Johann Blumenbach and the Classification of Human Races

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Johann Blumenbach and the Classification of Human Races


Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840) was a prominent German anatomist and early anthropologist who played a major role in elevating science above racial prejudice and toward scientific objectivity. His dissertation On the Unity of Mankind (1795), still recognized for its quality and sound scientific approach to the study of human variation, is considered the starting point of anthropology.

As a professor of medicine at the University of Göttingen, Blumenbach was an influential teacher and respected researcher. His publication Textbook of Comparative Anatomy (1805) was an unprecedented and superior comparative anatomy and physiology text. Through his natural history studies and his research with fossils, Blumenbach developed revolutionary ideas about life on earth, including the recognition that a number of fossil species had become extinct and other species had emerged more recently.

Blumenbach believed the earth and all its plants and animals had an ancient history, and this idea led to the geological-paleontological time line he devised based on these new ideas. Blumenbach presented both unprecedented concepts about humanity and nature, and the protocols and techniques needed for objective scientific research to study these phenomena.


One of the first classifications of mankind was made by Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), the father of taxonomy, in Systema Natura (1758). In this work Linnaeus followed both continental geography and a color scheme that divided man into white European, dark Asiatic, red American, and black Negro. In the style of the times, many of the "characters" used by Linnaeus to classify his races were quite subjective and unscientific, such as "hopeful" Europeans, "sad and rigid" Asiatics, "irascible" American natives, and "calm and lazy" Africans.

In 1749 French naturalist Georges Buffon (1707-1788) also formulated a classification scheme to distinguish between types of humans. He envisioned six varieties, adding the Lapps, or polar group, and the Tartars, or Mongolians, to the European, American, south Asian, and Ethiopian divisions, but similarly included derogatory adjectives as descriptors of these races.

Other attempts at classification were also simplistic and subjective, such as Meiner's (1793) reference to all nations being derived from two stocks: the handsome, white peoples, including the Celts, Sarmatians, and oriental nations; and the ugly, dark peoples, which consisted of all the rest. These early publications, though earnest approaches to scientific investigation, were flawed by their inclusion of cultural bias and subjectivity, and ignorance of genetics and psychology. During this time scientists often had to rely on the observations and descriptions of people, animals, and phenomena made by adventurous travelers, and had only meager collections of actual organisms to study, including humans.

By the nineteenth century scientists were becoming more aware of the need for objectivity and the importance of using actual physical characteristics and measurements to study and classify animals and humans. However, cultural comparisons and prejudice were still part of some classification schemes, typically elevating the status of Europeans and lowering other groups to the position of primitive peoples.

When Blumenbach began his university studies, he was greatly influenced by Christian Buttner's natural history lectures and discussions of exotic places and people. Blumenbach developed a passion for the natural sciences, including anatomy and the variations of the human race. He began his renowned private collection of biological and ethnographic objects and articles, which included the skulls of peoples from around the world and their art works and literature. His On the Unity of Mankind is still seen as a very objective and scientifically sound approach to studying the human animal, while avoiding the use of subjective behavioral characteristics and cultural bias. While Blumenbach incorporated basic differences in skin pigmentation and hair color in his study, he also relied heavily on facial features, shape of teeth, and skull morphology to identify five human races consisting of Caucasian, Malaysian, Ethiopian, American, and Mongolian.

Though similar in some aspects to a few previous publications, Blumenbach's work was more scientifically objective and based on physical data. He also introduced important ideas and terminology such as "Caucasian" to refer to the average appearance of the white, or European, stock. Blumenbach considered the Caucasian race as a middle ground of humanity, with two divergent lines in either direction: the Malaysian people situated intermediate to the Ethiopian lineage, and the American native as intermediate to the Mongolian people.

His detailed study of skull morphology and his considerable cultural awareness lead Blumenbach to categorically support a single species status of all humans, as well as the basic equality of all races and peoples. Blumenbach strongly opposed the subjectivity and perceived cultural superiority held by Europeans, and fought against social and political abuses of anthropological ideas. His adamant support and defense of the "Negro" race as equal in capability and intelligence is pointed and well advanced for his time. Regarding the unity of mankind, Blumenbach concluded that the "many varieties of man as are at present known to [be] one and the same species."

As a preeminent research anatomist, Blumenbach confirmed the anatomical similarities of vertebrates, and detailed the differences among the various animal groups. His Textbook of Comparative Anatomy (1805) is considered to be an unprecedented text of comparative anatomy and physiology, as well as a thorough investigation of the anatomical relationships between the major animal groups.

Blumenbach also promoted some revolutionary concepts and ideas in the area of natural history in his essays Beytrage zur Naturgeschichte (1811) and Handbuch der Natureschichte (1830), both of which exerted a significant influence on scientific study and the advancement of natural history. The advances made by Blumenbach during the early nineteenth century preceded the other great naturalists of that time, Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913).


