The Caucasian race (also Caucasoid or Europid) is a grouping of human beings historically regarded as a biological taxon, including some or all of the populations of Europe, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, Western Asia, Central Asia and South Asia. The term has been used in biological anthropology for many people from these regions, without regard necessarily to skin tone. First introduced in early racial science and anthropometry, the term denoted one of the three purported major races of humankind (Caucasoid, Mongoloid, Negroid). Many social scientists have argued that such analyses are rooted in sociopolitical and historical processes rather than in empirical observation. However, Caucasoid as a biological classification remains in use in forensic anthropology.
Origin of the concept
The term "Caucasian race" was coined by the German philosopher Christoph Meiners in his The Outline of History of Mankind (1785). Meiners' term was given wider circulation in the 1790s by Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, a German professor of medicine and member of the British Royal Society, who is considered one of the founders of the discipline of anthropology.
Meiners' treatise was widely read in the German intellectual circles of its day, despite muted criticism of its scholarship. Meiners proposed a taxonomy of human beings based on two races (Rassen): Caucasians and Mongolians. He considered Caucasians to be more physically attractive than Mongolians, notably because they had paler skin; he claimed Caucasians were also more sensitive and more morally virtuous than Mongolians. Later he would make similar distinctions within the Caucasian group, concluding that the Germans were the most attractive and virtuous people on earth. The name "Caucasian" derived from the Southern Caucasus/Transcaucasia region (or what are now the countries of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia) because he considered the people of this region to be the archetype (cf. taxonomical "neotype") for the grouping.
Meiners' classification was not grounded on any scientific criteria. It was Blumenbach who gave it scientific credibility and a wider audience, by grounding it in the new quantitative method of craniometry. Blumenbach did not credit Meiners with his taxonomy, however, claiming to have developed it himself — although his justification clearly points to Meiners' aesthetic viewpoint of Caucasus origins:
Caucasian variety—I have taken the name of this variety from Mount Caucasus, both because its neighborhood, and especially its southern slope, produces the most beautiful race of men, I mean the Georgian; and because all physiological reasons converge to this, that in that region, if anywhere, it seems we ought with the greatest probability to place the autochthones (original members) of mankind.
Relation to skin color
In his earlier racial typology, Meiners put forth that Caucasians had the "whitest, most blooming and most delicate skin". In a series of articles, Meiners boasts about the superiority of Germans among Europeans, and describes non-German Europeans' color as "dirty whites", in an unfavorable comparison with Germans. Such views were typical of early scientific attempts at racial classification, where skin pigmentation was regarded as the main difference between races. This view was shared by the French naturalist Julien-Joseph Virey, who believed that the Caucasians were only the palest-skinned Europeans.
In various editions of On the Natural Variety of Mankind, Blumenbach expanded on Meiners' popular idea and defined five human races based on color, using popular racial terms of his day, justified with scientific terminology, cranial measurements, and facial features. He established Caucasian as the "white race," as well as Mongoloid as the "yellow race," Malayan the "brown race," Ethiopian the "black race," American the "red race." In the 3rd edition of his On the Natural Variety of Mankind, Blumenbach moved skin tone to second-tier importance after noticing that poorer European people (such as peasants) whom he observed generally worked outside, often became darker skinned ("browner") through sun exposure. He also noticed that darker skin of an "olive-tinge" was a natural feature of some European populations closer to the Mediterranean Sea. Alongside the anthropologist Georges Cuvier, Blumenbach classified the Caucasian race by cranial measurements and bone morphology in addition to skin pigmentation, and thus considered more than just the palest Europeans ("white, cheeks rosy") as archetypes for the Caucasian race.
Among the proponents of the concept there was never any consensus on the delineation between the Caucasoid race, including the populations of Europe, and the Mongoloid race, including the populations of East Asia. Thus, Carleton S. Coon (1939) and Franco Bragagna (2013) included the populations native to all of Central and Northern Asia under the Caucasoid label. However, many scientists maintained the racial categorizations of color established by Meiners' and Blumenbach's works, along with many other early steps of anthropology, well into the late 19th and mid-to-late 20th centuries, increasingly used to justify political policies, such as segregation and immigration restrictions, and other opinions based in prejudice. For example, Thomas Henry Huxley (1870) classified all populations of Asian nations as Mongoloid. Lothrop Stoddard (1920) in turn classified as "brown" most of the populations of the Middle East, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, Central Asia and South Asia. He counted as "white" only European peoples and their descendants, as well as a few populations in areas adjacent to or opposite southern Europe, in parts of Anatolia and parts of the Rif and Atlas mountains.
