Non-Darwinian Reasons for the Collection of Human Skeletal Remains: An Example from Russia


Peter Ucko
Department of Archaeology, University of Southampton

The collections of human remains in the St Petersburg Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography can act as a highly instructive example of why collections of human remains were made at a very early date. As such this very early case study- which could not have been written without the assistance and translations of Katharine Judtlson (Totton VI Form College, Southampton) – shows the difficulty of judging when a particular set of scicntific aims can be adjudged to have been a positive or negative influence-or even a success or failure. Early as it is in terms of the orthodoxy of subsequent western European collecting of human (and other) remains, these Russian activities had, of course, been preceded by several centuries of interest in the human skeleton, as reflected in the history and growth of the discipline of anatomy.

Karl Ernst Baer (Karl Maximovich when he reached St Petersburg, later entitled Ritter von Baer) (b.1792 [Estonia) d.1876) studied medicine at university before working as an embryologist in Vienna and Wiirtburg. By1826 be had become Professor of Anatomy in Konigsbcrg before returning to Russia as a base for numerous expeditions, from 1834 on, to the Arctic to carry out research into fauna, climate and vegetation. Between 1841 and 1852 Baer became Professor of Comparative Anatomy and Physiology in the Medical-Surgical Academy. As such he was in charge of the Museum of Comparative Anatomy (part of the Zoological Museum) which housed a small craniological collection which had earlier been transferred from the Zoologi-cal Museum where Peter the Great’s famous collection of monsters and anatomical preparations was kept (Levin 1960: 20). In 1846 Baer had also become Professor of Comparative Anatomy and Physiology in the St Petersburg Academy of Sciences and, by 1860, he and the Curator of the Ethnographic Museum were collaborating in an attempt to centralize the divided collections deriving from Peter the Great. In 1879 the Museum ofAnthropology and Ethnography was opened.

The St Petersburg collections included human skulls from, at least, the Caucasus Siberia, Indonesia and North America. Some had been collected or acquired in the 1830s, and especially in the 1840s as a consequence of research field expeditions: for example, several skulls of Aleuts (“from an underground Cave on the island of Gnalyatka”),Tlingits (“from the island of Sitkhi”), one or two Eskimo (“from the American shore of the Bering Strait”), one Polynesian Sandwich Islander (donated in 1830-1831 by Dr Mertens as a result of his round the world travels on the “Senyavin” between 1826 and 1829), two skulls (artificially deformed (?) – see discussion, below) of “Porno” Californian Indians (collected by the captain of the ship “Kupriyanov” in 1841), and an “Eskimo” skull from Greenland presented as a gift in 1842-1843 from Professor Etricht of Copenhagen. I. Voznesenky’s 1846 expedition had also been concerned with human skeletal remains, under its brief to collect zoological, botanical and ethnographic specimens, and it successfully provided the St Petersburg collec-tions with several skulls and crania including Aleut, “Eskimo”, Chinook and north Californian Indian examples.But the number and breadth of the human skeletal collections were greatly increased under Baer’s direction during the 1850s and 1860s. For example, the March 1852 killings in Sitka near the Stakhin river produced seven Tlingit remains of skeletons which were bought by the Russian (former) Director of the Meteorological Observatory there from San Francisco-based James Ward and presented to St Petersburg, with two Californian Indian skulls, in 1857; the skull of a Canadian Micmac Indian had been bought from H. Turner in London (ostensibly having been bought by him from a seaman from Halifax) in 1859; an “Eskimo” skull from Labrador which Baer himself had obtained from Professor Blasius while he was travelling abroad in 1861.(In 1949 the collection comprised 1699 skulls from living populations and 2464 from archaeological sites in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and a further 434 skulls from other parts of the world. By the 196Os, the collection had grown to over 10,000 items with the absorption of collections such as those from the Hermitage and the Leningrad Institute of Archaeology).

As a monogenist non-Darwinian, who also rejected Blumenbach’s (1796) basis of classification (Blumenbach who, in Germany, by the time of his death in 1840, had amassed a collection which amounted to some 300 skulls; and see section on Skeletal Variation and Recent Metrical Analysis, below), what were Baer’s interests in collecting, and methods of studying, human skeletal remains? He clearly saw this material as unique evidence for the under-standing of the origins and history of a single human species-not through the effects of natural selection but as the slow results of long-term environ-mental, dietary and geographic influences on skin and hair colour, as well as on skeletal characteristics, and, in particular, skull shapes. Working within this theoretical framework, Baer took the lead in trying to achieve international agreement on the standardization of recording methods- the choice of an agreed “horizontal surface as the initial reference point” (incidentally, not the same as the “Frankfort Horizontal” which was generally adopted in 1882)-and the use of terminology, initially through an international craniological conference in Gottingen in 1861, and subsequently through helping to found the journal (volume 1 published in l866), Archiv fur Anthropologic. Zeitschrift fur Natuqeschichtc und Uqeschichtc des Menschen.

