A replica skull of a species belonging to the human family tree is held by multiple people at the Maropeng Museum, South Africa.

A replica hominid skull is handled at the unveiling of a newly discovered species at Maropeng Museum, in Magaliesburg, South Africa, in 2013.Credit: AP/Shutterstock

Bones and Bodies: How South African Scientists Studied Race Alan G. Morris Wits Univ. Press (2022)

In 1913, the skull dubbed Boskop Man was discovered in South Africa. Many leading palaeoanthropologists quickly came to regard this large-brained, anatomically modern human fossil from the Middle Stone Age (280,000–30,000 years ago) as an early version of the ‘Bushman’ (a term for the San-speaking peoples of southern Africa). They described it as “a degenerate form of human”, intellectually inferior to contemporary Europeans.

A decade later, Raymond Dart — who first described the Australopithecus africanus fossil known as the Taung Child — encountered evidence of past African cultures such as the Nyanga terrace complex in Zimbabwe, thought to have been used in agriculture from 1300 to 1900, along with traces of ancient precolonial gold mining in the mountains of Nyanga. He asserted that ancient African peoples must have had contact with European and Asian empires — denying their capabilities to produce evidence of civilization independently.

In Bones and Bodies, forensic anthropologist Alan Morris takes us on a journey to the past, revealing such nefarious, racist interpretations of historically important fossils and artefacts related to the origin of humanity. The tour is fascinating, demoralizing and insightful. Combing through more than 100 years of scholarship, Morris lays bare how anthropologists built a ‘scientific’ justification for the low status they afforded peoples of African descent, particularly in South Africa, and how this justification became part of a systematic effort to ensure African peoples’ disenfranchisement.

Long shadow

Dart, an Australian, was just one of the luminaries who put southern Africa on the palaeoanthropological map. Others included Thomas Dreyer who, in 1932, discovered a 259,000-year-old skull from Homo heidelbergensis in South Africa; Matthew Drennan, a Scot who migrated to South Africa in 1913 to become a lecturer in anatomy at the precursor of today’s University of Cape Town; and Robert Broom who, in 1936, began collecting hundreds of australopithecine specimens including the first adult A. africanus, found at Sterkfontein in South Africa.

Despite their brilliance, hard work and good fortune, these men did studies marred by racist assumptions and interpretations. They contributed to the ‘scientific’ groundwork for the legally mandated apartheid system that institutionally deprived Indigenous Black southern African peoples of equitable treatment economically, educationally, residentially and in health care. The applications of racist paradigms informed both the official government-sanctioned apartheid system and the casual, informal apartheid that regulated interpersonal interactions in southern Africa.

Aerial view of the Cradle of Humankind, a paleoanthropological site in Gauteng Province, South Africa.

A site known as the Cradle of Humankind, South Africa, has yielded many fossils.Credit: Patrick Landmann/Science Photo Library

Morris walks through the historical sequence of key palaeoanthropology findings in South Africa, setting each in an international context. The importance of these discoveries cannot be underestimated. Without them, we would have continued to have a Eurasian-centric, and thus faulty, view of early human evolution. Morris reveals where racial bias and skewed interpretations entered the scientific process. It was, for instance, inconceivable to these early palaeoanthropologists that the original black inhabitants of southern Africa, who occupied Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa two million years ago, gave rise to people who created cryptic stone cities and ancient civilizations (such as the Great Zimbabwe stone houses that date back 900 years), and conceived and occupied the Bakoni Ruins of Machadodorp, South Africa, within the past 4,000 years. These researchers found it impossible to acknowledge that the creativity and intellectual merit of ancient black southern African peoples are linked directly to the contemporary residents of the region, given these people’s presumed inferiority.

Deeply embedded notions of white supremacy and privilege in palaeoanthropology did not cause South Africa’s racist apartheid system, but they strengthened it. The work of anatomists, anthropologists and archaeologists routinely posited the inferiority of African people.

Challenging racism

After decades of slow social progress in southern Africa and spurred by local and external agitation, the apartheid environment began to yield under the pressure to become a setting in which the tenets of the prejudicial system could be challenged. Southern Rhodesia ultimately became the independent Republic of Zimbabwe in 1980. South West Africa was under South African control until it attained independence as Namibia in 1990. Apartheid South Africa finally freed itself to become the majority-controlled nation of South Africa in 1994.

This spurred local South African scientists to challenge the racist interpretations of the past centuries. Noteworthy among these researchers was Phillip Tobias, a palaeoanthropologist at the University of th3e Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. In addition to his central role in the discoveries at the Sterkfontein caves in the 1940s and 1950s, he called for the eradication of apartheid in numerous academic speeches and papers in the 1970s and 1980s. Tobias also facilitated the repatriation to post-apartheid South Africa of the remains of Saartjie Baartman, a southern African Khoekhoe woman disparagingly exhibited in Europe in the nineteenth century as the ‘Hottentot Venus’. Another important figure was Ronald Singer, a South African transplant to the University of Chicago in Illinois, who led the 1953 expedition that resulted in the discovery of the Saldanha skull, a key specimen of early H. heidelbergensis. These scholars expanded palaeoanthropology: by championing more-inclusive methodologies, they provided an opening for less racist interpretations of their own and earlier fossil finds.

Bones and Bodies showcases the contradictions inherent in interpreting profound fossils and artefacts while being constrained by a restrictive world view. Such clashes can lead scholars to develop circuitous and self-serving explanations for otherwise important, straightforward finds. A salient message here is that we must all be on guard for deeply held but incorrect (and ultimately debilitating) biases. Stephen Jay Gould’s 1981 book The Mismeasure of Man showed how easily the US physician Samuel Morton intentionally misclassified human skulls in the early nineteenth century. He claimed, in his book Crania Americana (1839), that Europeans had the biggest brains, Native Americans had intermediate brain sizes and Black Africans had the smallest brains and, thus, the lowest intelligence. This was an attempt to give scientific justification to the lie of African inferiority and suitability for enslavement and servitude.

The delays in recognizing how racism damages and paralyses science remind us how much stamina is required to become anti-racist. White privilege and presumed superiority in all matters of importance have been the norm for so long that it has become a fundamental construct of Western societies. To counter this deeply embedded narrative, as Morris does, requires courage, especially when you have been a beneficiary of these prejudicial practices. To recognize, expose and call out the racism in science is not easy, particularly in the hallowed halls of academia.

In confronting the racial typology of my discipline, the book does a great service to palaeoanthropology and biological anthropology. In a white-dominated society, people of colour often feel obliged to minimize racism and comfort the defensiveness of white people, including scholars. This imbalance in sensitivities makes Morris’s insights that much more profound. His recognition of the scientific racism of the past is invaluable, both for correcting the record and for providing cautionary guidelines for present and future researchers.