I published last week an extract from my book Strange Fruit which looked at the ‘Kennewick Man’ controversy and at what that controversy told us about contemporary ideas about cultural identity and cultural ownership. The Kennewick Man debate gets also to the heart of another major contemporary controversy: that over the meaning of ‘race’. In this extract from Strange Fruit, I look at how discussions about a 9000-year old skeleton laid bare our  understanding (and misunderstanding) of race. My own views as to why ‘Both sides are wrong in the race debate’ are set out in this lecture. I will publish a third extract from Strange Fruit later this week that will explore the relationship between science, myth and the debate about human origins.

From Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides are Wrong in the Race Debate (Oneworld, 2008), pp 219-230

‘I’ve got a white man with a spear point in him’, Jim Chatters told the New York Times. From the moment that Chatters defined Kennewick Man as white, the question of race and identity became central to the debate about the skeleton’s origins and ownership. Many Native Americans bridled at the idea that scientists, rather than they themselves, should decide Kennewick Man’s identity and whether or not he was their kin. For many journalists and white Americans, science was rewriting history in their favour. ‘Europeans Invade America: 20 000 BC’ ran the headline in Discover magazine. ‘When Columbus came to the New World in 1492 and led in motion the chain of events that led to the decimation of Native Americans, was he unknowingly getting revenge for what was done to his ancestors thousands of years ago?’, asked the Santa Fe New Mexican. Suddenly Kennewick Man became the focus of an ancient American race war and many wanted to see him as both white and a victim.

‘If a Caucasoid Kennewick Man and his tribe roamed the Cascade rain-shadow dry interior of Washington State 9,000 years ago’, the conservative magazine Frontpage observed,  ‘we must then ask a painful question: what happened to them? Why did they vanish while Native American tribes took over the land that once was theirs? Did white-skinned early Americans lack the skill or luck to survive? Or were they killed off by darker-skinned invaders in an act we today would define as racism and genocide (especially if its victims were not of European ancestry)?’ It concluded that while ‘On today’s university campuses, the fashion is to depict Euro-Americans as evil and Native Americans and most Hispanics as the virtuous survivors of white colonial exploitation, rape, and genocide’, Kennewick Man ‘might prove the opposite—that the true Native Americans were white, victims of murderous genocide by the ancestors of today’s Indians who seized their land. The European invasion of the past five centuries, in this potential revisionist history, merely reclaimed land stolen 9,000 years earlier from their murdered kin.’


For many antiracists, on the other hand, Chatter’s description of Kennewick Man resurrected an age-old racial science. According to the anthropologist Chris Kortright, Kennewick Man maintains the practice by which ‘Intellectuals and academics have built names and careers for themselves’ by proposing theories that ‘reinforce the ideologies of colonisation and racial hierarchy’. In a history of American anthropology, writer Jack Hitt suggests that ‘Racial preferences color America’s oldest skulls and bones’ including the scientific study of Kennewick Man.

So, why did Jim Chatters think that Kennewick Man was white?  And what does his belief tell us about science, and in particular about the relationship between science and race? The campaign for the repatriation of Kennewick Man helps resurrect, as we have seen, old ideas of race in a new form. Does the scientific study of the skeleton equally do so?

It was Kennewick Man’s skull that convinced Chatters of his race.  Native Americans typically have broad faces and round heads.  Kennewick Man was different. Jim Chatters describes his feeling as he first inspected the skull found on the river bank:

Removing it from the bag, I was immediately struck by its long narrow shape and the marked constriction of the forehead behind a well-developed brow-ridge. The bridge of the nose was very high and prominent.  My first thought was that this skull belonged to somebody of European descent.

The use of skull characteristics to determine racial identity is, of course, an old technique, and one with a shameful past. Nineteenth century racial scientists, such as Samuel Morton and Paul Broca, travelled with callipers and scales, created libraries of thousands of skulls, and used their measurements to establish a hierarchy of races. There was, as George Armelagos and Dennis van Gerven observe, ‘a love affair between race science and the skull’. Craniometry helped distinguish between Aryans and non-Aryans, explain the superiority of the white race and identify the criminal type. Little wonder that following the Second World War, as the edifice of racial science crumbled, most anthropologists dismissed craniometry as mumbo-jumbo science.  In a key paper on ‘The New Physical Anthropology’, published in 1951, Sherwood Washburn, perhaps the most important biological anthropologist of his generation, proposed that that the study of the human skeleton should turn away from trying to categorise racial types to understanding the dynamic impact of evolutionary and cultural processes on the human form.

