The Boskop People

What you say of the pre-historic African race is most interesting and thought-inspiring, and I hope future research throws more light on the past. I feel a deep pity for that people – living in peace and friendliness – an unwarlike and pastoral race – and suddenly confronted by a horde of black slayers as rude and merciless as they were strong. It must have been a slaughter rather than a war, and it’s a damned pity that the Boskop people didn’t have some Aryan traits to stiffen their spines and train their hands in fighting. I hate to think of white people being wiped out and enslaved by niggers. How do you suppose these people got there in the first place? Did they wander down the coast until they came to a country that suited them, or do you suppose their trek took many generations as they slowly shifted southward?

Letter to H.P. Lovecraft, circa February 1931

I’m concerned that the above passage, with its obviously racist attitudes, is going to turn many potential readers off immediately. Some may say, “Oh blimey not another big discussion about REH’s racism in the offing,” while others with just as much justification may growl, “What bigoted crap!” and ignore the post right there.  This blogger thinks the subject has value, first because the subject of Boskop Man has gained a new lease of life lately, and second because I’ve never believed we should forget how recently bigoted crap like the above was acceptable in the most polite (white) drawing-rooms.

The whole idea of Boskop Man as a separate race began in 1913, when a couple of farmers found an ancient skull at Boskop in the Transvaal. The skull was rather big, its cranial capacity greater than normal, but it wasn’t complete and the estimate made at the time that its capacity would have been 1800 ccs had a margin for error – 1700 to 2000. Remember, this was 1913 and anthropology was a raw discipline still. The nineteenth-century pseudo-science of phrenology (assessing intelligence and character from the shape of the head) was having a revival in the early twentieth. London psychiatrist Bernard Hollander was its most influential proponent in England. His books The Mental Function of the Brain (1901) and Scientific Phrenology  (1902) were widely read by the middle classes and laymen as well as professionals.

Other large skulls were discovered in South Africa, along with greater numbers within the usual range. The latter were ignored. Any large skull from the region was labeled “Boskopoid”. Before long the enthusiastic belief prevailed that a separate race (or even species) had existed in the Transvaal between 30,000 and 10,000 years ago, characterized by large crania and small faces with childlike features.

Robert Broom named the supposed species Homo Capensis. Broom, a paleontologist, made a new estimate of the skull’s capacity at 1980 ccs, against the modern average of 1400. But the original skull’s thickness made its precise capacity hard to assess, and in any case there are modern human beings whose brains have a volume of 2000 ccs. It’s big, but not unheard-of. And phrenology put in its ten cents’ worth at once. Arthur Conan Doyle was a believer. Not being a member of the Baker Street Irregulars, I can’t recall which Sherlock Holmes story it was, but Doyle had Holmes deducing, from an unknown man’s hat, just about everything about him except the details of his sex life – and he pronounced that the man was intellectual. Watson, as usual, asked how the deuce he could know that, and Holmes placed the hat on his own head, where it settled down to his nose. “It is a question of cubic capacity” he explained. “A man with so large a head must have something in it.”

Some ideas that were taken for granted back then seem pretty quaint now.

Raymond Dart, the man who discovered and reported on the Taung skull in the journal Nature, had taken an interest in the Boskop skulls before that, and written to Nature about them too – in 1923. It was a respectable and serious subject at the time. Naturally, being a bit sensational, the idea of an ancient race with large brains and large intelligence to go with it was grabbed by tabloid newspapers, pseudo-scientists and interested amateurs. It became linked with half the favorite myths of the time from prehistoric super-civilizations to racial superiority.

By the early 1900s, “scientific” racism was a strongly entrenched attitude. It served to justify colonialism for one thing. Herbert Spencer wasn’t a scientist – he was a philosopher and political theorist, and one of the best arguments against Plato’s ideal of the “philosopher king” this blogger knows. He invented the phrase “survival of the fittest” and thought it should apply to human society. Madison Grant, a lawyer and strong believer in eugenics, crusaded for the elimination of “undesirables” and certain “race types”. In 1916 he wrote The Passing of the Great Race. Grant argued that the basically Anglo-Saxon and Nordic stock of the U.S.A. was being undermined by non-Nordic immigrants. I’m happy to report that it was largely ignored when it first appeared and never became a best seller, but it reflected widely held views just the same. (H.P. Lovecraft was nauseated by the mix of nationalities in New York and inveighed against its “mongrel hordes.”)

