MCEAS Seminar: “Crania Peruviana: Samuel G. Morton, Philadelphia’s Incas, and an Andean Foundation for American Anthropology”

Christopher Heaney, Pennsylvania State University

MCEAS, University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, PA)

Friday, November 4, 2016 11:16 am EDT

“Crania Peruana” locates U.S. anthropology’s origins within an earlier stream of Peruvian encounters with the “ancient,” “civilized” indigenous past. It shows that craniologist Samuel George Morton’s seminal text, Crania Americana (1839), began as an attempt to resolve the supposed contradiction of two “facts” carried to Philadelphia after Peru’s declared independence in 1821: that the skulls of “ancient Peruvians” and Incas were comparatively small; and that colonial and contemporary texts argued that they nonetheless possessed “an advanced civilization.” Phrenologists and anti-phrenologists alike attacked when they realized that Morton believed Peruvian texts over the conclusions suggested by his own measurements, which threatened the asserted correlation between skull size and shape and civility. Morton retreated, recasting his work—and his later and more insidious Crania Aegyptiaca (1844)—as demonstrating more inflexible hierarchies, in which small skulls solely evidenced an aptness for domination, and the now-somewhat-civilized Peruvian dead could be averaged into the American Indian race without contradicting the latter’s inferior position. Besides demonstrating the importance of a longue durée Latin American approach to the history of anthropology, this essay thus seeks to clarify the famed debate over Morton’s biases—begun by Stephen Jay Gould and continued by bioanthropologists—in a way we would not expect: that Morton was biased in favor of an ancient and civilized American dead, whom he only abandoned when forced to grapple with his own apparently solid measurements. Peruvian skulls remained “good to think with,” however, becoming a justifying core of still larger American collections of Indian dead.

Everyone attending the seminar should read the paper in advance. For increased security, seminar papers will be individually password protected. Papers will be available for downloading for a limited time. You will be able to download a copy of this paper until 11 November 2016. Please visit for download instructions.