that of the European; the second, on the other hand, of moderate stature, colour and face little different from that of Mulattos, curly hair &c. This last race then comes very near those men who inhabit the islands more to the south in the Pacific ocean, of whom the inhabitants of the New Hebrides in particular come sensibly near the Papuans and New Hollanders, who finally on their part graduate away so insensibly towards the Ethiopian variety, that, if it was thought convenient, they might not unfairly be classed with them, in that distribution of the varieties we were talking about.
90. Conclusion. Thus too there is with this that insensible transition by which as we saw the other varieties also run together, and which, compared with that what was discussed in the earlier sections of the book, about the causes and ways of degeneration, and the analogous phenomena of degeneration in the other domestic animals, brings us to that conclusion, which seems to flow spontaneously from physiological principles applied by the aid of critical zoology to the natural history of mankind; which is, That no doubt can any longer remain but that we are with great probability right in referring all and singular as many varieties of man as are at present known to one and the same species.
Source: Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, “On the Natural Variety of Mankind,” translated by Thomas Bendyshe (1865) and excerpted in The Idea of Race, ed. Robert Bernasconi and Tommy L. Lott (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2000), pp. 27-37.