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Carleton S. Coon

Carleton Stevens Coon, (23 June 1904 – 3 June 1981) was a American physical anthropologist noted for books on race in which he proposed the superiority of Europeans.



Carleton Coon was born in Wakefield, Massachusetts. He developed an interest in prehistory, and attended Phillips Academy, Andover where he studied hieroglyphics and became proficient in ancient Greek. Coon went on to study at Harvard, where he began to study Egyptology with George Reisner. He was attracted to the relatively new field of anthropology by Earnest Hooton and he graduated magna cum laude in 1925. He became the Curator of Ethnology at the University Museum of Philadelphia.[1]

Coon also continued with coursework at Harvard. In 1925 he made the first of many trips to North Africa to conduct fieldwork in the Rif area of Morocco, which was still politically unsettled after a rebellion of the local populace against the Spanish. He earned his Ph.D. in 1928[2] and returned to Harvard as a lecturer and later a professor. His work from this period included a 1939 rewrite of William Z. Ripley's 1899 The Races of Europe.

Coon was a colorful character who undertook adventuresome exploits. Like his mentor Earnest Hooton, he wrote widely for a general audience. He published several novels and fictionalized accounts of his trips to North Africa, including The Riffians, Flesh of the Wild Ox, Measuring Ethiopia, and A North Africa Story: The Anthropologist as OSS Agent.

This last book was an account of his work during World War II, which involved espionage and the smuggling of arms to French resistance groups in German-occupied Morocco under the guise of anthropological fieldwork. Such a practice is generally condemned by working anthropologists today, as going against 21st century science ethics. During that time, Coon was affiliated with the United States Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner to the Central Intelligence Agency.

Coon did physical anthropological studies abroad. He studied Albanians from 1929-1930; he traveled to Ethiopia for research in 1933; and in Arabia, North Africa and the Balkans, he worked on sites from 1925 to 1939, where he discovered a Neanderthal in 1939.

In 1948, Coon left Harvard to take up a position as Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, which had an excellent museum. Throughout the 1950s he produced academic papers, as well as many popular books for the general reader, the most notable being The Story of Man (1954). Coon's own interest was in attempting to use Darwin's theory of natural selection to explain the differing physical characteristics of various racial groups.

From 1954-1957, Coon did photography work for the United States Air Force. He photographed areas where US planes might be attacked. This led him to travel throughout Korea, Ceylon, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Taiwan, Nepal, Sikkim, and the Philippines.

In 1962 he published The Origin of Races, but it was not well received. The field of anthropology was moving rapidly beyond theories of racial typing. Essentially Coon's ideas had been superseded. Coon continued to write and defend his work. He died on June 3, 1981, in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

Racial theories

Coon hypothesized that different racial types fought for domination and annihilation of other types. He asserted that Europe was the refined product of a long history of racial progression. He stated that historically "different strains in one population have showed differential survival values and often one has reemerged at the expense of others (in Europeans)", in The Races of Europe, The White Race and the New World (1939).[3] He also stated that the "maximum survival" of Europeans was increased by their replacement of the indigenous peoples of the New World.[3] He asserted the history of the White race to have involved "racial survivals" of the different White subraces.[4]

Study of the Caucasoid race

In his book The Races of Europe, The White Race and the New World (1939), Coon used the term "Caucasoid" and "White race" synonymously, as had become common in the United States (although not elsewhere). In his introduction, he stated his interest was "the somatic character of peoples belonging to the white race". His first chapter was entitled, "Introduction to the Historical Study of the White Race", and his last chapter, "The White Race and the New World".[5]

He considered the European racial type to be a sub-race of the Caucasoid race, one which warranted more study. In other sections of The Races of Europe, he mentioned people to be "European in racial type" and having a "European racial element."[6] Coon suggested that the study of some major versions of European racial types was sadly lacking compared with other types, writing, "For many years physical anthropologists have found it more amusing to travel to distant lands and to measure small remnants of little known or romantic peoples than to tackle the drudgery of a systematic study of their own compatriots. For that reason the sections in the present book which deal with the Lapps, the Arabs, the Berbers, the Tajiks, and the Ghegs may appear more fully and more lucidly treated than those which deal with the French, the Hungarians, the Czechs, or the English. What is needed more than anything else in this respect is a thoroughgoing study of the inhabitants of the principal and most powerful nations of Europe."[3]

Multiregional model and racial hierarchies

Main article: Multi-regional origin

Carleton Coon believed Whites had followed a separate evolutionary path from other humans. He believed, "The earliest Homo sapiens known, as represented by several examples from Europe and Africa, was an ancestral long-headed white man of short stature and moderately great brain size." Further, he wrote, "The negro group probably evolved parallel to the white strain." (The Races of Europe, Chapter II) Coon hypothesized that modern humans, Homo sapiens, arose five separate times in five separate places from Homo erectus, "as each subspecies, living in its own territory, passed a critical threshold from a more brutal to a more sapient state".

