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ON THE INSUFFICIENCY OF MERELY ANATOMICAL DESCRIPTIONS OF THE
CRANIUM IN THE STUDY OF ETHNOLOGY.
To the Editor of the ETHNOLOGICAL JOURNAL. DEAR SIR, I am rejoiced to hear that we are to have an Ethnological Journal, and still more so that the task of editing it has fallen to one whose past writings not only afford a sure guarantee for the ability and impartiality with which it will be conducted, but authorize us to indulge in pleasing anticipations of the intellectual feast we have in store, in discussing the scientific viands to be provided for us by the editorial pen. The advent of this new publication seems an opportune moment for drawing attention to any errors, or supposed errors of method, in the cultivation of our science, and I am desirous of giving utterance to certain ideas which have been suggested to me by what I conceive to be the unsatisfactory character of the descriptions given on various occasions of human remains. I will mention, in particular, the Neanderthal skull, and the interesting series of skulls from Caithness, for which we were indebted to the antiquarian researches of Mr. Laing. As long as we are content to look at skulls merely with the eye of anatomists, taking cognisance only of the mechanical details of their structure, so long shall we remain blind to their higher significance as an index of the mental attributes of their owners—an epitome of the individual in all that regards that sentient life, of which the evolution and manifestation have been the final object for which all the other subordinate systems and functions of the body have been called into being.
Thus the Neanderthal skull was compared to the Australian, of which, by-the-bye, there are several varieties. Taking, however, as was doubtless intended, the one which has come to be conventionally regarded in Europe as the Australian type, no skulls could well be more dissimilar in shape, with the single exception that the profile of both is low and receding. Imagining a horizontal section just above the glabella, the curve of the forehead in the Neanderthal skull is good, probably above that of the existing inhabitants of Europe, affording indications of a long and wide anterior lobe ; whilst, in the Australian skull, the outline of the same section of the forehead, in place of a good curve, presents an approximation to a triangle, indicating the short and triangular, or tapering forward anterior lobe which marks the lower races of man. In addition to these errors, I conceive ethnologists should have been in a position to recognise, what is unquestionably the fact, that the Neanderthal skull presents a well-defined
specimen of a type by no means extinct in Western Europe. Strange to say, the Caithness skulls, though possessing no characteristic resemblance to the Neanderthal, were also compared to the Australian, for no other reason, apparently, than that the latter at present supply the ideal type of the low coarse organization more or less indicative of rude uncivilized races ; that is to say, are coarse and heavy, with the ridges for the attachment of muscle salient, and the coronal region shelving off laterally.
We owe to Dr. Gall the important observation that the fundamental and essential the function of an organ, the more is it seated towards the base of the brain and the mesial line. Thus the organs conservative of organic life are seated at the base of the brain ; and breadth at this part is always indicative of vigour of physical constitution and great reparative
Now this part of the brain is frequently well developed in the lower races of man; and the same remark applies, though in a somewhat less degree, to the portions seated on the mesial line, and forming the profile. If, then, we form a hoop of wire to represent the outline of the section of the head of a savage at the level of the top of the ears, and attach to it another wire, giving the curve of the mesial line or profile, such a rough sketch of the head gives no indication of the distinctive characteristics which distinguish and separate the heads of the higher and lower races of mankind. Now unfortunately these two outlines seem the only portions of the curved surface of the cranium to which the attention of non-phrenological ethnologists is directed, and consequently their descriptions are of necessity in the highest degree unsatisfactory. The complementary and distinctively human faculties—the Corinthian capitals of the edifice-in conformity with the law we have mentioned, are seated in the superior lateral parts of the head, and expressed by the contour of the transverse lines, which leave the mesial line at right angles, and connect it with the base. These are never seen well arched in savage races, nor in those Ishmaelites of civilization, the criminal classes of Europe, whose ranks are mainly recruited from strains of savage blood welling up amongst its populations.
The contour of a skull—in other words, the character of the curves which define its outline--is an attribute, sui generis, quite distinct from its anatomical details, and not necessarily best, or even well, appreciated by the same class of minds that excel in the discrimination of the latter. The most important and fundamental part of a skull, as regards its structure, the most essential portion to the conservation of animal life, the richest in anatomical details, and consequently the most interesting to an anatomist, is the base ; whilst, on the contrary, it is the greater or less expansion, and the beauty of the curves of the spines of the cranial vertebræ, the frontal, parietal, and supra-occipital bones, the portions of the skull of least importance in an anatomical point of view, which determine the contonr of the skull, the capacities of its owner for civilization, his intellectual and moral rank as a man.
Non omnia possumus omnes. A man may be a very clever anatomist and a connoisseur in all the mechanical details of osteology without much capacity or any genius for appreciating the proportions of curved lines; and to go to such an individual for an ethnological estimate of a cranium is like going to an antiquarian or a potter for an opinion on a Greek vase. You may get a disquisition on some peculiarity in the pattern of the ornamentation on its border, a criticism on the mode of attachment of the handle, or some constructive detail ; but you are not likely to learn its rank as an æsthetic production, or the idea embodied by the designer in the symmetry of its curves.
