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Carleton Stevens Coon, (23 June 1904 – 3 June 1981) was an American physical anthropologist, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, lecturer and professor at Harvard, and president of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.[1]



Carleton Coon was born in Wakefield, Massachusetts. He developed an interest in prehistory, and attended Phillips Academy, Andover where he studied hieroglyphics and became proficient in ancient Greek. Coon matriculated to Harvard, where he studied Egyptology with George Reisner. He was attracted to the relatively new field of anthropology by Earnest Hooton and he graduated magna cum laude in 1925. He became the Curator of Ethnology at the University Museum of Philadelphia.[2]

Coon continued with coursework at Harvard. He conducted fieldwork in the Rif area of Morocco in 1925, which was politically unsettled after a rebellion of the local populace against the Spanish. He earned his Ph.D. in 1928[3] and returned to Harvard as a lecturer and later a professor. Coon's interest was in attempting to use Darwin's theory of natural selection to explain the differing physical characteristics of races. Coon studied Albanians from 1929-1930; he traveled to Ethiopia in 1933; and in Arabia, North Africa and the Balkans, he worked on sites from 1925 to 1939, where he discovered a Neanderthal in 1939. Coon rewrote William Z. Ripley's 1899 The Races of Europe in 1939.

Coon wrote widely for a general audience like his mentor Earnest Hooton. Coon published The Riffians, Flesh of the Wild Ox, Measuring Ethiopia, and A North Africa Story: The Anthropologist as OSS Agent. The North Africa Story was an account of his work in North Africa during World War II, which involved espionage and the smuggling of arms to French resistance groups in German-occupied Morocco under the guise of anthropological fieldwork. During that time, Coon was affiliated with the United States Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner to the Central Intelligence Agency.

Coon left Harvard to take up a position as Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania in 1948, which had an excellent museum. Throughout the 1950s he produced academic papers, as well as many popular books for the general reader, the most notable being The Story of Man (1954).

Coon did photography work for the United States Air Force from 1954-1957. He photographed areas where US planes might be attacked. This led him to travel throughout Korea, Ceylon, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Taiwan, Nepal, Sikkim, and the Philippines.

Coon published The Origin of Races in 1962, but it was not well received. The field of anthropology was moving rapidly from theories of racial typing to sociological explanations, and some of Coon's critics even regarded his work as racist. Coon continued to write and defend his work. He died on June 3, 1981, in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

Racial theories

Coon concluded that sometimes different racial types annihilated other types while in other cases warfare and/or settlement led to the partial displacement of racial types. He asserted that Europe was the refined product of a long history of racial progression. He stated that historically "different strains in one population have showed differential survival values and often one has reemerged at the expense of others (in Europeans)", in The Races of Europe, The White Race and the New World (1939).[4]

He stated the "maximum survival" of the European racial type was increased by the replacement of the indigenous peoples of the New World.[4] He stated the history of the White race to have involved "racial survivals" of White subraces.[5]

Study of the Caucasoid race

In his book The Races of Europe, The White Race and the New World (1939), Coon used the term "Caucasoid" and "White race" synonymously, as had become common in the United States (although not elsewhere). This is in contrast to many uses of the term "White race" that exclude Arabs and those from the Indian subcontinent. Typically Coon would include most people from the Middle East and South Asia within the "Caucasoid" and "White" definitions which he used interchangeably. In his introduction, he stated his interest was "the somatic character of peoples belonging to the white race". His first chapter was entitled, "Introduction to the Historical Study of the White Race", and his last chapter, "The White Race and the New World".[6]

He considered the European racial type to be a sub-race of the Caucasoid race, one which warranted more study. In other sections of The Races of Europe, he mentioned people to be "European in racial type" and having a "European racial element."[7]

Coon suggested that the study of some major versions of European racial types was sadly lacking compared with other types, writing,

"For many years physical anthropologists have found it more amusing to travel to distant lands and to measure small remnants of little known or romantic peoples than to tackle the drudgery of a systematic study of their own compatriots. For that reason the sections in the present book which deal with the Lapps, the Arabs, the Berbers, the Tajiks, and the Ghegs may appear more fully and more lucidly treated than those which deal with the French, the Hungarians, the Czechs, or the English. What is needed more than anything else in this respect is a thoroughgoing study of the inhabitants of the principal and most powerful nations of Europe."[4]

Summary of The Races of Europe[4]
Coon's 1939 book concluded the following:

  1. The Caucasian race is of dual origin consisting of Upper Paleolithic (mixture of sapiens and neandertals) types and Mediterranean (purely sapiens) types.
  2. The Upper Paleolithic peoples are the truly indigenous peoples of Europe.
  3. Mediterraneans invaded Europe in large numbers during the Neolithic period and settled there.
  4. The racial situation in Europe today may be explained as a mixture of Upper Paleolithic survivors and Mediterraneans.
  5. When reduced Upper Paleolithic survivors and Mediterraneans mix, then occurs the process of dinarization which produces a hybrid with non-intermediate features.
  6. The Caucasian race encompasses the regions of Europe, Central Asia, South Asia, the Near East, North Africa, and Northeast Africa.
  7. The Nordic race is part of the Mediterranean racial stock, being a mixture of Corded and Danubian Mediterraneans.