In 1999 discovery of a possible hybrid Homo sapiens X neanderthalensis fossil child at the Abrigo do Lagar Velho rock-shelter site in Portugal made some anthropologists think there might be evidence for Coon's Multiregional hypothesis. Further review of the findings, however, did not change the 20th century consensus about the origins of man. Conclusions were carried in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.[7]

Carleton Coon thought that evidence showed that some races were less evolved than others. For example, he considered the Lapps of Northern Europe to represent a transitional Mongoloid race, or a mix of the Nordic subrace and the Mongoloids. He hypothesized that if they were indeed a transitional Mongoloid, then they have retained their brachycephalization from a previous stage in evolution but have the blondism of what he called "the higher Caucasoid stage of evolution".[8]

In his 1962 book, The Origin of Races, Coon theorized that some races reached the Homo sapiens stage in evolution before others, resulting in the higher degree of civilization among some races.[9] He had continued his theory of five races. He considered both what he called the Mongoloid race and the Caucasoid race to be racially superior to what he called the Australoid, Capoid and Congoid races.[10] In his book Coon contrasted a picture of an Australian Aborigine called "Topsy" with one of a Chinese professor. His caption "The Alpha and the Omega" succinctly expressed his racism.

Wherever Homo arose, and Africa is at present the most likely continent, he soon dispersed, in a very primitive form, throughout the warm regions of the Old World....If Africa was the cradle of mankind, it was only an indifferent kindergarten. Europe and Asia were our principal schools.

Races in India

In his 1962 book, Coon wrote that within the Caucasoid race there was a "third division [Mediterraneans which]... included... southern India," but remarked this group had "facial features of a Veddoid character which in some instances suggest Australoid affinities."[11] He further elaborated that in India there were "Veddoids... individuals who are to all extents and purposes Australoid." Regarding the exact racial composition of India, Coon noted, "[T]he racial history of southern Asia has not yet been thoroughly worked out, and it is too early to postulate what these relationships may be...[I] shall leave the problems of Indian physical anthropology in the competent hands of Guha and of Bowles."[11]


When Coon published his magnum opus The Origin of Races in 1962, the field of physical anthropology had changed markedly, and his book was not well received. Contemporary researchers such as Sherwood Washburn and Ashley Montagu were heavily influenced by the modern synthesis in biology and population genetics. In addition, they were influenced by Franz Boas, who had moved away from typological racial thinking. Rather than supporting Coon's theories, they and other contemporary researchers viewed the human species as a continuous serial progression of populations.

An early 21st c. article published in The Journal of the History of Biology[12] reviewed the controversy around the reception of Coon’s 1962 book, The Origin of Races. In it Coon had theorized that the human species divided into five races before it had evolved into Homo sapiens. Further, he suggested that the races evolved into Homo sapiens at different times.

The article abstract concluded:

Segregationists in the United States used Coon’s work as proof that African Americans were “junior” to white Americans, and thus unfit for full participation in American society. The paper examines the interactions among Coon, segregationist [and Coon relative] Carleton Putnam, geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky, and anthropologist Sherwood Washburn. The paper concludes that Coon actively aided the segregationist cause in violation of his own standards for scientific objectivity.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and changing social attitudes challenged racial theories like Coon's that had been used to justify discrimination and depriving people of civil rights. In 1961 non-fiction writer Carleton Putnam, who had founded an airline and was not an academic, had published Race and Reason: A Yankee View, a popular theory of racial segregation. In a sign of rejection of such unscientific thinking, the American Association of Physical Anthropologists voted to censure Putnam's book. Carleton S. Coon, President of the association, resigned in recognition that times had changed.[13]

Brief overview of The Races of Europe[3]

Coon's book concludes the following:

  1. The White race is of dual origin consisting of Upper Paleolithic (mixture of sapiens and neandertals) types and Mediterranean (purely sapiens) types.
  2. The Upper Paleolithic peoples are the truly indigenous peoples of Europe.
  3. Mediterraneans invaded Europe in large numbers during the Neolithic period and settled there.
  4. The racial situation in Europe today may be explained as a mixture of Upper Paleolithic survivors and Mediterraneans.
  5. When reduced Upper Paleolithic survivors and Mediterraneans mix, then occurs the process of dinarization which produces a hybrid with non-intermediate features.
  6. The White race encompasses the regions of Europe, the Middle East, the South Asia and North Africa.
  7. The Nordic race is part of the Mediterranean racial stock, being a mixture of Corded and Danubian Mediterraneans.

