Christa Kuljian

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Inspired by Stephen J. Gould’s study of Samuel Morton in The Mismeasure of Man, Christa Kuljian’s Darwin’s Hunch traces the story of the search for human origins while apartheid was taking hold of South Africa in the mid 20th century. Following the work of Charles Darwin, biologists and anthropologists of the 19th and 20th centuries were captivated by comparative anatomy, human classification, and the origins of mankind. Kuljian begins her book with the very origin of racialized thought in science: the distinction between monogenism and polygenism. These two schools of thought in the 18th and 19th centuries sought to explain the existence of human difference; the former arguing that all races stemmed from a single ancestor and the latter arguing that different races emanated from different species. Physicians and scientists were at the center of this discourse, creating names for different racial categories while debating whether races were different species in and of themselves. Eventually, well-known physicians and anthropologists created tools to measure anatomical differences between racial groups. Kuljian centers her book on the studies of the physicians and scientists who contributed to academic discourse, including Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, Robert Bloom, Raymond Dart, Hertha DeVilliers, and Phillip Tobias among others.   

In the search for the “missing link” between man and animal, South Africa became a living laboratory. Paleontologists, physicians, anthropologists and the like began a search for living fossils after the discovery of the Taung Skull by Raymond Dart. This discovery birthed the search for human origins in South Africa. For many scientists at the time, the living fossil was not only physical evidence of human evolution, but also supporting evidence for presupposed ideas about racial difference, and so “the most interesting specimens [became] the natives”. South African researchers like Robert Broom, Raymond Dart, and Phillip Tobias, among many others, began projects to study the anatomies of the Bantu, Khoikhoi, and other native people of South Africa. Some researchers embarked on expeditions to Bantustans, reserves that segregated the native population, and measured living native communities, others studied “skeletons from graves”, and still others examined “unclaimed bodies from South African hospitals”. 

The focus of this work in many ways was also a search for a pure racial type. These studies aimed to quantify racial differences by measuring the “brain size, skull shape, facial features, skin colour, hair texture and bone length” of native people. Other studies were reminiscent of previous investigations of difference, such as the objectification of Sarah Baartman, in that “Dart gave special attention to the external genitalia… and the accumulation of fat on many of the females’ buttocks”.  

Kuljian also traces the political history that coincides with this race for human origins by discussing the progression of the apartheid state of South Africa. Jan Smuts, who would later become Prime Minister of South Africa during the time of Dart’s early investigations, was also the president of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science which institutionally funded and supported the search for human origins. He continued supporting this research into his prime ministry, as increasingly “race [became] a national neurosis in South Africa”. 

In this captivating look at the personal stories of researchers, their sociopolitical context, as well as the stories of the people they studied, Kuljian dives into the tension between personal beliefs and scientific practice. She examines how bias, politics, and institutions shaped investigations into the search for human origins. 

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