Perspectives: Cultural Biases Reflected in the Hominid Fossil Record

Cultural Biases Reflected in the Hominid Fossil Record

By Joshua Barbach and Craig Byron

Abstract: An examination of the published hominid fossil record reveals political and cultural bias. An example of this societal influence is the Age of Enlightenment of the mid-19th century. Prevailing European ideology established specifically Eurocentric recovery patterns. Later developments, such as the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis in the mid-1900s, led to an increasingly sophisticated understanding of humanity’s origins. These developments are reflected by an increase in the recovery and publication of Asian and African fossil hominid sites.


The discipline of Anthropology has served the data for several ethnocentric arguments interpreting human antiquity. Biometrics and modern human variation have been the vehicle for racist programs throughout the 19th and early 20th century. A significant factor of this equation is the prevailing view of human origins. Specifically, the geographic location of fossil humans has been used to argue for continuity of modern people and their pre-historic fossil counterparts. Given this factor, a differential recovery of fossils between continental regions could lead to misunderstood notions of human evolution.

An examination of the published human fossil record reveals a significant bias favoring the European continent. The early stages of human fossil recovery are near entirely contained within Europe throughout the 1800s. As discussed below, we believe this to be the product of several cultural biases. Of these were prevailing notions of science and man’s place in nature. Also, the individual biases inherent with each researcher severely limited any collecting or interpretational activities. Not until the modern theoretical framework of human evolution was established do significant human fossil localities create a more representable spatial and temporal pattern of pre-history. As evidenced by the line graph in figure 1, the early to mid-1900s (~ 1900–1950) saw a surge of fossil localities being recorded from the Asian and African continents.

A major cause in the rise of human fossil localities was the changing view of man by the scientific community. In this view, the integration of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, Mendel’s principles of heredity and genetics, and the molecular evidence for DNA combined to forge the New Evolutionary Synthesis or otherwise referred to as the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis. This new paradigm opened the Asian and African continents to a changed collecting pattern.


We used Oakley et al’s Catalogue of Fossil Hominids, Parts I, II, III as well as Wu and Poirier’s Human Evolution in China: A Metric Description of the Fossils and a Review of the Sites in order to note the year of publication for recorded hominid fossil localities. Fossil sites within the localities were also used as this better represents the wealth of material from different regions. For example, the number of fossil localities in Africa and Asia is significantly smaller than in Europe. However, the number of sites with localities in Africa and Asia dwarf the single site/single locality trend we see in Europe, figure 3. The publication date was chosen, as opposed to the collection date, to more accurately represent the year in which the scientific community could be influenced. The year of publication was plotted against the number of human fossil localities recorded from three continents, Africa, Asia and Europe. The patterns emerged from this were interpreted with the development of scientific philosophy throughout the past two centuries. Specifically, the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis provided a newly productive approach as indicated in the published Anthropology literature.


Of extreme importance when considering human fossils is the notion of man’s place in nature and the understanding of evolutionary processes by the ‘culture’ that discovers and describes these fossils. An interpretation always operates according to the limits set by the interpreter and the environment in which the interpretation takes place. A severely limiting notion held by the Western community throughout the past two millennia was Plato’s Typology represented by such works as Republic. It is in the seventh book of this collection, The Allegory of the Cave, that deals with the notion of typology. This long-accepted notion of physical reality posited that all objects, including animals and people, were unable to mimic their ideal form. As a result, variation in attributes reflects the imperfection in nature which is attempting to produce ideal types.

Specifically, the work of Johann F. Blumenbach, 1752–1840, is shaped according to this philosophy. Blumenbach was committed to the idea of monogenism, in which proponents interpreted the human races as unified and descended from a single origin. Operating under this view of the human races and Plato’s Typology, Blumenbach created an argument that helped forge the early paradigm for the search of human fossils. It was his belief that Caucasians represented the Platonic Ideal and that all other human races, descended from the same origin according to the monogenist philosophy, were divergences from this ideal type (Wolpoff and Caspari 1997:62). Essentially, Blumenbach emplaced a search and recovery model for human fossils according to the regional location of the ideal human type, i.e. Europe.

Also during this time, early 1800s, the scientific community at large was dealing with the notion of man’s place in the natural world. Chevalier de Larmarck, 1744–1829, first presented the notion of evolution as an explanation for the diversity but yet unity of all life on earth. His Zoological Philosophy, of 1809, presented a natural philosophy for the plants and animals around the world (Birx 1984:12). Where humans figured into this naturalist philosophy was controversial. If man was a product of this natural process of evolution, some felt their view of religion, and more specifically Christianity, was compromised. It was through the work of Ludwig Feuerbach, 1804–1872, that helped place man in this natural realm of evolution. Feurbach was a German theologist and philosopher who broke from the German idealists (Leibniz, Kant and Hegel) by positing a new school of thought known as naturalist humanism. This philosophy featured a scientific and rational attitude towards man in nature. More importantly, our species was seen as an evolved animal; we were the product of an evolutionary process (Birx 1984:8).

