A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Why do we say "Caucasian" to mean a person of European ancestry?

October 10, 2002

Dear Straight Dope:

Caucasian can refer to the mountains of east Europe and the peoples that are native to this area. However, not all those who are referred to as Caucasian are actually connected to this part of the world, are they? Why do we refer to people of European descent as Caucasian?

The term Caucasian meaning the so-called white or European race originated with Johann Frederich Blumenbach (1752-1840), a German professor of natural history in Göttingen. Blumenbach is arguably the founder of scientific anthropology. He viewed mankind as an object of natural history--an animal like any other, although superior to the rest. He surveyed characteristics of human races, mapped their distribution, and invented comparative physiological anatomy.

While he observed many traits, he felt that the skull was the ultimate measure and indicator of race. Based on skull measurements, he classified five races: American, Caucasian, Ethiopian, Malayan, and Mongolian.

He selected a skull from Georgia (the one next to Russia) that he thought was the ideal of the Caucasian race, so named because of the Caucasus mountains that form Georgia's northern border. He thought that the Caucasus region was the home of a hypothetical race (for a time called Aryans, later Indo-Europeans), who many believe spoke a protolanguage from which many modern languages derive.  By the way, the word "Caucasus" is from the Greek Kaukasos (Mt Caucasus), which gave the region its name.

His views are no longer held, of course. But don't get the wrong idea about Blumenbach. He viewed his work as purely scientific and vigorously attacked any political or social abuses of his race classifications. For instance, he is on record opposing the notion that blacks were a "lower level of humanity" than whites. The use of racial classifications as a political and social weapon to put down "lesser" races came from others.

The word "Caucasian" is still sometimes used in popular terminology, but has no scientific meaning. Webster's New 20th Century Dictionary says the word is used "in default of better" and defines it as "one of the main ethnic divisions of the human race: [including] Mediterranean, Alpine, and Nordic subdivisions . . . loosely called the white race."

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