On the whole, Caucasoid traits were traditionally held to be independent from skin tone. Accordingly, analysis of 8,500 year old hunter-gatherers from sites in Western and Southern Europe has found that many carried ancestral skin pigmentation variants. As such, these early specimens would have been darker-skinned than present-day Europeans, but otherwise biologically similar.
Drawing from Petrus Camper's theory of facial angle, Blumenbach and Cuvier classified races, through their skull collections based on their cranial features and anthropometric measurements. Caucasoid traits were recognised as: thin nasal aperture ("nose narrow"), a small mouth, facial angle of 100°–90°, and orthognathism, exemplified by what Blumenbach saw in most ancient Greek crania and statues. Later anthropologists of the 19th and early 20th century such as Pritchard, Pickering, Broca, Topinard, Morton, Peschel, Seligman, Bean, Ripley, Haddon and Dixon came to recognize other Caucasoid morphological features, such as prominent supraorbital ridges and a sharp nasal sill. Many anthropologists in the 20th century used the term "Caucasoid" in their literature, such as Boyd, Gates, Coon, Cole, Brues and Krantz replacing the earlier term "Caucasian" as it had fallen out of usage.
According to George W. Gill and other modern forensic anthropologists, physical traits of Caucasoid crania are generally distinct from those of the Mongoloid and Negroid races. They assert that they can identify a Caucasoid skull with an accuracy of up to 95%. However, Alan H. Goodman cautions that this precision estimate is often based on methodologies using subsets of samples. He also argues that scientists have a professional and ethical responsibility to avoid such biological analyses since they could potentially have sociopolitical effects.
Typical Caucasoid cranial features include:
- An orthognathic profile, with minimal protrusion of the lower part of the face (little or no prognathism).
- Retreating zygomatic bones (cheekbones), making the face look more "pointed".
- Narrow nasal aperture, with a tear-shaped nasal cavity (nasal fossa).
Other physical characteristics of Caucasoids include hair texture that varies from straight to curly, with wavy (cymotrichous) hair most typical on average according to Coon (1962), in contrast to the Negroid and Mongoloid races. Individual hairs are also rarely as sparsely distributed and coarse as found in Mongoloids.
Skin color amongst Caucasoids ranges greatly, from pale, reddish-white, olive, through to dark brown tones.
In the 19th century Meyers Konversations-Lexikon (1885–90), Caucasoid was one of the three great races of humankind, alongside Mongoloid and Negroid. The taxon was taken to consist of a number of subtypes. The Caucasoid peoples were usually divided into three groups on ethnolinguistic grounds, termed Aryan (Indo-European), Semitic (Semitic languages), and Hamitic (Hamitic languages i.e. Berber-Cushitic-Egyptian).
19th century classifications of the peoples of India considered the Dravidians of non-Caucasoid stock as Australoid or a separate Dravida race, and assumed a gradient of miscegenation of high-caste Caucasoid Aryans and indigenous Dravidians. In his 1939 The Races of Europe, Carleton S. Coon thus described the Veddoid race as "possess[ing] an obvious relationship with the aborigines of Australia, and possibly a less patent one with the Negritos" and as "the most important element in the Dravidian-speaking population of southern India". In his later The Living Races of Man (1965), Coon considerably amended his views, acknowledging that "India is the easternmost outpost of the Caucasoid racial region". However, he still recognized an Australoid substrate throughout the subcontinent, writing that "the earliest peoples who have left recognizable survivors were both Caucasoid and Australoid food gatherers. Some of the survivors are largely Caucasoid; others are largely Australoid."
There was no universal consensus of the validity of the "Caucasoid" grouping within those who attempted to categorize human variation. Thomas Henry Huxley in 1870 wrote that the "absurd denomination of 'Caucasian'" was in fact a conflation of his Xanthochroi and Melanochroi types.
