Coon, Carleton Stevens

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(b. Wakefield, Massachusetts, 23 June 1904;

d. West Gloucester, Massachusetts, 3 June 1981), physical anthropology, archaeology, ethnography.

Coon was a prominent American anthropologist who traveled throughout the world to investigate little-known peoples and their cultures at a period when physical and cultural anthropology were undergoing significant change. He wrote extensively on physical anthropology and conducted many archaeological excavations, but he is best known for his scientific research into the evolution of human races and the biological causes for human racial diversity. His views on race, however, made his opinions and research controversial.

Early Years and Education . Carleton Coon was born in Wakefield, Massachusetts, the son of John Lewis Coon and Bessie Carleton. He was descended from a Cornish-man who arrived in the United States in the 1830s, and two of Coon’s ancestors fought in the Civil War. His father was a cotton broker, and sometimes during his business trips abroad he would take the young Carleton with him. Some of these early trips were to Egypt, which may have sparked Coon’s later interest in Egyptology. Coon attended the prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, where he learned to read classical Greek and began to teach himself Egyptian hieroglyphics. He entered Harvard University where he began studying Egyptology with George Reisner, but during his sophomore year he took a course in anthropology taught by Earnest A. Hooton and this led Coon to pursue a degree in anthropology. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard in 1925 and immediately began his graduate studies there.

Coon traveled to Morocco in 1924 and there he encountered the Rif Berbers who became the subject of his dissertation research. He returned to Morocco the following year to begin his studies of these people, thus beginning a long career of adventurous fieldwork expeditions to exotic places. In 1926 Coon married Mary Goodale, who accompanied her new husband on his fieldwork in North Africa. Coon completed his PhD in 1928 and his dissertation, titled Tribes of the Rif, was published in 1931. He became a lecturer in anthropology at Harvard in 1928 but he also continued his anthropological research abroad. He collected information about the warlike Ghegs of northern Albania from 1929 to 1930 and traveled in Ethiopia and Yemen in 1933 and 1934. Coon enjoyed living a life of adventure and danger, and his research and other writings reflect this. In 1932 he published Flesh of the Wild Ox, a novel describing his time among the Rif Berbers, which was treated by some anthropologists as an accurate account of Riffian life. Following the success of his first novel Coon wrote a second novel titled The Riffian (1933), but few anthropologists took note of this work, and Coon was more explicit that it was partially fictional.

Years at Harvard . Coon was appointed an instructor at Harvard in 1935 and became a professor of anthropology there in 1938. Prompted by his editor, Coon wrote a popular book on anthropological fieldwork titled Measuring Ethiopia and Flight into Arabia (1935), in which he described the logistics of his expedition to Ethiopia and Yemen and the problems he encountered in taking anthropometric measurements there. In 1939 he published a reworked version of William Z. Ripley’s The Races of Europe (originally published in 1899), where he identified seventeen different racial groups in Europe and examined the craniometric data on European populations. His career was abruptly interrupted, however, by the outbreak of World War II, and in 1941 Coon took a leave of absence from Harvard in order to join the newly formed Office of Coordinator of Information, later renamed the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). He was engaged in espionage and the smuggling of arms to French resistance groups in North Africa. There has even been speculation that Coon was involved in the assassination in 1942 of Vichy Admiral Jean-François Darlan in Aliers (Giles, 1997; 1999). Coon returned to the United States in 1943 and received a commission as a major in the U.S. Army, and when he was discharged in 1945 he received the Legion of Merit. He was also made a membre d’honneur of the Association de la Libération Française du 8 Novembre 1942 by the French government.

