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Absurdities of Racial Mapping

Submitted by on February 8, 2011 – 1:56 am 7 Comments |  

In the conventional narrative of intellectual progress, people of the past are said to have habitually deferred to authority, ignoring sensory evidence if it contradicted accepted wisdom. Galileo’s experiments and telescopes may have been intriguing, but to the extent that they contravened Aristotle or the Bible, they were discounted by those adhering to the old school. Intellectual modernity, by this way of thinking, consisted in large part of abandoning authority as a touchstone of knowledge, and correspondingly elevating evidence as perceived by the senses.

I suspect that this vision of intellectual transformation exaggerates the extent of change. Outside of the narrow confines of scientific research, the authority of the past continues to weigh heavily. How else can one explain the fact that atlases continued to depict Finns and Hungarians as yellow-skinned Mongolians well into the 1960s? All one had to do was look at them to see that their skin was not yellow, and their physical features “non-Mongolian.” For that matter the Mongolians themselves, like other East Asians, are far from “yellow” in skin coloration. They have been identified with yellow in large part because the Chinese traditionally associated that color with their country and their imperial dynasties, but it does not take a trained eye to detect that that there is nothing yellow in their pigmentation.

The baseless notion that a realm of yellow-skinned peoples extended from Finland to Japan was rooted in the authority of 19th and early 20th century physical anthropologists, who built elaborate theories of race based on flimsy evidence. But the cartographic persistence of this fantasy involved other factors as well. Global thematic maps are a challenge to construct – and when that challenge can be elided by copying, it often is. Map content cannot be easily copyrighted, and in practice, cartographers habitually crib from earlier examples, often perpetuating past errors in the process. Since exact copies would violate intellectual property rules, they tend to be slightly modified with each iteration. Such modifications, in the hands of an able mapmaker, can producing more accurate depictions than those found in the earlier models. But they can also do the opposite; careless cartographers may fudge boundaries in arbitrary directions.

Consider, for example, the first map posted above, taken from the 1946 Atlas of World Affairs.* Here one finds, as usual, most of Finland, Hungary, and Turkey mapped within the “Mongolian (or yellow)” race. More amusing is this map’s depiction of eastern Africa. Classifying Ethiopians and Somalis as white was common enough at the time, but this map goes a step further, portraying the inhabitants of Uganda, southern Sudan, and northeastern Congo as well as “Caucasian (or white)”. In actuality, the southern Sudanese are among the world’s darkest people. The only explanation that I can imagine is sloppy copying from other maps.

Maps as ridiculous as the one of “race” in the Atlas of World Affairs no longer circulate widely. The internet, however, facilitates other forms of cartographic mischief. Misleading maps are often copied from website to website with no critical commentary. Matters pertaining to human appearance can be especially problematic. Try running a Google image search of “skin color map.” When I did so this morning, the second map posted above was the most common image returned by a wide margin. Almost all the websites that use this map take it uncritically as an accurate depiction of skin coloration across the globe. On the sites that allow comments, however, some criticism is vented. Commentator Cesare on Centripetal Notion, for example, colorfully contends that:

This map shows some big mistakes. First: as an italian i say that our skin colour is definitly not the same as central europeans because we are darker. Second: in the united states most white people are as white as nord europeans so its another mistake in colouring the map. Third:I went to Iran and saw that the people there are really not as dark as other middle eastern folks. So [f**k] the person who made this map and let him travel more to other countries and let him take a better look at the people. Ciao!!

Cesare makes some good points, but he is off-base in criticizing the map itself rather than the manner in which it has been misused. The original map, as its seldom-reproduced full title indicates, does not depict actual skin color found across the world today. To begin with, its subject is “indigenous peoples” rather than those who ancestors recently crossed the seas; Euro-Americans and Euro-Australians thus do not figure. But more importantly, rather than describing actual skin color, this map denotes the pigment that scientists would expect humans in each region to develop, based on solar radiation and other “environmental factors.” The real epidermal hues of indigenous peoples deviate markedly from the predictions—a fact that the authors of the original map well understood. Most obviously, residents of the Congo Basin are much darker than the indigenous peoples of western Peru or northeastern Brazil, as can be seen on the third map posted above (which does purport to depict the actual skin colors of indigenous peoples).

