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Craniometry is the technique of measuring the bones of the skull. It is distinct from phrenology, the study of personality and character, and physiognomy, the study of facial features. However, these fields have all claimed the ability to predict traits or intelligence. They were once intensively practised in anthropology, in particular in physical anthropology in the 19th century. Theories attempting to scientifically justify the segregation of society based on race became popular at this time, one of their prominent figures being Georges Vacher de Lapouge (1854-1936), who divided humanity into various, hierarchized, different "races", spanning from the "Aryan white race, dolichocephalic" (from the Ancient Greek kephalê, head, and dolikhos, long and thin), to the "brachycephalic" (short and broad-headed) race. Such attempts to relate the form of the skull to a particular character or intelligence are today unanimously denounced by the scientific community as pseudoscience. Historians study the influence and caution that science provided for racially divisive ideologies in the late 19th and early 20th century, at the height of the New Imperialism period. On the other hand, Charles Darwin used craniometry and the study of skeletons to demonstrate his theory of evolution first expressed in The Origin of Species (1859).


The cephalic index

Swedish professor of anatomy Anders Retzius (1796-1860) first used the cephalic index in physical anthropology to classify ancient human remains found in Europe. He classified brains into three main categories, "dolichocephalic" (from the Ancient Greek kephalê, head, and dolikhos, long and thin), "brachycephalic" (short and broad) and "mesocephalic" (intermediate length and width).

These terms were then used by Georges Vacher de Lapouge (1854-1936), one of the pioneers of scientific theories in this area and a theoretician of eugenics, who in L'Aryen et son rôle social (1899 - "The Aryan and his social role") divided humanity into various, hierarchized, different "races", spanning from the "Aryan white race, dolichocephalic", to the "brachycephalic" "mediocre and inert" race, best represented by the "Jew [sic]." Between these, Vacher de Lapouge identified the "Homo europaeus (Teutonic, Protestant, etc.), the "Homo alpinus" (Auvergnat, Turkish, etc.), and finally the "Homo mediterraneus" (Napolitano, Andalus, etc.) Vacher de Lapouge became one of the leading inspirations of Nazi anti-semitism and Nazi ideology.[1] His classification was mirrored in William Z. Ripley in The Races of Europe (1899).

Craniometry and anthropology


Further information: Anthropology  and Physical anthropology

In 1784, Louis-Jean-Marie Daubenton, who wrote many comparative anatomy memoirs for the Académie française, published the Mémoire sur les différences de la situation du grand trou occipital dans l’homme et dans les animaux (which translates as Memoir on the Different Positions of the Occipital Foramen in Man and Animals). Six years later, Pieter Camper (1722-1789), distinguished both as an artist and as an anatomist, published some lectures containing an account of his craniometrical methods. These laid the foundation of all subsequent work.

Pieter Camper invented the "facial angle", a measure meant to determine intelligence among various species. According to this technique, a "facial angle" was formed by drawing two lines: one horizontally from the nostril to the ear; and the other perpendicularly from the advancing part of the upper jawbone to the most prominent part of the forehead. Camper claimed that antique statues presented an angle of 90°, Europeans of 80°, Black people of 70° and the orangutan of 58°, thus displaying a hierarchic view of mankind, based on a decadent conception of history. This scientific research was continued by Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (1772-1844) and Paul Broca (1824-1880).

In 1856, workers found in a limestone quarry the skull of a Neanderthal man, thinking it to be the remains of a bear. They gave the material to amateur naturalist Johann Karl Fuhlrott, who turned the fossils over to anatomist Hermann Schaaffhausen. The discovery was jointly announced in 1857, giving rise to paleoanthropology.

Measurements were first made to compare the skulls of men with those of other animals. This wide comparison constituted the first subdivision of craniometric studies. The artist-anatomist Camper's developed a theory to measure the facial angle, for which he is chiefly known in later anthropological literature.

Camper's work followed 18th century scientific theories. His measurements of facial angle were used to liken the skulls of non-Europeans to those of apes.   In the 19th century the names of notable contributors to the literature of craniometry quickly increased in number. While it is impossible to analyse each contribution, or even record a complete list of the names of the authors, notable researchers who used craniometric methods to compare humans to other animals included Paul Broca (1824-1880), founder of the Anthropological Society in 1859 in France; and T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) of England. By comparing skeletons of apes to man, Huxley backed up Charles Darwin's theory of evolution and developed the "Pithecometra principle", which stated that man and ape were descended from a common ancestor.

Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) became famous for his now outdated "recapitulation theory", according to which each individual mirrored the evolution of the whole species during his life. Although outdated, his work contributed then to the examination of human life. These researches on skulls and skeletons helped liberate 19th century European science from its ethnocentric biases.[2] In particular, Eugène Dubois' (1858-1940) discovery in 1891 in Indonesia of the "Java Man", the first specimen of Homo erectus to be discovered, demonstrated mankind's deep ancestry outside Europe.

Cranial capacity, races and 19th-20th century scientific ideas

  Samuel George Morton (1799-1851), one of the inspirers of physical anthropology, collected hundreds of human skulls from all over the world and started trying to find a way to classify them according to some logical criterion. Influenced by the common theories of his time, he claimed that he could judge the intellectual capacity of a race by the cranial capacity (the measure of the volume of the interior of the skull). A large skull meant a large brain and high intellectual capacity, and a small skull indicated a small brain and decreased intellectual capacity. By studying these skulls he decided at what point Caucasians stopped being Caucasians, and at what point Negroes began. Morton had many skulls from ancient Egypt, and concluded that the ancient Egyptians were not African, but were white. His two major monographs were the Crania Europe (1839), An Inquiry into the Distinctive Characteristics of the Aboriginal Race of America and Crania Aegyptiaca (1844). In Crania Americana, he claimed that the mean cranial capacity of the skulls of Whites was 87 in³ (1,425 cm³), while that of Blacks was 78 in³ (1,278 cm³). Based on the measurement of 144 skulls of Native Americans, he reported a figure of 82 in³ (1,344 cm³) [sic].

Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002), an American paleontologist, evolutionary biologist and historian of science, studied these craniometric works from a historical perspective in The Mismeasure of Man (1981). He showed that Samuel Morton had fudged data and "overpacked" the skulls with filler in order to justify his preconcieved notions on racial differences.

Morton's followers, particularly Josiah C. Nott (1804-1873) and George Gliddon (1809-1857) in their monumental tribute to Morton's work, Types of Mankind (1854), carried Morton's ideas further and claimed that his findings in fact supported the notion of polygenism, which claims that humanity originates from different lineages and is the ancestor of the multiregional hypothesis. Morton himself had been reluctant to explicitly espouse polygenism because it was a major challenge to the biblical account of creation. Charles Darwin opposed Nott and Glidon in his 1871 The Descent of Man, arguing for a monogenism of the species. Darwin conceived the common origin of all humans (the single-origin hypothesis) as essential for evolutionary theory.

Furthermore, Josiah Nott was the translator of Arthur de Gobineau's An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races (1853-1855), which is one of the founding works of the group of studies that segregates society based on "race", in contrast to Boulainvilliers (1658-1722)'s theory of races. Henri de Boulainvilliers opposed the Français (French people), alleged descendants of the Nordic Franks, and members of the aristocracy, to the Third Estate, considered to be indigenous Gallo-Roman people who were subordinated by the Franks by right of conquest. Gobineau, meanwhile, made three main divisions between races, based not on colour but on climatic conditions and geographic location, and which privileged the "Aryan" race.

In 1873, Paul Broca (1824-1880) found the same pattern described by Samuel Morton's Crania Americana by weighing brains at autopsy. Other historical studies alleging a Black-White difference in brain size include Bean (1906), Mall, (1909), Pearl, (1934) and Vint (1934).

  Furthermore, Georges Vacher de Lapouge's racial classification ("Teutonic", "Alpine" and "Mediterranean") was re-used by William Z. Ripley (1867-1941) in The Races of Europe (1899), who even made a map of Europe according to the alleged cephalic index of its inhabitants.

In Germany, Rudolf Virchow launched a study of craniometry, which gave surprising results according to contemporary theories on the "Aryan race", leading Virchow to denounce the "Nordic mysticism" in the 1885 Anthropology Congress in Karlsruhe. Josef Kollmann , a collaborator of Virchow, stated in the same congress that the people of Europe, be them German, Italian, English or French, belonged to a "mixture of various races," furthermore declaring that the "results of craniology" led to "struggle against any theory concerning the superiority of this or that European race" on others.[3] Virchow later rejected measure of skulls as legitimate means of taxinomy. Paul Kretschmer quoted an 1892 discussion with him concerning these criticisms, also citing Aurel von Törok's 1895 work, who basically proclaimed the failure of craniometry.[3]