Interests in Archaeology . Coon returned to Harvard after the war, but in 1948 he accepted a position as professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania and also became curator of ethnology at the University of Pennsylvania Museum. Whereas much of his research thus far had been in physical anthropology, Coon expanded into archaeology as well. He had conducted an excavation in caves near Tangiers in Morocco in 1939 where he unearthed a Neanderthal maxillary bone, and he returned to the site in 1947 with a team of Harvard archaeologists led by Hugh Hencken. Over the next ten years Coon conducted excavations at Paleolithic and Neolithic sites in Iraq (1948), Iran (1949 and 1951), Afghanistan (1954), and Syria (1955) with researchers from the University of Pennsylvania Museum. Coon was one of the first anthropologists to use the newly developed radiocarbon (carbon-14) dating method to date the artifacts found at Belt Cave in Iran. These incursions into archaeology led Coon to publish The Seven Caves in 1957, a popular account of his excavations of prehistoric humans sites. Coon’s interest in and extensive knowledge of human prehistory led to the installation in 1949 of a Hall of Man exhibit at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, where he depicted the evolution of humans and the development of human culture in prehistory. In 1959 he traveled to Tierra del Fuego with a team of physiologists to study how the local peoples had adapted to be able to endure such a cold environment while wearing very little clothing. During one of his last archaeological expeditions, where he excavated a cave at Yengema in Sierra Leone in 1965, almost a thousand Paleolithic and Neolithic implements were found.

Human Evolution . The question of human racial diversity was a prominent scientific subject for Coon, and during the 1950s he published widely on the question of race and its biological foundations. Like many anthropologists of this generation, Coon sought a Darwinian explanation

for racial variation in humans. Coon’s collaboration with the anthropologist Stanley Garn and biologist Joseph Birdsell on Races: A Study of the Problems of Race Formation in Man (1950) was an early example of Coon’s attempt to explain human racial differences on the basis of adaptations to environmental conditions. This work had a considerable influence on the development of the “new physical anthropology” that was just emerging at this time through the efforts of people such as Sherwood Washburn, who were trying to apply the principles of the modern evolutionary synthesis to the problems of physical anthropology. Coon addressed the broad issue of human evolution in The Story of Man (1954), where he traced the causes of human biological and cultural changes from the Pleistocene to the present.

His most comprehensive work on the subject, however, was The Origin of Races (1962). In this work Coon assembled material from cultural and physical anthropology, linguistics, and human paleontology to argue that the five major races of humans (Caucasoids, Mongoloids, Congoids, Capoids, and Australoids) had existed for at least half a million years. On the basis of fossil evidence Coon suggested that these racial divisions existed before the evolution of modern Homo sapiens and were observable already in Homo erectus.

Coon’s ideas about the origin of human races were influenced by the polycentric hypothesis of the German physical anthropologist Franz Weidenreich, who had supervised excavations of Homo erectus fossils from the site of Zhoukoudian in China in the 1930s. According to Weidenreich, geographical isolation had led different populations of Homo erectus in Asia to develop distinct racial features, and because these populations were sedentary these racial groups had persisted for very long periods of time. Weidenreich argued, like Coon, that these racially and geographically distinct populations of Homo erectus had then evolved into Homo sapiens while retaining their racial characteristics. However, whereas Weidenreich argued that the geographical isolation of these different races was not complete and that some exchange of genes did occur between groups, thus insuring that humans remained one single species, Coon seemed to allow for much less genetic exchange between populations, thus making the human races more separate. For this reason Coon’s conception of human evolution is sometimes called the “candelabra model,” because several distinct races branch off from an original ancestral species and continue forward in time with little biological contact with one another.

Weidenreich and Coon’s conception of human evolution fit very well with the prevailing notions of evolution in populations promoted by supporters of the modern evolutionary synthesis such as Ernst Mayr, professor of biology at Harvard, and George Gaylord Simpson, professor of paleontology and the American Museum of Natural History. However, Coon’s ideas did not sit well with the prevailing political and social attitudes of the day, which had begun to downplay the significance of the concept of race in the aftermath of World War II and the civil rights movement. Even more controversial was Coon’s suggestion that the different racial groups present in Homo erectus evolved into modern Homo sapiens at different times, thus explaining why some racial groups were culturally less advanced than others. Coon argued from the evolution of increased brain size that the Caucasoids had evolved into modern humans first, followed by the Mongoloids, Congoids, Capoids, and lastly the Australoids. This unfortunately implied that the darker-skinned races were not as evolutionarily advanced as the lighter-skinned peoples of the world. This has led many readers of Coon’s work to suppose that Coon harbored racist sentiments and that he even condoned racism, but the matter is hardly as simple as that and Coon’s thoughts on race and racism are much more complex and nuanced than his critics allow. The book did spark considerable controversy both within the anthropological community and among the broader public. Coon later backed away from some of the ideas expressed in this book, yet he did succeed in showing that race could be studied using evolutionary biology and the hominid fossil record.