As regards the examination of human remains, if we would make anything of the pursuit beyond a study of dry bones, if it is not to remain a mere hunting and skirmishing ground for savans profound in processes and foramina, and learned in sesquipedalian names, but is to be made a fruitful district contributing its quota of corn, wine, and oil to our growth in intellectual stature; if, in short, we would clothe the dry bones with flesh, light up again the lack-lustre orbits with that soul of expression the human eye, and adorn with crisp black ringlets, or flowing auburn tresses, the denuded summit of the dome; if, finally, we desire to possess the ability to reproduce the individual in person, with all his distinguishing characteristics of stature and features as he lived and breathed and less than this ought not to content us--I am profoundly impressed with the conviction that success is only to be obtained by reading the past through the light of the present. Instead of plunging into a sea of speculation which never can land us on any other than a barren shore, we must seize the facts within our reach, and trace the chain of
sequence backward link by link. Did we possess a classified collection of the skulls of the living types, our contemporaries, accompanied with wax-work figures or coloured portraits ; could we succeed in identifying the disentombed relics of a long-buried past with the specimens in our museums, who can doubt that the races thus identified would stand in the relation of progenitors and descendants, or that we should possess in the latter the materials for recreating the former ?
In short, I am more and more convinced that it is by forming museums and studying their contents, and by these means alone, that we can ever hope to succeed in placing Ethnology on such a solid basis as will enable it to exhibit that unfailing credential of a true science—the power to recreate the past and previse the future.
T. SYMES PRIDEAUX.
THE PLACE OF MAN IN THE ANIMATE SCALE.
BY LUKE BURKE, ESQ.
Among the many interesting questions which have of late assumed prominence in the discussions of ethnologists, there is scarcely one of more interest or importance than that of the place of man in the animate scale; for it is one which adds to its own peculiar difficulties and excitements those of the still broader question of the origin of species. The universal instinct of humanity, in all times and in all places, has separated man from the rest of the animate world by a gulf so broad and impassable that, in technical language, it cannot be expressed by any narrower line of demarcation than that of a kingdom; and yet, by the recognised rules of scientific classification, we seem compelled to believe that universal instinct is here at fault, and that the concurring and unbiassed judgment of high and low, peasant and sage, savage and civilized, has in this instance culminated in a grave and even palpable error. I confess that it seems to me a serious responsibility thus to conflict with a universal feeling. There are, doubtless, cases, and numerous cases, in which the popular voice is simply worthless when opposed to that of the learned; but there are also cases, and not few in number either, in which that voice is the conservator or interpreter of truths which learning has overlooked or misconceived. We must then discriminate between case and case, between the circumstances which would give natural weight to a general opinion and those which would tend to represent it as a simple result of ignorance or prepossession.
When an opinion is simply dogmatic and traditional, held by this man because it has been held by that man, generality of assent may mean nothing more than the multiplication of credulities. But when a conclusion starts up spontaneously to every individual mind, when every man must think it out for himself again and again, innumerable times, and under every variety of circumstances, until it becomes part and parcel of his intellectual life, then assuredly universal opinion is not a matter to be lightly dealt with, since it is the expression of an infinitude of separate reasonings, all concurring in one and the same conclusion. It would be impossible, I think, to point out a case in which such a concurrence has proved altogether fallacious. Its existence can only be possible where facts are numerous and plain, and the conclusion from them, to a certain extent at least, inevitable; and it can never therefore be prudent to deal lightly with decisions of this class, or reverse them on any but the most decisive evidence.
But there is even more than this to be said for this particular conclusion. Those who oppose it do so theoretically only, do so in their characters of scientific men. In the world of action, in all the relations of practical life-whenever, in fact, they happen to be out of sight of their technical laws--they conform to it as instinctively and irresistibly as the most ignorant of the masses. Is it possible that that can be true in theory which is untenable in practice? That we must think one thing as men, and the direct opposite as scientific men ? That we must, to be reasonable, hold a conclusion which is never countenanced by any act of our existence? There is surely room here for grave hesitation. This is not a case in which science can rest upon its dignity and lightly supersede the verdict of the masses ; on the contrary, it is one which eminently calls for self-distrust, one in which a reasoner ought to feel the necessity of looking around warily, lest he be walking amid snares; and this, doubtless, was the frame of mind in which the early opponents of the popular doctrine approached the subject, and in which, at the present day, it is still canvassed by many earnest and enlightened thinkers, who find it impossible to resist the weight of evidence which anatomy seems to bring in favour of the near relationship of man to the beast.
On the other hand, the argument bears with similar force on the side of science. Those reasons, one would think, must have been weighty and numerous which could have induced the early observers to reverse all their preconceptions, to battle with their instincts, to enter into possible conflict with their religious faith, and into certain conflict with the popular interpretations put upon that faith ; and still more must we deem them weighty when we see the ready reception which they have met with, not only from naturalists and anatomists of every grade and school, but equally so from the general body of the learned, until at last they had almost ceased to be controversial, and had entered, as a constituent element, into the general knowledge of educated men. It is obvious that, in a case like this
, there must be much truth on both sides; but it is equally plain that there must also be some subtle illusion on the one side or the other, if not on both; and I propose in this paper to re-open this important question, and, while doing all the justice in my power to the conflicting arguments, to attempt to discover and dissipate the interposing illusions which prevent the convergence of the evidence towards one common conclusion.
In discussing this question some five years since, in the pages of “The Future" (No. I., April 1860), I was under the impression that