Craniometry, phrenology and physiognomy

Further information: Phrenology , Physiognomy , and Anthropological criminology

Craniometry was also used in phrenology, which purported to determine character, personality traits, and criminality on the basis of the shape of the head and thus of the skull. At the turn of the 19th century, Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1822) developed "cranioscopy" (Ancient Greek kranion: skull, scopos: vision), a method to determine the personality and development of mental and moral faculties on the basis of the external shape of the skull. Cranioscopy was later renamed to phrenology (phrenos: mind, logos: study) by his student Johann Spurzheim (1776-1832), who wrote extensively on the "Drs. Gall and Spurzheim's physiognomical System." Physiognomy claimed a correlation between physical features (especially facial features) and character traits. It was made famous by Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909), the founder of anthropological criminology, who claimed to be able to scientifically identify links between the nature of a crime and the personality or physical appearance of the offender. The originator of the concept of a "born criminal" and arguing in favor of biological determinism, Lombroso tried to recognize criminals by measurements of their bodies. He concluded that skull and facial features were clues to genetic criminality, and that these features could be measured with craniometers and calipers with the results developed into quantitative research. A few of the 14 identified traits of a criminal included large jaws, forward projection of jaw, low sloping forehead; high cheekbones, flattened or upturned nose; handle-shaped ears; hawk-like noses or fleshy lips; hard shifty eyes; scanty beard or baldness; insensitivity to pain; long arms, and so on.

Criticisms and revival of past cranial theories in the 20th century

  After being a main influence of US white supremacists, William Ripley's The Races of Europe (1899) was eventually rewritten in 1939, just before World War II, by Harvard physical anthropologist Carleton S. Coon. Coon eventually resigned from the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, while some of his other works were discounted because he would not agree with the evidence brought forward by the works of scientists such as Franz Boas, Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Lewontin, Lieberman and others which played down or even dismissed race as a valid concept with which to partition biodiversity.[4]

J. Philippe Rushton, psychologist and author of the controversial work Race, Evolution and Behavior (1995), which has been alleged by mainstream scientists to be a revival of 19th century scientific theories, reanalyzed Gould's retabulation in 1989, and argued that Samuel Morton, in his 1839 book Crania Americana, had shown a pattern of decreasing brain size proceeding from East Asians, Europeans, and Africans. In his 1995 book, he alleged an average endocranial volume of 1,415 cm³ for "Orientals" [sic], 1,362 for Whites, and 1,268 for Blacks [sic]. Other similar claims have been made by Ho et al. (1980), who measured 1,261 brains at autopsy, and Beals et al. (1984), who measured approximately 20,000 skulls, finding the same East Asian → European → African pattern [sic].

Rushton is the director of the Pioneer Fund which claims "to advance the scientific study of heredity and human differences" and which publish the Mankind Quarterly, in which, among others, Nouvelle Droite founder Alain de Benoist has contributed. Rushton's association has been characterized as a "hate group" by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a civil rights advocacy organization.[5]

Rushton has been accused by other researchers of misrepresenting the data. When they have reanalyzed the data, Zack Cernovsky et al. argue that many of Rushton's claims are incorrect. Thus, they write that:

"Hasty and eager acceptance of weak, biased, and unrepresentative data as scientific evidence of genetically based and relatively immutable racial differences in human potential amounts to psychological warfare on oppressed racial groups. Similar defamation of vulnerable minorities by Nazi pseudoscientists led to the loss of millions of human lives in the past. Statistical theory classifies similar endeavors as a Type I error (a misleading rejection of the null hypothesis)"[6]

Modern use of craniometry

Brain volume data and other craniometric data is used in mainstream science to compare modern-day animal species, and to analyze the evolution of the human species in archeology.


  1. ^ See Pierre-André Taguieff, La couleur et le sang - Doctrines racistes à la française ("Colour and Blood - doctrines à la française"), Paris, Mille et une nuits, 2002, 203 pages, and La Force du préjugé - Essai sur le racisme et ses doubles, Tel Gallimard, La Découverte, 1987, 644 pages
  2. ^ "Cultural Biases Reflected in the Hominid Fossil Record" (history), by Joshua Barbach and Craig Byron, 2005, webpage: ArchaeologyInfo-003.
  3. ^ a b Andrea Orsucci, "Ariani, indogermani, stirpi mediterranee: aspetti del dibattito sulle razze europee (1870-1914), Cromohs, 1998 (Italian)
  4. ^ How Caucasoids Got Such Big Crania and How They Shrank, by Leonard Lieberman
  5. ^ Southern Poverty Law Center Map of Hate Organizatons. Retrieved July 16, 2006.
  6. ^ Zack Z. Cernovsky, Journal of Black Psychology, Vol. 20, No. 3, 325-333 (1994)Rushton's Defenders and Their Hasty Rejection of the Null Hypothesis

See also

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