Mediterranean Race

According to Carleton Coon the "homeland and cradle" of the Mediterranean race is in the Middle East, in the area from Morocco to Afghanistan.[8] Coon argued that smaller Mediterraneans traveled by land from the Mediterranean basin north into Europe in the Mesolithic era. Taller Mediterraneans (Atlanto-Mediterraneans) were Neolithic seafarers who sailed in reed-type boats and colonized the Mediterranean basin from a Near Eastern origin.[8]

While often characterized by dark brown hair, dark eyes and robust features, he stressed that Mediterraneans skin is, as a rule, some shade of white from pink to light brown, hair is usually black or dark brown but his whiskers may reveal a few strands of red of even blond, and blond hair is an exception but can be found, and a wide range of eye color can be found. He stressed the central role of the Mediterraneans in his works, claiming "The Mediterraneans occupy the center of the stage; their areas of greatest concentration are precisely those where civilization is the oldest. This is to be expected, since it was they who produced it and it, in a sense, that produced them".[8]

Multiregional model

Carleton Coon believed that each of the five races followed a separate evolutionary path for tens of thousands of years. He believed, "The earliest Homo sapiens known, as represented by several examples from Europe and Africa, was an ancestral long-headed white man of short stature and moderately great brain size." Further, he wrote, "The negro group probably evolved parallel to the white strain." (The Races of Europe, Chapter II) Coon hypothesized that modern humans, Homo sapiens, arose five separate times in five separate places from Homo erectus, "as each subspecies, living in its own territory, passed a critical threshold from a more brutal to a more sapient state".

In his 1962 book, The Origin of Races, Coon theorized that some races reached the Homo sapiens stage in evolution before others, resulting in the higher degree of civilization among some races.[9] He had continued his theory of five races. He considered both what he called the Mongoloid race and the Caucasoid race had individuals who had adapted to crowding through evolution of the endocrine system, which made them more successful in the modern world of civilization. This can be found on pages 108-109 of The Origin of Races. In his book Coon contrasted a picture of an Australian Aborigine called "Topsy" with one of a Chinese professor. His caption "The Alpha and the Omega" was used to demonstrate his research that brain size was positively correlated with intelligence.

Wherever Homo arose, and Africa is at present the most likely continent, he soon dispersed, in a very primitive form, throughout the warm regions of the Old World....If Africa was the cradle of mankind, it was only an indifferent kindergarten. Europe and Asia were our principal schools.

By this he meant that the Caucasoid and Mongoloid races had evolved more in their separate areas after they had left Africa, especially by admixture with Homo erectus.

Races in India

In his 1962 book, Coon wrote that within the Caucasoid race there was a "third division [Mediterraneans which]... included... southern India," but remarked this group had "facial features of a Veddoid character which in some instances suggest Australoid affinities."[10] He said that in India there were "Veddoids... individuals who are to all extents and purposes Australoid." Regarding the exact racial composition of India, Coon noted, "[T]he racial history of southern Asia has not yet been thoroughly worked out, and it is too early to postulate what these relationships may be...[I] shall leave the problems of Indian physical anthropology in the competent hands of Guha and of Bowles."[10]


Contemporary reception

When Coon published his magnum opus The Origin of Races in 1962, the field of physical anthropology had changed markedly, and his book was not well received. Contemporary researchers such as Sherwood Washburn and Ashley Montagu were heavily influenced by the modern synthesis in biology and population genetics. In addition, they were influenced by Franz Boas, who had moved away from typological racial thinking. Rather than supporting Coon's theories, they and other contemporary researchers viewed the human species as a continuous serial progression of populations.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and changing social attitudes challenged racial theories like Coon's that had been used by segregationists to justify discrimination and depriving people of civil rights. In 1961 non-fiction writer Carleton Putnam, who had founded an airline and was not an academic, had published Race and Reason: A Yankee View, a popular theory of racial segregation. In a sign of rejection of such unscientific thinking, the American Association of Physical Anthropologists voted to censure Putnam's book. Carleton S. Coon, President of the association, resigned in protest, claiming the action violated free speech.[11]

Posthumous reputation

In 2001 the Journal of the History of Biology[12] reviewed the controversy around the reception of Coon’s 1962 book, The Origin of Races. In it Coon had theorized that the human species divided into five races before it had evolved into Homo sapiens. Further, he suggested that the races evolved into Homo sapiens at different times.

The article abstract concluded:

Segregationists in the United States used Coon’s work as proof that African Americans were “junior” to white Americans, and thus unfit for full participation in American society. The paper examines the interactions among Coon, segregationist [and Coon relative] Carleton Putnam, geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky, and anthropologist Sherwood Washburn. The paper concludes that Coon actively aided the segregationist cause in violation of his own standards for scientific objectivity.