Map four, from Wikipedia, has its share of problems as well. For example, it shows the people of peninsular Malaysia as darker than those of central New Guinea, which is simply not the case. The mapping of Africa also has some odd features that fail to mesh with other cartographic portrayals of skin color in the region. Compare, for example, the depiction of the area to the northwest of Lake Victoria on maps three and four; on the third map, it is shown as one of the lightest-skinned regions of sub-Saharan Africa; on map four, as one of the darkest.

Such discrepancies seem to derive largely from copying errors. Almost all world maps of human skin coloration, including maps three and four above, derive from Renato Biasutti’s Razze e Popoli dela Terra, published in the mid-1950s in Turin, Italy. Some cartographers have copied Biatsutti’s maps more skillfully than others. But given that the information used to make the originals was gathered before 1940, we would do well to question the quality of the data itself.

*Edited byClifford MacFadden, Henry Kendall, and George Deasy, published by Thomas Y. Crowell Company, and touted by the U.S. Military

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  • Maju

    "More amusing is this map’s depiction of eastern Africa. Classifying Ethiopians and Somalis as white was common enough at the time, but this map goes a step further, portraying the inhabitants of Uganda, southern Sudan, and northeastern Congo as well as “Caucasian (or white)”. In actuality, the southern Sudanese are among the world’s darkest people. The only explanation that I can imagine is sloppy copying from other maps".

    There is another reason: the theory that all Nilotic (and "Hamitic", now called Afroasiatic after the merging with Semitic) peoples were not Negroids but Caucasoids. The only or main criterium was language.

    Your criticism is valid indeed but you are using another simplistic criterium: skin color, the authors who proposed that these East African peoples were "Caucasoid" argued their viewpoint (when they did) on skull measures and such, not skin color. Of course there would be a lot to debate on whether Nilotic peoples like the Maasai or Tutsi (these not by language but arguably by physiognomy and ancestry) are "Caucasoid" or "Negroid" or (as I would argue) another "race" or population on their own right. But it is important to understand what motivated those authors, and it was not only sloppiness but also a way of understanding race.

    You put an Amhara, Somali or Maasai side by side with an Igbo or most Bantus and there are very clear differences, almost as much as between a Spaniard and a Chinese if you push me a bit. Notably East Africans often have narrow noses and other traits that approach them to the Caucasoid standard (even if there's a lot of variation in this too). This was solved back then often by placing the first within the Caucasoid group. In other cases more piecemeal race division was suggested.

    Of course the real problem is how to define or measure race… and sloppiness is also to blame, as you clearly indicate for the other maps. But there are other reasons: bias in claiming Horners as Caucasoids.

    This was also done for racist reasons, because they often argued that "civilization" was introduced to Africa by those "Nilotic" peoples, with or without reason. Similarly, legends about "white" founders were emphasized and distorted to unbelievable extremes by European anthropologists. That way Niger-Congo peoples, who make the bulk of African peoples and also of the ancestry of African Americans, could be kept subdued with an ideological pretext.

    There's more than just sloppiness to this matter.

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    Very interesting posting, as always! I agree with Maju that language may be an important criterion for dividing peoples into races. But language interacts with skin color in another way as well: as you point out, we think of the "yellow races" as "yellow" in part because our language labels them as such. A very different racial picture arises for people who speak a different language and have different terms for these "skin colors": for example, in Sudan darker-skinned Arabs are called akhḍar 'green', while black Arabs and Africans are called azraq 'blue'… If I remember correctly, the Vikings also referred to dark-skinned people as 'blue men'.

  • ironrailsironweights

    Obama is an example of differing shades of color in Africa. He is much darker than one might expect with a person of mixed racial background. That because his father was from the Luo tribe in Kenya, and even other Kenyans consider the Luos unusually dark.