In recent years, though, anthropologists have started polishing up their callipers once more. Over the past two decades a number of researchers have developed new computer programmes that make use of a sophisticated statistical technique called multivariate analysis to  compare an unknown skull with those of people from different regions of the world and different periods of history. Perhaps the best known is CRANID, created by the Australian anthropologist Richard Wright. Another is Fordisc, a programme written by two American anthropologists Richard Jantz and Stephen Ousley. Proponents of such programmes argue that instead of being limited to comparisons of one or two variables of dubious quality, as nineteenth century craniometrists were, researchers can now use up to 90 measurements to look for patterns in the detailed topography of skulls.  The measurements include length, width and projection of the nasal bones, the form of the chin, the shape of the skull and brow and the way the bones have fused together, among dozens of others.


In the nineteenth century, craniometry was the property of racial scientists seeking to rank the peoples of the world.  There are certainly some today, such as the psychologist Phillipe Rushton who look on a skull as one imagines Samuel Morton or Paul Broca might have. Even more mainstream physical anthropologists talk a language that appears as archaic as many of the remains they investigate. ‘I am more accurate in assessing race from skeletal remains’, anthropologist George Gill has written, ‘than from looking at living people standing before me’. Such sentiments have led to criticism of today’s skull science as simply nineteenth century racial prejudice dressed up in twenty-first century technology.  The new ‘racial diagnosticians’, writes the anthropologist George Armelagos, ‘armed with new techniques and technology, map the terrain of cranial morphology much as their forebears did over a century ago.’

The majority of scientists wielding the callipers today are, however,  more likely to be members of Amnesty International than the Brotherhood of Scientific Racists. Software programmes such as CRANID and Fordisc 2.0 are now widely used by anthropologists tracking the origins of remains they have unearthed, police forces trying to identity a body and human rights workers attempting to put names and faces to bodies in a mass grave.  Jim Chatters argues that the comparison between today’s craniometry and nineteenth century racial science is ‘specious’. Yes, it is true that both use skull measurements, but they do so for entirely different purposes – one to identify the dead, the other to justify racial thinking.  Criticism of today’s craniometry, he writes, ‘is like condemning heart surgery because knives are often used to commit murder’. Many former sceptics have become converts. Rob Kruszynski of London’s Natural History Museum describes the day a policeman walked through the door with a skull in a cardboard box. It had been unearthed in a Cardiff garden. Police suspected murder and wanted to know the victim’s identity.  Working with colleagues Chris Stringer and Theya Molleson, Kruszynski took 33 measurements from the skull and fed them into CRANID. The computer revealed that the skull probably belonged to a Caucasian female of mixed British and non-British descent. The police made a facial reconstruction from the data and within days the victim was identified as Karen Price, a teenage runaway of Welsh, Greek-Cypriot, Spanish and American ancestry. Kruszynski, who had been sceptical of CRANID’s utility in forensic cases, became convinced of its effectiveness. Research by forensic scientist Jenny Lumb suggests that CRANID can correctly locate a skull’s continent of origin four times out of five.

Others, however, are less impressed by the new techniques. Several studies of Fordisc 2.0, for instance, have shown that when applied to skulls from known African populations, some 50 per cent were placed in non-African categories. The programme, George Armelagos observes, ‘forced a solution on a priori racial criteria (as all racial schemes do) to delimit patterns of human variation.  What we see with the African test is the result of an astounding mismatch between actual cranial variation and the variation modelled by racial constructs.’


Human variation is continuous and seamless.  A software programme such as Fordisc has a limited number of racial categories into which to carve up that variation. Each category is defined by a particular set of skull measurements.  If the measurements of an actual skull do not conform to those of any particular racial pigeon hole, that skull is nevertheless forced into whatever category the computer decides is the most suitable, even though in reality it may have no biological relationship to the other skulls with which it is grouped. A second problem arises from the fact that the boundaries of the racial categories have been established through the study of skulls and skeletons contained in reference collections.  These collections contain thousand of specimens amassed over the past century and more. They might have come from archaeological digs, hospital autopsies or even graverobbing. Their race might been determined by the archaeologist or graverobber who dug them up, by the individual’s own testimony before death, or from a death certificate or other legal document. All these methods can be deeply flawed. Archaeologist often determined racial categories according to their particular prejudices. In the 1920s the Harvard graduate Alfred Kidder excavated Pecos Pueblo,  a few miles south east of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Several thousand skulls were eventually dug up and Kidder asked America’s foremost anthropologist Earnest Hooton to confirm their racial identity.