Baer’s methodology demanded a minimum of t hrce skull specimens from any particular geographical location before he would allow any generalizations to be attempted: male skulls of “ordinary people” were taken to be the most suitable examples on which to base his descriptions of certain areas of the skull and for his categorizations into prognatbism, and brachy- or dolicbo-cephalism. Such regionally-based cranial classifications formed the basis of his rejection of any recognition of racial types based on linguistic criteria; his interest was to compare ancient skulls with contemporary ones in order to trace prehistoric environmental and other events, and to tracemovements of peoples.

Karl Baer’s non-Darwinian views on the importance of studying human skeletal remains were of the utmost importance; they extended far beyond the concerns of Moscows’s 1860’s Ethnography Exhibition and the questions posed by it concerning the relationships of past to present “Russian” populations, or the attempt to establish (in debate about the most significant thirteen measurc-ments to be taken from every skull, with such authorities as Adolf Retzius of Sweden – Ottow 1963) an agreed methodology for studying such remains, or his (now discredited) belief in the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Baer’s convictions about the unitary nature of Homo inspired others in their fundamentally sympathetic attitudes towards those living peoples whom they were later to study in the field, and fight for (e.g. Nikolai Nikolayevich Miklouho-Maclay [Miklukho-Maklai) who in the 1870s and 1880s collected skeletal material in Papua New Guinea and elsewhere at the same time as carrying out ethnographic observation and who also sent Aboriginal corpses and skeletal remains to European museums from Australia, while primarily devoting his energies to a vain attempt to protect the peoples, amongst whom he had lived and studied, from colonial domination and cultural decimation [Miklouho-Maclay 1982)); Baer’s convictions were also to influence Engels.

Above all, perhaps, they formed a basis for the attack on polygenists such as Morton and his followers:

Is that view, which has so little in common with the principles Of the natural sciences, not just an invention of certain Englishmen and Americans, which they need to salve their own consciences? They pushed out the primitive inhabitants of America with in-human cruelty, and to suit their own selfish ends they imported and enslaved African tribes. In regard to those people they said they need have no responsibilities, since they belong to another inferior species of mankind. I would refer here to the experience of all countries and all times; as soon as some people considers itself to be in the right and begins to behave unjustly towards another, at the same time it cndcavours to represent the latter as bad and incompetent and will assert that view often and insistently. (Baer 1861, adapted from Tumarkin 1982: 10)

References and Farther Reading

Baer, , K. M. 1850. Man in the Context of Natural History. In Russian Fauna or a Description and Represenration of Animals found in the Russian Empire, Semashko, Y. (cd.). St Petersburg: Wingebcr Printing House.

Baer, K. M. 1859. Ueber Papuas und Alfuren, Memoires de I’Acadamie Impriale des Sciences de St Petersbourg 8: 269-346.

Blumenbach, J. F. 1796. Physiolgy or the Science of Human Nature (translated from Latin into Russian by Foma Barsuk Moiseyev). St Petersburg: University Press.

Chistov, Y. K. 1977. Questions of Cranialogy in the Works of A. P. Bogdanov.Proceedings of the M-M Institute of Ethnography 104: 165-171.

Lcvin, M. G. 1960. Essays on the History of Anthropology in Russia. Moscow Academy of Sciences Publishing House.

Miklouho-Maclay, N. 1982. Travels to New Guinea. Diaries Letters, Docu-ments. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Ot tow, B. 1963. Ein Briefwechsel zwischen Anders Adolf Retzius und Karl Ernst von Boem. Uppsala: Svcnska vcntcnskaps-Akadtmicns Historia.

Putilov, B. N. 1982. Nikolai Miklouho-Maclay: Travellet, Scientist and Humunisr. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Querncr, H. 1977. Karl Ernst von Baer als Anthropologe. In Festschrift 75 Jahre Anlhropologische Slaarsammlung, Schriitcr, P. (cd.), 301-309.

Munich: Selbstvtrlag der Anthropologischcn Staatssammlung.

Raikov, B. E. 1952. Russian Biologists-Evolutionists pre Darwin. In Materials for a History of The Evolutionist Idea in Russia, Vol. 1. Moscow-Leningrad: USSR Academy of Sciences.

Tumarkin, D. 1982. Miklouho-Maclay and New Guinea. In Travels to New Guinea. Diaries, Letters, Documents, Miklouho-Maclay, S-56. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Virchow, R. 1881. Lcichnam eines Australiers. Zeirschtift fur Ethnologie 13:94-96.