Coon returned to the problem of human races in 1965 with The Living Races of Man, written in collaboration with the anthropologist Edward Hunt, which examined physiological adaptation in human populations. This work generated considerably less controversy than The Origin of Races and once again argued that evolutionary biology could be productively applied to explaining the origin of human racial diversity. Coon’s final work on the topic of human races, Racial Adaptations: A Study of the Origins, Nature, and Significance of Racial Variations in Humans (1982), was published the year after his death and marks the culmination of his work on the subject. The work repeats many of the ideas presented in his earlier books, but Coon did introduce new data derived from recent biochemical research. Although much of his research focused on the problem of the evolution and physical characteristics of the human races, Coon continued to write popular books on cultural anthropology. Caravan: The Story of the Middle East (1951) introduced readers to the Islamic peoples of the Middle East, and The Hunting Peoples (1971) discussed the existing hunting and gathering cultures of the world.

Later Years . Coon’s marriage with Mary ended in divorce in 1944, and in 1945 he married Lisa Dougherty Geddes, a cartographer; she drew many of the maps that appear in Coon’s later books. He received many honors during his long career, including the Viking Fund Medal and Award in Physical Anthropology in 1951 and the Athenaeum Literary Award in 1962. He was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1955. He was a member of the American Anthropological Association and the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, where he served as president from 1962 to 1963 but resigned over the controversy raised by issues surrounding his book The Origin of Races. Coon was a member of Sigma Xi and was belatedly made a member of Phi Beta Kappa in 1950 on the occasion of his twenty-fifth class reunion.

Coon retired from his position at the University of Pennsylvania in 1963 and moved to West Gloucester, Massachusetts, although he continued to travel and to publish extensively. He became a research associate in ethnology at the Peabody Museum at Harvard in 1968. In 1980 Coon published A North African Story, a memoir recounting his activities as an OSS agent during World War II. The manuscript was written in 1943 but could not be published at the time due to the sensitive material it contained. Here Coon describes his wartime adventures and demonstrates how his experience as an anthropologist in Morocco proved to be invaluable preparation for his successful operation in German-occupied North Africa. The year after the publication of A North African Story, Coon’s autobiography appeared. In Adventures and Discoveries (1981) Coon describes his early life in Massachusetts, his writings and museum exhibits, his numerous appearances between 1952 and 1957 on the popular CBS television program What in the World, where he discussed archaeology and anthropology, and his thoughts about his scientific career.


The C. S. Coon Papers are in the National Anthropological Archives, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. The C. S. Coon Correspondence in Expedition Records–Near East is held in the University Museum Archives, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. C. S. Coon Correspondence is in the library of the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia.


Tribes of the Rif. Cambridge, MA: Harvard African Studies, 1931.

Flesh of the Wild Ox: A Riffian Chronicle of High Valleys and Long Rifles. New York: William Morrow, 1932.

The Riffian. Boston: Little, Brown, 1933.

Measuring Ethiopia and Flight into Arabia. Boston: Little, Brown, 1935.

The Races of Europe. New York: Macmillan, 1939.

The Mountains of Giants: A Racial and Cultural Study of the North Albanian Mountain Ghegs. Cambridge, MA: Peabody Museum, 1950.

With Stanley M. Garn and Joseph B. Birdsell. Races: A Study of the Problems of Race Formation in Man. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, 1950.

Caravan: The Story of the Middle East. New York: Holt, 1951.

The Story of Man. New York: Knopf, 1954; rev. ed., 1962.

The Seven Caves. New York: Knopf, 1957.

The Origin of Races. New York: Knopf, 1962.

As editor, with Edward E. Hunt. Anthropology A to Z. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1963.

With Edward E. Hunt. The Living Races of Man. New York: Knopf, 1965.

The Hunting Peoples. Boston: Little, Brown, 1971.

A North Africa Story: The Anthropologist as OSS Agent, 1941–1943. Ipswich, MA: Gambit, 1980.

Adventures and Discoveries: The Autobiography of Carleton S. Coon. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1981.

Racial Adaptations: A Study of the Origins, Nature, and Significance of Racial Variations in Humans. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1982.


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Matthew R. Goodrum

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