The African continent and its history was often an issue. Great Britain and other colonial powers found scientific racism a useful tool to justify conquest – the “White Man’s Burden” and so forth. In southern Africa the “White Man’s Burden” often consisted of a considerable weight in gold and diamonds. In southern Africa, too, the impressive stone-built ruins of Great Zimbabwe became a subject of hot dispute. One typical comment comes from J. Theodore Bent’s The Ruined Cities of Mashonland (1896): “… it is a well-accepted fact that the Negroid brain never could be capable of taking the initiative in work of such intricate nature.”  The Rhodesian government later tried hard to discourage journalists and scholarly writers from publishing any work to the effect that Bantu peoples did in fact construct Great Zimbabwe. It didn’t want this known. Along the same lines, some anthropologists from Europe rejected the idea that the Yoruba people of West Africa had really created the very fine bronze work characteristic of that culture. They didn’t believe them capable of it and assumed white artisans had produced the lost-wax bronze sculptures, sometimes even claiming the hypothetical whites had been refugees from Atlantis. Amazing how Atlantis finds its way into nearly every half-baked theory.

I haven’t read the letter from H.P. Lovecraft, to which REH was responding above. But Howard’s letter suggests that there were theories current in the early 1930s to the effect that the Boskop People must have been white. With high intelligence, what else?  And peaceful, friendly, and pastoral. Either Lovecraft theorized that they had been wiped out by ferocious black tribes moving into their territory, or he came across the idea in the course of his voracious and eclectic reading. Howard wrote a number of stories, those of James Allison’s many reincarnations especially, with the theme of restless white tribes wandering far across the world. He was fascinated by the idea, and as he wrote to Lovecraft in another letter (June 1931)  “What you say of the unfortunate Boskops interested me greatly … ”  He evidently believed they had been whites, but couldn’t have been Nordic Aryan whites like those in his story “The Valley of the Worm” or else they would have won the conflict.

Advances in anthropological knowledge since then pretty much assure us there never was any such conflict – or any distinct Boskopoid race. If there had been, the Boskopoids surely wouldn’t have been “white.” The region then was inhabited by remote ancestors of the Bushmen and Hottentots. There wouldn’t have been any Negroid tribes in the area to slaughter them, either. Not ten thousand years ago. Even granting that, they would have been hunter-gatherers as peaceful as the Boskopoids, most likely. Neither group would have been “pastoral”.  The crude beginnings of agriculture might have existed in Syria and Mesopotamia that early, and the domestication of sheep and goats, but nowhere on the African continent.

One of the best known essays on the Boskop People was Loren Eiseley’s “The Man of the Future” in his 1958 collection of essays, The Immense Journey.  Eiseley thought that the Boskops were intelligent beyond any norms today, had childlike faces under their large crania, and were Negroid in general appearance. Eiseley concluded, pretty much as Howard and Lovecraft had done twenty-seven years before, that the Boskops perished in “a desperate struggle to survive among a welter of more prolific and aggressive stocks.”

He published his book at a time when the notion of Boskop Man was being shelved as disproven. Ronald Singer wrote his book, The Boskop ‘Race’ Problem, at the same time as Eiseley’s The Immense Journey, and it was published the same year. He (Singer) reviewed the evidence as it existed in his day. He reached the conclusion, that, “It is now obvious that what was justifiable speculation (because of paucity of data) in 1923, and was apparent as speculation in 1947, is inexcusable to maintain in 1958.”

The idea died hard, though. In fact it hasn’t died at all. Two contemporary neuroscientists, Gary Lynch and Richard Granger, published a book of their own on the subject in 2008. The title is Big Brain: The Origins and Future of Human Intelligence. The authors are distinguished and able men in their own field, and the neuroscience part of their book is probably well worth reading, accurate and informative. But they are NOT anthropologists or specialists in evolution. Although I haven’t read their book, if the enthusiastic review on Amazon.com gives a fair capsule description … they’ve stumbled on that aspect.

Lynch and Granger aren’t responsible for some of the responses to their book online, either. Discover Magazine headlines “What Happened to the Hominids Who May Have Been Smarter Than Us?” (The Brain, 2009 issue.)  The article hints at “rapid evolutionary changes” and reminds us that such faces “are often attached to ‘alien abductors’ in movies.”  It adds that the Boskops are now “almost entirely forgotten” and suggests this is because “the very fact of an ancient ancestor like Boskop, who appears un-apelike and in fact in most ways seems to have had characteristics superior to ours, was destined never to be popular.”  The word “fact” used twice in the same sentence on such an iffy subject, is typical. So is the insinuation of a cover-up.

Clearly we’re no less ready to buy doubtful theories now than people were in the ‘thirties.