  • Martin W. Lewis

    Thanks again to Maju for his insightful comments. He is right that language (as I mentioned in an earlier post) and other physical features (skull shape, facial features) figured prominently in earlier racial classification schemes. I focused on skin color partly for the sake of simplicity, but also because it came to overshadow other "racial indicators" in the public imagination. The maps that I selected also explicitly use color categories. The one posted above puts color terms in parentheses, while the one posted the other day is actually called "classification of mankind by colour of skin." Tomorrow I will post a "cephalic index map" by the same author. As will be apparent, the head-shape map had bears little resemblance to one of skin color. One of the reasons why most anthropologists abandoned biological race in the 1960s was the discovery that different racial traits do not spatially co-vary — in other words, each physical feature (hair texture, nasal index, etc.) tends to have a different distributional pattern. More recent genetic analysis, however, shows that there are distinct genetic clusters in different parts of the world that one might call races. Yes, Nilotic peoples (a linguistic category!) do tend to look different from Bantu-speakers, and generally do have different genetic signatures. Yet some Nilotes are very dark (Peter mentions the Luo), while others are much lighter. And of course there has been much intermarriage in many areas, and a number of Nilotic peoples have abandoned their original languages for Bantu languages (the Tutsi, for example).

    What tends to mark the Nilotic peoples physically is their "long and lean" body type, or ectomorphism. As a result, many are superb long-distance runners. Kenya produces many distance runners — and almost all are Kalenjin. I suspect that both cultural and genetic factors play a role here.

    Thanks as well to Asya for the fascinating comments about color terms in Arabic. Are these valorized? "Green" has strongly positive connotations in the region, which makes me wonder what people think locally of those with "akhdar" coloration.

    In India, Krishna is usually depicted as blue, which has led many scholars to suspect that the original Krishna, if indeed he existed, had the dark skin associated with subcontinent's indigenous inhabitants.

    As far as red skin coloration goes, I associate it not with native Americans but rather with people of northern European descent who have spent too much time in the sun or who have consumed too much alcohol!

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    Just one other thing: here's a quote from Ben Franklin about races and skin color… Okay, Italians may be swarthy (as Cesare points out in the quote you give), but Swedes?! Really?!

    "Which leads me to add one Remark: That the Number of purely white People in the World is proportionably very small. All Africa is black or tawny. Asia chiefly tawny. America (exclusive of the new Comers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English, make the principal Body of White People on the Face of the Earth. I could wish their Numbers were increased. And while we are, as I may call it, Scouring our Planet, by clearing America of Woods, and so making this Side of our Globe reflect a brighter Light to the Eyes of Inhabitants in Mars or Venus, why should we in the Sight of Superior Beings, darken its People? why increase the Sons of Africa, by Planting them in America, where we have so fair an Opportunity, by excluding all Blacks and Tawneys, of increasing the lovely White and Red? But perhaps I am partial to the Complexion of my Country, for such Kind of Partiality is natural to Mankind."

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    Actually, when it comes to color terms (and their application to skin colors), things are a bit more complex. Many languages in the region, including Turkish and Kurdish (and also other languages elsewhere, such as Irish) distinguish two basic terms for 'green': one for natural green of plants and the other for artificial green of the flag. Sometimes, 'the natural green' word also covers some (shades of) natural blue: e.g., Kurdish şîn = the color of the sky, leaves, grass, eyes vs. kesk = green on the Kurdish flag. Also, many languages tend to use blue or black (or a conjunctive term blue+black) for dark colors. In sum, languages may choose to reflect not only hue, but also saturation and/or artificiality in their basic color terms.

    So I don't expect that 'green' people are viewed in a more positive light because of the green of the flag, etc. Perhaps it's because of the olive shade in their complexion. Arabs are indeed a bit greener than "pink people" (=whites).

  • Jim Wilson

    So,within “the narrow confines of scientific research” the authority of the past does not weigh heavily? Wouldn’t it be lovely to think so.