The Age of Enlightenment, mid-1800s, synthesized many of these newly emerging philosophies as well as sciences such as geology, paleontology and archaeology. A new worldview was gleaned from this growing body of evidence arguing for human evolution (Birx 1984:12). The Age of Enlightenment saw a new view for European pre-history provided by Jacques Boucher de Perthes and Christian Thomson. Boucher de Perthes published his study of hominid fossils associated with Paleolithic artifacts in 1836. The evidence of these artifacts associated with extinct faunal remains argued for the antiquity of man in France (Schick and Toth 1993:61). Thomson was from Denmark and invented the three age system, (Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age), which was used throughout the world. This system was created to interpret European pre-history. A major bias occurs simply as the result of applying this specifically European concept to the pre-history of the other continents.

Throughout this time, the revolution of scientific philosophy was an insular occurrence. The European continent saw this change in worldview. Africa and Asia were little, if at all, affected by this paradigm shift. We think it follows then that the recovery of fossils in Europe and their interpretation as having to do with man’s ancestry were contingent upon the paradigms set in place by the Age of Enlightenment.

One of the most influential ideas to come from the Age of Enlightenment was Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection. This theory synthesized what had been floating in the circles of progressive philosophy. By the end of the 1800s, most of Western and Eastern European naturalists accepted this view (Birx 1984:18). Unfortunately, Darwin’s view of man’s ancestral affinities to apes and the location of those fossils was ignored by many. The idea of deep human ancestry in Africa or Asia was difficult to accept and a full realization of this notion does not occur until the mid-20th century.

Arthur Shopenhauer, 1788–1860, was an early proponent of man’s ape origins. His was a metaphysical approach as evidenced by The World as Will and Representation, Vol. 2, published in 1844. Shopenhauer argued that humans were born from a chimpanzee in Africa and an orangutan in Asia (Birx 1984:27). His idea was perhaps too outlandish coming from a non-scientific approach. No real understanding of biological evolution and man’s origins were taken from this. However, his opinion of man’s ape ancestry was unique to human evolutionary thought and not until a few years later would this issue be addressed.

Charles Darwin, 1809–1882, in his book Descent of Man published in 1871, synthesized the views of two of his colleagues Huxley and Haeckel. It was in this book where Darwin first stated man was a product of the same evolutionary forces that produced the rest of the biological variation we see in the world. In the scope of his work, Darwin brought together the work of several natural historians as well as the two pillars of Western society, Aristotle and Aquinas, and created a revolution in scientific thought. It was in this important work that Darwin proposed man’s common ancestry with apes. Because of this, evidence would be found on the continent of Africa (Birx 1984:140).

This notion of ape ancestry was called, by Huxley, Haeckel and Darwin, the pithecometra thesis. This idea first postulated by Thomas Henry Huxley in his 1863 essay On the Origin of Species, stated that man was more closely related to apes than apes were to monkeys. Therefore, if one is to find evidence of this close ancestry to apes and humans, the regions where modern apes are found should be the focal point. This was a bold statement but typical from Huxley, 1825–1895, who operated as ‘Darwin’s bulldog’ by staunchly defending Darwin’s ideas.

Another of Darwin’s colleagues was Ernst Heinrich Haeckel, 1834–1919. Haeckel agreed with Huxley on many aspects of the pithecometra thesis. However, he frequently lectured on the Asian origin of this “missing link”. Consequently, Eugene Dubois, a student of Haeckel’s indoctrinated with the idea of Asian hominid origins, traveled to Java, Indonesia in 1890–1892. It was on this expedition when Dubois made an incredible discovery of Homo erectus in Asia. Otherwise known as ‘Java Man’, this specimen was validation of man’s deep ancestry outside of Europe (Birx 1984:160).

The pithecometra thesis and the work of Darwin, Huxley and Haeckel did much to liberate the European scientific community of its Eurocentric biases. However, their work did not directly cause a change. It would take a later revolution in evolutionary thought, i.e. The Neo-Darwinian Synthesis of the early to mid-1900s, to cause a change in the recovery of fossils from regions outside Europe. Evidence of this refusal to accept the fossils that began to trickle in from Asia and Africa in the late 1800s and early 1900s was the Piltdown Hoax.