Falling into disfavor

Coon's ideas faded from acceptance as new work superseded his. New types of evidence brought forward in work by scientists such as Franz Boas, Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Lewontin, Leonard Lieberman and others, played down and dismissed race as a valid concept with which to classify biodiversity.[14]

Works by Carleton S. Coon


  • The Origin of Races (1962)
  • The Story of Man (1954)
  • The Races of Europe (1939)
  • Caravan: the Story of the Middle East (1958)
  • Races: A Study of the Problems of Race Formation in Man
  • The Hunting Peoples
  • Anthropology A to Z (1963)
  • Living Races of Man (1965)
  • Steven Caves: Archaeological Exploration in the Middle East
  • Mountains of Giants: A Racial and Cultural Study of the North Albanian Mountain Ghegs
  • Yengema Cave Report (his work in Sierra Leone)
  • Racial Adaptations (1982)

Fiction and Memoir

  • Flesh of the Wild Ox (1932)
  • The Riffian (1933)
  • A North Africa Story: Story of an Anthropologist as OSS Agent (1980)
  • Measuring Ethiopia
  • Adventures and Discoveries: The Autobiography of Carleton S. Coon (1981)


Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to:
Carleton S. Coon

"It is the retention by twentieth-century, Atom-Age men of the Neolithic point of view that says: You stay in your village and I will stay in mine. If your sheep eat our grass we will kill you, or we may kill you anyhow to get all the grass for our own sheep. Anyone who tries to make us change our ways is a witch and we will kill him. Keep out of our village." —The Story of Man, 1954, page 376

Further reading and sources

  • The Lagar Velho 1 Skeleton
  • Hybrid Humans? Archaeological Institute of America Volume 52 Number 4, July/August 1999 by Spencer P.M. Harrington [1]
  • Carleton Steven Coons, 23 June 1904 - 3 June 1981 (obituary). 1989. W.W. Howells in Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, v.58 108-131.
  • Two Views of Coon's Origin of Races with Comments by Coon and Replies. 1963. Theodosius Dobzhansky; Ashley Montagu; C. S. Coon in Current Anthropology, Vol. 4, No. 4. (Oct., 1963), pp. 360-367.
  • In Ways Unacademical: The Reception of Carleton S. Coon's "The Origin of Races" by JOHN P. JACKSON JR. Journal of the History of Biology 34: 247–285, 2001. Retrieved 17 November 2006.
  • The Races of Europe (1939) by Carleton S. Coon - physical anthropological information on the indigenous peoples of Europe.[3]


  1. ^ Coon, Carleton S. (1962). The Origins of Races. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
  2. ^ The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2005.
  3. ^ a b c d e The Races of Europe by Carleton Coon 1939 (Hosted by the Society for Nordish Physical Anthropology)
  4. ^ The Races of Europe, Chapter II, Section 12
  5. ^ The Races of Europe, Chapter XIII, Section 2
  6. ^ The Races of Europe, Chapter 7, Section 2
  7. ^ Hominids and hybrids: The place of Neanderthals in human evolution, Vol. 96, Issue 13, 7117-7119, June 22, 1999
  8. ^ Coon, Carleton S. The Races of Europe. Racial Classification within the White Family. August 11, 2006. .
  9. ^ Coon, Carleton S. (1962) . The Origins of Races. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
  10. ^ Bindon, Jim. University of Alabama. Department of Anthropology. August 23, 2006. .
  11. ^ a b Coon, Carleton S. The Races of Europe. Greenwood:USA, 1972 ISBN 0837163285 p.2
  12. ^ The Journal of the History of Biology
  13. ^ Academic American Encyclopedia (vol. 5, p.271). Danbury, Connecticut: Grolier Incorporated (1995).
  14. ^ How Caucasoids Got Such Big Crania and How They Shrank, by Leonard Lieberman
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Carleton_S._Coon". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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