Monday, February 28, 2011

On My Shelf: The Skull Collectors: Race, Science, and America's Unburied Dead

The Skull Collectors: Race, Science, and America's Unburied Dead | Ann Fabian | University of Chicago Press | 220 pages | $27.50 (Hardcover)

The term "headhunter" conjures images of tribal drums and gruesome wartime trophies. But in The Skull Collectors, headhunting falls in the domain of science. The father of American craniology Samuel George Morton and his cohort of naturalists-cum-grave enthusiasts collected heads. Skulls, to be exact, which they measured and sketched and analyzed to divide and classify humanity. While for the most part, the objects of their study were taken from the deceased, these men seemed to have taken stock of a fair number of lively potential candidates as well. Their methods of collection raised many questions concerning the treatment of the deceased—particularly concerning those without living advocates with the means of speaking on their behalf.  Still, how else would Morton have gotten his specimens? The real question may be: Why would he have needed these specimens in the first place? What legacy did his science really leave us with? These are the questions that historian Ann Fabian seemlessly navigates in what certainly is a must-read for bone enthusiasts.

The legacy of American craniology revolves around Morton, who is an odd character on his own. Sure, he had friends—science is social after all—but his trade was certainly a morbid one. But what Fabian captures excellently is the way Morton is connected so intimately with others—from scientists to ship captains to generals, Morton's story is truly a global one, reaching all the way to the Pacific and back. It expands into a complex narrative as it collects the histories of people and places and politics, making it easy to look past the more obvious objections to Morton's endowment of scientific racism and more deeply at the intellectual history that Fabian lays before the reader. The Skull Collectors is curious and absorbing—these bones have many tales to tell.

Review copy provided by the publisher.    


  1. Forensic anthropology has such a horrible and checkered past.

    It's a crucial tool for archaeologists, anthropologists, and even modern criminal investigators. But so much of it was based on grave-robbing, and the information gathered was very largely used to justify racism.

    Today, use of these techniques can inflame racism and offense; nobody really knows what to do with historical collections of skulls and other human remains, and it's very difficult to get ethically-sourced skulls and other human bones.

    As an aside, have you been to the Mutter museum in Philadelphia? They have a very impressive collection of skulls.

  2. Have not been to the Mutter, but will certainly look into it the next time S and I head that way for cheese steaks.