In 1920, H. G. Wells referred to the Mediterranean race as the Iberian race. He regarded it as a fourth sub-race of the Caucasoid race, along with the Aryan, Semitic, and Hamitic sub-races. He stated that the main ethnic group that most purely represented the racial stock of the Iberian race was the Basques, and that the Basques were the descendants of the Cro-Magnons.
Wells argued that across the European and Mediterranean area and western Asia there were, and had been for many thousand years, white peoples usually called the Caucasians, subdivided into two or three subdivisions, the northern blonds or Nordic race, an alleged intermediate race about which many authorities are doubtful, the so-called Alpine race and the southern dark whites, the Mediterranean or Iberian race.
Historically, the racial classification of the Turkic peoples was sometimes given as "Turanid". Turanid racial type or "minor race", subtype of the Europid (Caucasian) race with Mongoloid admixtures, situated at the boundary of the distribution of the Mongoloid and Europid "great races".
According to Carleton Coon, the earliest center of evolution of Caucasoids is uncertain, but it is unlikely to have been located in Europe.
Among the earliest anatomically modern human settlements in Europe were established in Kostenki-Borshchevo, Voronezh Oblast in southwestern Russia. Ancient DNA sequencing of a 37,000-year-old male skeleton from the area, Kostenki XIV or Markina Gora, indicates that these early settlers possessed a similar genetic makeup as modern Europeans, but had dark skin and dark eyes. They also possessed slightly more Neanderthal genes than modern populations in Europe and Asia due to interbreeding with Neanderthals over 45,000 years ago. In a study of Cro-Magnon crania, Jantz and Owsley (2003) have noted that these "Upper Paleolithic crania are, for the most part, larger and more generalized versions of recent Europeans."
William Howells (1997) has argued that Cro-Magnons were Caucasoid based on their cranial traits:
... the Cro-Magnons were already racially European, i.e., Caucasoid. This has always been accepted because of the general appearance of the skulls: straight faces, narrow noses, and so forth. It is also possible to test this arithmetically. ... Except for Predmosti 4, which is distant from every present and past population, all of these skulls show themselves to be closer to "Europeans" than to other peoples — Mladec and Abri Pataud comfortably so, the other two much more remotely.
Carleton Coon (1962) argued that Caucasoid traits emerged prior to the Cro-Magnons, and were present in the Skhul and Qafzeh hominids. He considered the Skhul IV specimen as a proto-Caucasoid. Coon further asserted that the Caucasoid race is of dual origin, consisting of Mediterranean types (purely Homo sapiens) and Upper Paleolithic types (mixture of Homo sapiens and Neanderthals).
More recent analysis of Cro-Magnon fossils indicates that they had larger skulls than modern populations, and possessed a dolichocephalic (long-headed) and low cranium, with a wide face. It also suggests that some Cro-Magnons may have had brown skin.
Usage in the United States
In the United States, the term "Caucasoid" is used in disciplines such as craniometry, epidemiology, forensic anthropology and medicine and forensic archaeology. It is also associated with notions of racial typology.
Besides its use in anthropology and related fields, the term "Caucasian" has often been used in the United States in a different, social context to describe a group commonly called "White people". "White" also appears as a self-reporting entry in the U.S. Census. Between 1917 and 1965, immigration to the United States was restricted by a national origins quota. The Supreme Court in United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923) decided that Asian Indians were ineligible for citizenship because, though deemed "Caucasian" anthropologically, they were not white like European descendants since most laypeople did not consider them to be "white" people. This represented a change from the Supreme Court's earlier opinion in Ozawa v. United States, in which it had expressly approved of two lower court cases holding "high caste Hindus" to be "free white persons" within the meaning of the naturalization act. Government lawyers later recognized that the Supreme Court had "withdrawn" this approval in Thind. In 1946, the U.S. Congress passed a new law establishing a small immigration quota for Indians, which also permitted them to become citizens. Major changes to immigration law, however, only later came in 1965, when many earlier racial restrictions on immigration were lifted. This is where the confusion on whether American Hispanics are included as "white," as the term Hispanic originally applied to Spanish heritage but has since expanded to include all people with Hispanophone ancestry. In other countries, the term Hispanic is not nearly as associated with race, but with the Spanish language and cultural affiliation.
The United States National Library of Medicine often used the term "Caucasian" as a race in the past. However, it later discontinued such usage in favor of the more narrow geographical term European, which traditionally only applied to a subset of Caucasoids.