Hooton saw considerable variety among the skulls and eventually sorted them into eight racial types. These included ‘nondescript specimens of a generalised Southwestern Indian appearance’; ‘Long-faced Europeans’; a ‘pseudo Alpine’ type with very broad, short face and rounded contours’; a ‘short, slender dolicephalic’ type that bore a resemblance to ‘the brunet or brown-skinned group often called the Mediterranean race’; a ‘pseudo-Australoid’ type which ‘may be an ancient form of brunet white man’; and a ‘pseudo-Negroid’ of which he was ‘of the opinion that it is in truth Negroid.’  Hooton saw Pueblo Pecos as the original American melting pot, developing fanciful theories about how the various groups had arrived there, including stories of marauding Scandinavians and of a fantastic journey of a group of Negroids from Northwest Africa who travelled across Asia and entered the Americas via the Bering Straits. Trapped in a scientific zeitgeist that saw the world divided into a fixed number of racial types, it never occurred to Hooton that the Native American populations of the Pueblo Pecos might simply have exhibited considerable variety in their morphology.

twilight of man

Hooton was a pioneer in the use of statistical methods in determining racial categories and his Statistical Laboratory at Harvard, equipped with state-of-art IBM computers, performed the ‘most sophisticated “data crunching” operation that anthropologists had seen until the 1950s’ using early versions of CRANID and Fordisc 2.0. But if the database on which the analysis is performed is contaminated by prejudice, then so will the conclusion be.

The social prejudices of American society infected the categorisation of skulls in other ways too. The distinction between ‘black’ and ‘white’, or ‘Negroid’ and ‘Caucasian’ has long been governed by the ‘one drop rule’ – one drop of African blood and you are deemed to irrevocably black. Many a skull of an individual with predominantly European ancestry would have been categorised as ‘African American’ or ‘Negroid’. As a result of all this, many anthropologists today dismiss the baseline racial labels in reference collections as little more than ‘folk stereotypes’. Since reference skulls were labelled wrongly in the first place, they argue, so any comparisons between unknown skulls and reference skulls will not yield useful information.

So who is right in this debate?  Is today’s craniometry a science reborn or is it nineteenth century prejudice resurrected? How good is it in racially categorising skulls?  Are the results of skull science good enough to demonstrate the reality of race? These questions are  similar to those that arise over the use of racial categories in medicine.  And answer is similar too. In both cases the answer to the question ‘Who is right?’ is ‘both and neither’.

‘If races don’t exist, how come forensic anthropologists are so good at identifying them?’ the forensic anthropologist (and disbeliever in the reality of race) Norman Sauer pointedly asked in the title of an academic paper.  How come, indeed? As a forensic scientist Sauer daily distinguishes between skeletons according to race. Yet he rejects the idea that race has biological meaning.  So, is his view of race a political stance at odds with the evidence he can see with his own scientific eyes?  Not at all, Sauer rejoinds. ‘The successful assignment of race to a skeletal specimen is not a vindication of the race concept’, he observes, ‘but rather a prediction that an individual while alive was assigned to a particular socially constructed “racial” category.’ We have seen earlier in the book how geneticists use socially-defined populations as surrogates for natural populations. Many of the ways in which we customarily group people socially – by race, ethnicity, nationality, religious affiliation, geographic locality and so on – are not arbitrary from a biological point of view. Members of such groups often show greater biologically relatedness than two randomly chosen individuals. Categories such as ‘African American’, ‘people of Asian descent’ and ‘Ashkenazi Jew’ can be important in medical research not because they are natural races but because they are a social representation of certain aspects of genetic variation.  We can use genetics, in other words, to distinguish between socially defined populations. The same is true of skull science.  Because we can define in statistical terms the differences between the measurements of a Caucasian, African and Native American skull, we can distinguish between them to a limited degree. To use skulls in this fashion is not necessarily to resurrect nineteenth century prejudices. But nor is it to demonstrate the reality of race.

kennewick man

The real problem arises when anthropologists attempt to extend modern racial categories into the past. This suggests that physical form is fixed in time, resurrecting the idea of racial ‘type’. Kennewick Man possessed certain features – such as narrow cheekbones, protruding upper jaw and a well developed brow-ridge – that are often categorised as ‘Caucasoid’. But these features refer to a socially defined population now, not one that might have existed 9000 years ago. There is no reason to assume that because Kennewick Man possessed these features he came from a population ancestral to today’s Caucasians, still less that he was ‘white’. Part of the problem is that race is defined in terms both of morphology (an individual’s physical form or appearance) and of ancestry, but the two are not necessarily connected.  John may suffer from sickle cell anaemia because he is James’s grandson or because both come from populations that have in the past suffered from malaria and which have adapted to it through the process of natural selection. The same is true of skull shape.

