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Boas, Franz. Race, Language and Culture – T13


Review of Paul Ehrenreich,
“Anthropologische Studien
Ueber die Ureinwohner Brasiliens,” 1897 1

The present volume is of great importance, not only on account
of the detailed information given in the special part of the work,
but also on account of a critical examination of the methods of
somatology. The following lines are intended as a review of this general
part of the work.

Dr. Ehrenreich is one of the few anthropologists who have an equal
command of somatological, ethnological and linguistic methods. His
criticism of modern somatology is directed mainly against the excessive
weight given to measurements as compared to morphological description
and to the loose use of the terms race and type.

He would reserve the term “race” for the principal divisions of mankind,
while he would call the varieties of these main divisions “types.” He
objects strongly to the application of the term “race” to. closely affiliated
varieties which differ in regard to a few measurements, while their fundamental
morphological features are much alike. He justly attributes
much of the confusion prevailing in anthropological literature to a lack
of clear distinction between the main groups and their subdivisions, and
particularly to the tendency which has developed in recent years to consider
a few anthropometrical criteria as a sufficient basis for the establishment
of a new race.

In determining the “races,” or the main divisions of mankind, Ehrenreich
demands the consideration of three principal phenomena. He
claims that each race is characterized by similarity of anatomical traits,
geographical continuity of habitat, and similarity of the structure of
the languages spoken by the people constituting the race. The first two
points are well taken. They refer, of course, to conditions prevailing
before the modern migrations of races. I doubt, however, if it is admissible
to introduce the last point of view in the definition of the principal
149divisions of mankind. Ehrenreich is led to include languages in the
characterization of races by three considerations. He says: (1) Every
race has developed a greater or lesser number of characteristic linguistic
stocks. (2) These stocks are not found outside the limits of each race,
excepting a few instances which are explained by certain peculiar conditions.
(3) There are fundamental differences between the structures of
the languages spoken by the different races, and no connecting links
between them exist. Based on these arguments he distinguishes six
races, leaving the position of the Papuas and of the black peoples of
Asia doubtful. I will not lay great stress upon the fact that these principles
of classification lose their applicability among the last-named
people, as in their case peculiar conditions prevail. But there are other
cases which show that these principles do not help us to establish a
definite number of races. The linguistic considerations would make it
impossible to include the pre-Aryan peoples of Europe and western
Asia, in what Ehrenreich terms the Caucasian or Mediterranean race,
although the anatomical characteristics of these peoples are identical
with those of the Mediterranean race. On the other hand, the American
race shows considerable anatomical uniformity as compared to other
races, and, nevertheless, there is no unity of structure of language in
Ehrenreich's sense of the word. It is no less possible to imagine a connecting
link between the principles of structure of the Algonquin and
Eskimo than between the Eskimo and Ural-Altaic languages. If we are
willing to consider American languages as a unit, and include only those
principles in the general characterization of American languages that
hold good in all of them, there is nothing to prevent us from including
Ural-Altaic languages in the same group. Ehrenreich agrees in these
opinions with the views expressed by Brinton in his discussion of the
characteristics of American languages. (Essays of an Americanist, pp.
350 et seq.)

Dr. Ehrenreich's second criticism of modern anthropology is directed
against the excessive weight given to measurements as compared to
morphological descriptions. He expresses the opinion that the classification
according to cephalic indices which has held sway since the days of
Retzius has greatly hampered the development of somatology and has
made efforts at classification futile, since these were based on measurements,
particularly on indices, alone, while they must be based on morphological
descriptions. These latter, he holds, cannot be replaced by
numerical values. While heartily agreeing with this view, particularly
150with the objection to the exaggerated value given to the length-breadth
index of the head, I do not think that Dr. Ehrenreich's condemnation
of anthropometry is quite justified. He defines the object of somatology
as the somatic investigation, description, and if possible explanation of
racial characteristics. With this, I believe, all anthropologists will agree.
The only question is what methods are best adapted to these ends. A
broad view of the history of anthropology shows that measurements
were originally introduced in order to give precision to certain descriptive
features which could not be expressed satisfactorily in words. This
appears to have been the leading view of Daubenton and Camper, who
were the first to introduce measurements in discussions referring to comparative
anatomy. The nearer alike the types which we compare, the
more difficult it is to describe in words their nice distinctions. Anthropology
was the first branch of descriptive biology to deal with
closely allied varieties, and for this reason the need of substituting exact
numerical values for vague descriptions was soonest felt. Since zoology,
more particularly the study of mammals and of birds, has begun to
take into consideration the geographical races of the same species
we observe the same tendency of adding measurements to verbal

