Language Pulsations: Caucasian

View of the Pankisi Gorge in the Caucasus (via pankisi.org)

Once in a while, confused and flawed ideas about race translate into weird and stubborn language holdovers. Take the designator “Caucasian.” Although this term did not appear on this year’s census, it is, as Wikipedia puts it, a term that “continues to be widely used in many scientific and general contexts.” A 1996 scientific paper in the journal Bone (which sounds more like a Goth webzine than an academic publication) describes “the effect of socioeconomic status on bone density in a male Caucasian.” For some reason, cops in police television dramas and movies tend to identify suspects as “Caucasian” rather than just calling them “white.” Other examples are from Kill Bill“Silly Caucasian girl likes to play with Samurai swords” (Kill Bill Vol. 1, 2003)and Superbad“He was Caucasian, kind of looked like Eminem, does that help?” (Superbad, 2007).

It’s an unfortunate contradiction that this most unscientific of scientific terms should retain a place in science. Because, of course, after a bit of thought one quickly realizes that the designator “Caucasian” refers to the Caucasus, a mountain range between the Black Sea and the Caspian. These mountains spread themselves out through Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, and northern Iran, as well as southern Russian so-called autonomous regions including Dagestan and Chechnya. It’s a fascinating region with an intricate history that blends multifarious cultural influences. But as far as I know it’s not where my recent ancestors came from, or Uma Thurman’s, or Eminem’s, even though we are all supposedly “Caucasian.”

To find out why, we must flash back to Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840), a German anthropologist and craniologist, who, like many other scholars of the time, classified races on the basis of skin colors and bodily measurements. Blumenbach had published extensively regarding his theory of “the kindredness of human races” when, in 1793, he received what he considered an especially comely skull. The skull had belonged to a woman from Georgia.

A view of Mt Ararat from Armenia

In a Yale University conference paper, Nell Painter writes that, for centuries, Circassian peoples and Georgians had been “famed for their beauty,” while other peoples located in the Caucasian region, such as Kalmucks, were considered ugly. In addition, Georgians, due to the predominance of Christianity in their lands, “had been more readily accepted as honorary Europeans” compared to their Muslim northern Caucasus neighbors.

The Caucasus had other symbolic, mythical connotations in the minds of 18-19th century Europeans. Greek mythology placed figures such as the suffering Prometheus, the magical Medea and Circe, and the adventurous Jason in the Caucasus. It was supposed by some that Noah’s Ark had come to rest on Mount Ararat, now located on the Turkey-Iran-Armenia borders but which Marco Polo had long ago located as being in Armenia, making southern Caucasians the most primordial of all Europeans.

Right, Blumenbach; Left, the three races: Caucasian (top, facing forward), Ethiopian (in profile), and Mongolian

Not surprisingly, Blumenbach declared that the skull was typical of the “Caucasian race,” one that, according to his theory of five races, also subsumed the peoples of Europe. Thus, Caucasian became a “super-race” of white people–at least, the ones that Blumenbach thought were good-looking. According to Painter, “Blumenbach borrowed the name ‘Caucasian’ from a reactionary colleague who was interested in setting Germans and Aryans at the top of the white heap.” (The implication was that the likes of Kalmuks and “Negroids” were heaped beneath everyone else.)

As it turns out, Blumenbach was influential and well-connected (and not entirely a racist pseudoscientist), and his theories were seen to have unimpeachable scientific pedigree. His theory of five races spread steadily from his scholarly writings into those of his contemporaries, carrying with it the term “Caucasian.” Eventually, the five racial categories were further condensed into three: Caucasian, Mongolian, and Ethiopian.

Epilogue: Eventually, the mythological sheen of the Caucasus wore off, and subsequent archaeologists proposed rankings of races within Europe, making the bulk term “Caucasian” obsolete. That is, until the American “melting pot,” where different white Europeans came and surrendered their national identities for the “American” one, revived the term up till the present day. You can read a good overview of “whiteness studies” here.

In the 2000’s, archaeologists at the fecund archaeological site in Dmanisi, Georgia discovered the fossils of a hominid which, due to its surprisingly early dating, was termed “The First European.” Maybe Blumenbach was on to something after all. And maybe John McCain was also on to something when he said “We are all Georgians”!

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