Some anthropologists have suggested that the label ‘Caucasoid’ is a useful one for Kennewick Man because, while he may not have been European, he might indeed have belonged to another Caucasoid population. Many have suggested that there are similarities between Kennewick Man and the Ainu, the vestiges of a hunting-gathering fishing people who occupied the northernmost islands of the Western Pacific including parts of Japan, and the Siberian islands of Kurile and Sakhalin.  They are believed to be the descendants of a people called the Jomon who first occupied the Japanese archipelago some 15000 years ago, before the arrival, around 10,000 later of the Yajoi, as the Japanese rice-farming culture is known. While the Ainu have virtually disappeared as a distinct group because of acculturation and intermarriage with their Japanese and Siberian neighbours, they are nevertheless thought to have a distinct appearance.  While the Jomon have a typical ‘East Asian’ look – described by anthropologists as having flat faces, epicanthic folds, yellow-brown skin, brown eyes, thin, straight black hair and virtually hairless bodies – the Ainu had ‘short faces, high-bridged prominent noses, no epicanthic folds, light skins, sometimes gray eyes, dense, wavy to frizzy hair on their heads and unusually hairy bodies’.  They were considered by physical anthropologists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to be a Caucasoid people and there has been endless (and fruitless) speculation about historical ties between Europeans and the Ainu. Some anthropologists continue to think in this vein.

To test such speculation, James Chatters ran a multivariate analysis on the Kennewick Man’s skull, comparing it to skulls of modern populations. Kennewick Man turned out to be closest, not to the Ainu, but to certain Polynesian groups. Polynesians are thought to be descendants of a population that originated from the southern coast of China  – not too distant from the Japanese homeland of the Ainu. They set out in large outrigger canoes, probably around 6000 years ago,  and progressively colonised various islands, from the already-inhabited lands of Indonesia and Melanesia to the uninhabited volcanic atolls of the Pacific. The physical anthropologist Loring Brace has conducted craniofacial studies of Asians and Pacific Islanders and found that the Ainu, their Jomon ancestors and the Polynesians form a single group that he calls the Jomon-Pacific cluster.  Together they appear to be remnants of a population that occupied coastal eastern Asian in the late Stone Age, before the advent of rice farming and the subsequent rapid spread of northeastern Asian peoples.


Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that Kennewick Man might resemble both the Ainu and Polynesians. Except that he doesn’t. While Kennewick Man was statistically closest to Polynesians when it came to skull measurements, he is actually not very close even to Polynesians. Modern Polynesians are morphologically closer to modern Europeans, say, than Kennewick Man is to them. Chatters discovered that Kennewick Man is quite unlike any modern people.

Kennewick Man is not the only ancient skeleton that has been found in America.  Some 39 skeletons have now been discovered that are more that 9000 years old. Most are very fragmentary – not much more scattered bits of bones. Sixteen skeletons, however, are at least half complete and of these eleven include complete or near-complete skulls. Jim Chatters and Richard Jantz (the co-author of Fordisc) compared the skulls of six of these with those of modern populations.  Four appeared closest to Polynesians, one to Europeans, and one to Africans. But once more such closeness is illusory. All the skulls appeared outside the framework of modern humans. In a two-dimensional graphical representation of cranial measurements of ancient and modern skulls, all modern populations form a series tightly-bunched, overlapping groups slightly to the left of centre of the graph.  Ancient Americans skulls are widely scattered throughout the bottom right quandrant. ‘The skulls of recent members of our species’, Chatters observes, ‘are more like one another than they are like those of Ancient Americans’. Analyses by other anthropologists bear this out. Kennewick Man, and his ancient brethren, are not like Native Americans, but nor are they particularly akin to any other modern people. Meanwhile craniometric studies on ancient South American skulls show that they are distinct from both modern and ancient Americans.

Kennewick Man was not white, nor European, nor even Caucasian. He was just very different from modern Native Americans, and indeed from all modern peoples. How to account for this difference? There are two possible explanations. Kennewick Man may have belonged to one population and the ancestors of today’s Native Americans to another, very different looking one, who migrated at a different time and from a  different place. Or the population to which Kennewick Man belonged may have originally looked like a bunch of Jean-Luc Picards but evolved over time into very different looking people with Native American features. The first explanation says that there were several migrations into the Americas; the Native Americans were simply the last. The second insists that there was only one migration but the first Americans changed their looks with natural selection acting as the cosmetic surgeon. The jury is still out as to which theory is right – though the data from anthropology, archaeology, genetics and linguistics all seem to favour the idea of multiple migration.  But whichever theory is right, what Kennewick Man reveals is that contemporary debates about race are fuelled more political myths than scientific data.


The images, from top down, are a reconstruction of Kennewick Man; Kennewick Man in his supposed original environment; illustration of ‘primordial racial types’ from Josiah Nott and George Gliddon’s 1854 book Types of Mankind; eighteenth century Dutch anatomist Peter Camper’s measurements of ‘facial angle’; illustration from Earnest Hooton’s book The Twilight of Mankind; the skull of Kennewick Man; and a modern Ainu family.

Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides are Wrong in the Race Debate (Oneworld, 2008)


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