Coon's ideas have steadily faded from view as new work emerged. New ideas introduced in work by academicians and scientists such as Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Lewontin, Leonard Lieberman and others, argued that race is not a valid concept with which to classify human biodiversity.[13]



  • The Origin of Races (1962)
  • The Story of Man (1954)
  • The Races of Europe (1939)
  • Caravan: the Story of the Middle East (1958)
  • Races: A Study of the Problems of Race Formation in Man
  • The Hunting Peoples
  • Anthropology A to Z (1963)
  • Living Races of Man (1965)
  • Seven Caves: Archaeological Exploration in the Middle East
  • Mountains of Giants: A Racial and Cultural Study of the North Albanian Mountain Ghegs
  • Yengema Cave Report (his work in Sierra Leone)
  • Racial Adaptations (1982)

Fiction and Memoir:

  • Flesh of the Wild Ox (1932)
  • The Riffian (1933)
  • A North Africa Story: Story of an Anthropologist as OSS Agent (1980)
  • Measuring Ethiopia
  • Adventures and Discoveries: The Autobiography of Carleton S. Coon (1981)


  • "It is the retention by twentieth-century, Atom-Age men of the Neolithic point of view that says: You stay in your village and I will stay in mine. If your sheep eat our grass we will kill you, or we may kill you anyhow to get all the grass for our own sheep. Anyone who tries to make us change our ways is a witch and we will kill him. Keep out of our village." —The Story of Man, 1954, pg 376.
  • "Some other power, some third class of individuals aside from the leaders and the scholars must exist, and this third class must have the task of thwarting mistakes, and nipping the causes of potential disturbances in the bud. There must a body of men whose task it is to throw out the rotten apples as soon as the first spots of decay appear... A body of this nature must exist undercover. It must either be a power unto itself, or be given the broadest discretionary powers by the highest human authorities...." The Invisible Empire - Carleton S. Coon to William "Wild Bill" Donovan head of the OSS, September, 1945.



  1. ^ “Race” Relations: Montagu, Dobzhansky, Coon, and the Divergence of Race Concepts
  2. ^ Coon, Carleton S. (1962). The Origins of Races. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
  3. ^ The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2005.
  4. ^ a b c d The Races of Europe by Carleton Coon 1939 (Hosted by the Society for Nordish Physical Anthropology)
  5. ^ The Races of Europe, Chapter II, Section 12
  6. ^ The Races of Europe, Chapter XIII, Section 2
  7. ^ The Races of Europe, Chapter 7, Section 2
  8. ^ a b c "Our area, from Morocco to Afghanistan, is the homeland and cradle of the Mediterranean race. Mediterraneans are found also in Spain, Portugal, most of Italy, Greece and the Mediterranean islands, and in all these places, as in the Middle East, they form the major genetic element in the local populations. In a dark-skinned and finer-boned form they are also found as the major population element in Pakistan and northern India ... The Mediterranean race, then, is indigenous to, and the principal element in, the Middle East, and the greatest concentration of a highly evolved Mediterranean type falls among two of the most ancient Semitic-speaking peoples, notably the Arabs and the Jews. (Although it may please neither party, this is the truth.) The Mediterraneans occupy the center of the stage; their areas of greatest concentration are precisely those where civilization is the oldest. This is to be expected, since it was they who produced it and it, in a sense, that produced them.",Carleton Coon, the Story of the Middle East, 1958, pp. 154-157
  9. ^ Coon, Carleton S. (1962) . The Origins of Races. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
  10. ^ a b Coon, Carleton S. The Races of Europe. Greenwood:USA, 1972 ISBN 0837163285 p.2
  11. ^ Academic American Encyclopedia (vol. 5, p.271). Danbury, Connecticut: Grolier Incorporated (1995).
  12. ^ John P. Jackson, Jr., "'In Ways Unacademical': The Reception of Carleton S. Coon's The Origin of Races," Journal of the History of Biology 34 (2001): pp. 247–285. Retrieved 17 November 2006.
  13. ^ How Caucasoids Got Such Big Crania and How They Shrank, by Leonard Lieberman

Further reading

  • The Lagar Velho 1 Skeleton
  • Hybrid Humans? Archaeological Institute of America Volume 52 Number 4, July/August 1999 by Spencer P.M. Harrington [1]
  • Carleton Steven Coons, 23 June 1904 - 3 June 1981 (obituary). 1989. W.W. Howells in Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, v.58 108-131.
  • Two Views of Coon's Origin of Races with Comments by Coon and Replies. 1963. Theodosius Dobzhansky; Ashley Montagu; C. S. Coon in Current Anthropology, Vol. 4, No. 4. (Oct., 1963), pp. 360–367.
  • In Ways Unacademical: The Reception of Carleton S. Coon's "The Origin of Races" by JOHN P. JACKSON JR. Journal of the History of Biology 34: 247–285, 2001. Retrieved 17 November 2006.
  • The Races of Europe (1939) by Carleton S. Coon - physical anthropological information on the indigenous peoples of Europe.

External links

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