In so far as Dr. Ehrenreich's criticism is directed against the substitution
of measurements for descriptions that they should supplement, it
is most timely and ought to be taken to heart by investigators. The
terms dolichocephalic and brachycephalic as indicating two groups of
head forms determined by measurements have by some investigators
been raised almost to the rank of specific characters, although, as Ehrenreich
justly emphasizes — and in this he has the support of Sergi, Harrison
Allen and others — the sameness of the index does not by any means
signify sameness of morphological type. He disclaims the significance of
these characters when not supported by general morphological agreement.
In all this the author is certainly right. But he overlooks entirely
the principal and fundamental value of numerical measures as illustrating
the range of variability of types which cannot be given by any verbal
descriptions. The type inhabiting a certain region cannot be defined
satisfactorily by a substitution of descriptive features selected by even
the closest observation. It is not possible, as Ehrenreich says, to represent
a type by a typical individual. The description must include all the
individuals in order to illustrate the composition of the group that is
being studied. In order to give an adequate description it is necessary to
151illustrate the frequency of different types composing the group. While
the types found in two adjoining areas may be almost identical their
distribution may differ. The attempts to treat the same subject by
means of composite photographs or composite drawings, which from
a purely theoretical point seem very promising, offer serious practical
obstacles which make it difficult to use these methods. The variability
of a type can, therefore, be expressed only by means of carefully selected
measurements. Dr. Ehrenreich states with great clearness that none of
the proposed series of measurements are satisfactory, but we must add
that a way exists of discovering such measurements. This way is shown
in Professor Karl Pearson's admirable investigation on correlations
which was suggested by Galton's important work on heredity. By its
means laws of correlation may be discovered which express morphological
laws. It seems to me, therefore, that the author's condemnation of
anthropometrical methods for determining geographical varieties is too

The skepticism with which the author regards the results of anthropometry
leads him also to the conclusion that sameness of type is
not a sufficient proof of common descent; that the latter is only proved
if supported by historical and linguistic evidence. This opinion is open
to serious objections. It is certainly true that it is impossible to determine
by anatomical characteristics alone to what people a single individual
belongs. But it is perfectly feasible to identify a series of individuals
belonging to a certain people or district, if the series is sufficiently
large. Dr. Ehrenreich, it would seem, has been misled by the fact that
all types are variable and cannot be represented by a single typical
individual to consider the whole task a hopeless one. Even though it is
not possible to establish for a people a single anatomical type to which
all individuals conform and which is characteristic of that people and
no other, this does not prove that we cannot trace its genesis by means
of a study of the various types constituting the people and their distribution
among the people itself and its neighbors. The author acknowledges
this fact to a certain extent, saying: “Whoever tries to rely
in these investigations on physical characters alone will certainly be led
astray. A consideration of the geographical point of view and of historical
evidence will give much greater certainty to his conclusions.”
Here, as in the discussion of the races of man, the author strongly
emphasizes the geographical point of view, and in this he agrees with
F. Ratzel. He urges the necessity of considering the geographical probability
152of blood-relationship before generalizing from anatomical similarities.
The considerations of this point of view, on which the reviewer
has also repeatedly insisted, will certainly prevent anthropologists from
forming rash conclusions and propounding extravagant theories.

But I do not believe that the introduction of linguistic considerations
in the somatological problem will be found to be of advantage. It is
true that wherever we find two tribes speaking affiliated languages there
must have existed blood-relationship; but we have abundant proof
showing that by infusion of foreign blood the anatomical types have
changed to such an extent that the original type has been practically
swamped by the intruders. Such is the case in North America among
the Athapascan tribes of the Southwest, among the widely scattered
Shoshonean tribes, and in many other cases. The laws according to
which anatomical types are preserved are not the same as those according
to which languages are preserved, and for this reason we must not
expect to find the results of classifications based on these two considerations
to coincide. Dr. Ehrenreich seems to think that types are too variable
to give any satisfactory basis for deductions of this character. But,
notwithstanding the fact that certain anatomical features are easily
affected by the influence of environment, I cannot acknowledge that
any proof of* the transformation of the fundamental features of types

In our investigations on the early history of mankind three methods
are available, each directed to a certain series of phenomena — physical
type, language, customs. These are not transmitted and do not develop
in the same manner. The one persists when the other changes, but all
may be made to contribute to the solution of the general problem. The
study of the distribution of languages permits us to make nicer divisions
and to follow historical changes in greater detail than that of the distribution
of physical types. But often the latter give evidence in regard to
phenomena which cannot be approached by linguistic methods. The distribution
of the Alpine type of man in Europe, or that of the Sonoran
type in North America, may be mentioned as instances of this kind. It
would be absurd to state that in these cases similarity of type does not
prove blood-relationship because there is no linguistic evidence to support
it. On the contrary, the physical investigation supplies evidence
that cannot be gained by linguistic facts. The three methods mentioned
above are all equally valuable, but since they do not refer to the same
classes of facts it must not be expected that they will clear up the same
153incidents in the early history of mankind, but all may be utilized with
equal advantage in the study of this subject.

In regard to the affinities of the American race to other races Dr.
Ehrenreich seems to be inclined to consider it as equally closely related
to the Asiatic and to the European races. He lays particular stress upon
the proportions of the body and the form of the hair as distinguishing
the Americans from the Asiatics. In this opinion he agrees to a certain
extent with Brinton. It would seem to me that in determining the position
of a race we should be guided by the morphology of its most generalized
forms, namely of women and children. The far-reaching similarity
between American and Asiatic children and women is striking.
They have in common the wide and rather low nose, the form of the eye
and of the maxilla. The physiognomic similarity is so great that it
would seem to be of greater weight than the variable proportions of the
body which are much more subject to influences of environment.154

1 Science, N.S., vol. 6 (December 10, 1897), pp. 880-883.