On the Unity of Mankind was a ground-breaking publication because it forcefully stated that mankind was but a single species and reinforced the need for objective research in science. Blumenbach recognized that all such research should be based only on relevant anatomical characters, such as the skull morphology he used in his study. Blumenbach illustrated clearly that the various races of people did not significantly differ from each other in the measured values of these important characters. He saw humanity as a flow of variation that did not exhibit any marked differences and did not merit any separation at the species level.

Blumenbach believed that this species unity was demonstrated by the fact that all races have accomplished equal cultural development, including writing, art, and scientific investigation. Blumenbach also considered it an important fact that all races are capable of reaching the human perfectibility of form, and these races can and do produce individuals who would be seen by any other human as beautiful.

Blumenbach's dissertation presented ideas that the scientific world recognized as valid and clearly reflective of the true nature of mankind. His work was hailed for its objectivity and scientific merit, and accepted as part of the new science that would study mankind as a historical member of the natural world. Both the scientific and cultural basis of anthropology can be traced back through Johann Blumenbach and his impressive publication On the Unity of Mankind. Blumenbach also created a vast private ethnography collection, which included the skulls and other items used in his study, and a range of cultural materials and artifacts from distant places and peoples, including a collection of African literature.

After Blumenbach, there were numerous attempts to classify the races and variations of humans, and race classification became part of a serious pursuit toward a systematic body of knowledge about mankind. Based on the careful measurements of various physical characteristics, three main groups or races were eventually recognized—Negroid, Mongoloid, and Caucasoid. These terms were typically used to represent: the Negroid people of Africa, Melanesia, and New Guinea; the Mongoloid people of Asia, native America, and the Eskimos of the Arctic; and the Caucasoid people of the Indo-European areas. Some researchers elevated these three main groups to the level of a variety, and then divided them into races, including Joseph Deniker (1852-1918), a racial anthropologist of this time, who categorized 10 different races within Europe alone.

Rearranging and scrambling these various classifications occurred repeatedly through the nineteenth century. During this time, the works of Darwin, Wallace, and Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) began to influence anthropology significantly, as the sciences of evolution and genetics gained attention and acceptance. Gradually it became obvious that human variation was based not on different genes, but rather on varying frequencies of the same genes shared by all populations of humans. No classification system that separated humans into distinct species, or even sub-species, could hold up under the light of these sciences.

Still, by the end of the nineteenth century, the idea of a hierarchy of races that elevated some nations and people above others, was widely accepted by many in the upper classes of Europe, Great Britain, and the United States. The wealthy and powerful were often smug in the belief that their superior station and position was justified and secured by nature. Theological dogma was interwoven into this debate and many attempts were made to sort the various races into a pattern purportedly designed by the Creator.

In this way, races were incorrectly seen as preordained, pure, and rigidly fixed in their current form. This erroneous belief has survived into the present, despite the advances of evolution, genetics, and psychology. Blumenbach and the anthropologists he influenced helped to clear away this ignorance and prejudice, and gradually the recognition of racial equality and human rights grew into a force that helped end the practice of human slavery and other such injustices.

Genetic studies of the twentieth century have confirmed the single species status of mankind, and indicate that human races are genetic pools always in flux, forming and blending under the effects of isolation, migration, and genetic exchange. Modern anthropology and evolutionary science continue to study mankind, eager to learn the origins of our species, Homo sapiens. Important new discoveries are made almost daily, as new fossils of human ancestors continue to provide clues about where and when humans developed.

Recent genetic research comparing the DNA contained in human mitochondria indicate that all living people may be derived from a very small ancestral population that lived in east Africa as recently as 200,000 years ago. This small group of modern humans, called a "mitochondria Eve" by some scientists, grew into a larger population that spread throughout Africa and, about 100,000 years ago, groups of these humans began to migrate out of Africa to the Middle East, Europe, Asia, and the Americas.

There is still a great deal to be learned about the humans that migrated out of Africa and when these migrations occurred. This area of scientific research remains as charged and exciting as ever, and many critical discoveries about mankind have yet to be made.


Further Reading

Bendyshe, Thomas. Life and Works of Blumenbach. London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green, 1865.

Boyd, W. C. Genetics and Races of Man. Boston: Little, Brown, 1950.

Dobzhansky, T. Mankind Evolving. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962.

Garn, S. M. Human Races. 3rd ed. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, 1971.

Mayer, Ernst. Animal Species and Evolution. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963.

Osborne, Richard. The Biological and Social Meaning of

Race. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman and Co., 1971.

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Johann Blumenbach and the Classification of Human Races

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