The Morton Cranial Collection

19th century physical anthropologists had a nasty habit of picking up skeletal remains for their own personal collections. They raided burial mounds, stole from cemeteries and bought them up whenever possible. This is how a number of famous collections of bones came together. One of the most controversial and highly studied is the Morton Collection from the University of Pennsylvania. Samuel Morton gathered up a large collection of human skulls from all around the world and used these in his scientific analyses in the early 19th century. He used measurements from the skulls to argue for polygenesis, the idea that the ethnic groups of man are separate species. While Morton’s conclusions were not long held in favor, his scientific measurements and methods were viewed as being of the highest caliber.

University of Penn, Morton Collection, Flickr Image

In 1981, Stephen Gould reexamined and determined that even Morton’s measurements were biased. Gould argued that Morton mismeasured, selectively reported data and made of number of sampling and mathematical errors that shaped his perspective. This led Gould to conclude that scientists cannot produce unbiased results because they are too rooted in the cultural context.

Over the past year, anthropologists from California and Pennsylvania have reexamined the skulls, testing both Morton’s and Gould’s measurements. They tested Morton’s conclusions and Gould’s conclusions by doing the measurements of both studies on a 46% of the original sample. Indeed there was error, but it was not with Morton’s measurements. They found that Gould’s interpretations were not based off Morton’s samples, but his own arbitrary samples which included individuals who skewed the bias more in his favor. By breaking down each of Gould’s criticisms, they argue that Morton did not unconsciously or consciously bias his sample but rather was simply limited by the methods and knowledge of the time period.

Here is a video from the University of Pennsylvania showing the skeletal collections:

For more information on the study, you can see it here: The Mismeasure of Science: Gould versus Morton

For another breakdown of the study, see Kristina Killgrove’s summary: Gould’s Straw Man or Past Horizons review Morton Skulls at Center of Controversy

For information on the collection see Samuel J. Morton Skeletal Collection: New Research and history by Emily Renschler and Janet Monge

[This article was cited in the Society for Archaeological Sciences Bulletin for Fall 2011:]

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