The perpetrator of this hoax is uncertain but the year and location indicate a refusal of the growing evidence for man’s antiquity outside of Europe. In 1912 England a fossil was presented and called Piltdown Man. This specimen was the mosaic of ape and human features the scientific community had been looking for in order to argue human/ape affinities. A high, globular braincase indicated human-like features while the robust jaw and molars resembled apes. This fossil was used as proof of human evolution in England. With the ‘discovery’ of this specimen, actual fossil specimens of the now recognized australopithecine genus coming from Africa were being ignored. Raymond Dart, who had a fossil skull of an actual hominid showing human-ape affinities from South Africa was made a joke. Later in the 1950s, as the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis had thoroughly saturated the European scientific community, people could not ignore the significant Australopithecus fossils coming from Africa and the Piltdown Man fossil was re-evaluated. Upon closer inspection, the cranium was discovered to be of a modern human and the jaw was from a modern orangutan. The molars had been filed down to match those of the human upper molars and the surface of this specimen had been painted to give it the appearance of having been buried for a long time (Schick and Toth 1993:65). The rejection of this fossil in the 1950s removed a significant barrier blocking the European scientific community’s view of a more accurate human origin.

The Legacy of the French: Paul Broca, Professional Anthropology and Polygenism

Paul Broca initially earned fame in France as an anatomist, in particular for studying neuroanatomy. Having achieved high celebrity, Broca founded the Société d’Anthropologie de Paris in 1859. The following year, the Bulletins de la Société d’Anthropologie were published. The first issue of the second volume clearly shows what “anthropology” was to the French, and particularly Broca:

“The aim of the Société d’Anthropologie is the scientific study of human races” (1861).

Broca’s polygenic view of humanity was further evident in another quote:

“I am among those who think that the great typical differences which separate human groups are primordial” (1862).

Nevertheless, Broca’s Société was a success and led to the establishment of the Laboratoire d’Anthropologie in 1867, and more significantly, the École d’Anthropologie in the Collège de France in 1876. The École d’Anthropologie was the first “modern” anthropology department and featured chairs for: Zoological Anthropology, General Anthropology, Physiological Anthropology, Prehistoric Anthropology (= Archaeology), History of Civilization, Medical Geography, Ethnology-Philology-Mythology, and Demography. Broca effectively founded professional anthropology in France. Furthermore, his school served as the model when anthropology grew in other countries. Unfortunately, Broca’s school came from “the tradition of typological essentialism inherited from Medieval Neoplatonism”(Brace 1995).

Broca’s polygenic influence was carried through WWI by his disciples, Paul Topinard and Joseph Deniker. When the “Allies” won the war, the outlook of the victors, in this case the French, gained in prestige. The saddest point of Broca’s polygenic legacy is that it legitimized blatantly racist policy. “Much of polygenism’s support came from its being considered a science, as opposed to the religious dogma associated with monogenism” (Wolpoff, et al 1997). Only after decades of embarrassment over anthropology’s racist history, and the outrage over Nazi Germany’s “Eugenics” was the place of polygenism in anthropology put to an end.


The Neo-Darwinian Synthesis, otherwise known as the New Evolutionary Synthesis, was the product of several scientific endeavors including Mendel’s experiments in heredity and genetics with pea plants, Darwin’s theory of natural selection, and Watson and Cricks molecular identification of DNA. Evolution now had a theoretical means, process and mechanism. The integration of these fields were, in part, done at the urging of paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson and others in the 1930s. With this new synthesis came new fossil discoveries. The Taung Skull in 1924, Peking Man in 1926 and Mary and Louis Leakey’s excavations at Olduvai Gorge provided fossil evidence to alter the misunderstood notions of man’s deep antiquity in Europe. It is our belief that this history of evolutionary thought is sufficient to explain the European human fossil bias as seen in figure 1.

Literature Cited

Birx, James H. 1984. Theories of Human Evolution. Charles C. Thomas, Publisher. Springfield, Illinois.

Brace, C.L. 1995. Race is a Four Letter Word, Course Manuscript, University of Michigan.

Day, M.H. 1986. Guide to Fossil Man. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Oakley, K.P., B.G. Campbell, and T.I. Molleson. 1971. Catalogue of Fossil Hominids, Part II: Europe. British Museum (Natural History), London.

Oakley, K.P., B.G. Campbell, and T.I. Molleson. 1975. Catalogue of Fossil Hominids, Part III: Americas, Asia, Australia. British Museum (Natural History), London.

Oakley, K.P., B.G. Campbell, and T.I. Molleson. 1977. Catalogue of Fossil Hominids, Part I: Africa (Second Edition). British Museum (Natural History), London.

Schick, K.D., and N. Toth. 1993. Making Silent Stones Speak: Human Evolution and the Dawn of Technology. Simon and Schuster, New York, NY.

Wolpoff, W., and R. Caspari. 1997. Race and Human Evolution. Simon and Schuster, New York, NY.

Wu, X., and F.E. Poirier. 1995. Human Evolution in China: A Metric Description of the Fossils and a Review of the Sites. Oxford University Press, Oxford.