A Historical Osteobiography of the African Crania in the Morton Collection

By: Emily S. Renschler

Originally Published in 2008

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The African crania in the Morton Collection were especially important to Morton’s original study since they constituted the majority of the “Native African” sample that Morton found to have the smallest cranial capacity of all the world groups he measured. Yet, despite the significant and lasting impact of Morton’s conclusions regarding Africans, almost no attention has since been paid to the specific details of his African sample. Previously, little has been known about the identities of the people represented, their sex and age distribution, or even how these crania came to be a part of his collection.

To rectify this situation, I embarked upon a study of these crania in order to construct biographies of the individuals within this sample. Using an approach called “historical osteobiography” that integrates skeletal data with historical information, I hoped to learn more about the individuals represented in Morton’s Collection and provide a richer understanding of his findings and their impact upon the anthropological community. Furthermore, since this sample is one of a small number of skeletal collections from the African Diaspora, I also hoped to provide important data for comparative studies with other contemporary skeletal populations.

A human skull with a label glued to the forehead.
L-606-968. Negro, Born in Africa. This labeling system is characteristic of all the Morton specimens. The Original Morton Collection number is “968.” The L-606-” prefix was added after the collection was transferred to Penn in the mid-1960s (L=loan; 606 is a consecutive loan series number specific to the Morton Collection within the Penn Museum’s cataloging system.

Morton’s catalogue reveals that his group of “Native African” crania—labeled as such by Morton and numbering 50 in total was shipped to him in 1840. Archival research into his personal letters provides additional detail, highlighting the complex history of the slave trade and the role it played in creating Morton’s Collection. Specifically, a letter to Morton that accompanied their shipping box described the crania as coming from Africans who had recently arrived in Havana, Cuba, as part of the slave trade.

Skeletal analysis of the crania indicates that the majority of the individuals in the sample were adolescents and young adults in their 20s at the time of death. This correlates well with general historical information about the Cuban slave trade—slavers targeted these ages because they attracted the highest prices in Cuban slave markets. Unfortunately, analysis pertaining to the sex of the individuals in the sample was inconclusive due to methodological issues.

In relation to the ancestry of the individuals, craniometric data supports an African origin, as well as a high degree of heterogeneity within the sample, which is consistent with historical information that indicates that the Africans brought to Cuba came from diverse cultures and geographic areas. Further insight into the African ancestry comes from the evidence from several individuals of modified teeth—a practice found throughout western Africa during the period of the slave trade. Similarly modified teeth have been found in individuals from the New York City African Burial Ground and the Newton Plantation in Barbados.

Turning to the health of the individuals in Morton’s sample, paleopathological analysis indicates that they generally grew up (presumably in Africa) under conditions that were less stressful than those they would have endured if they had lived long enough to join the enslaved populations in the New World. In terms of disease and trauma, a number of individuals showed signs of some kind of infection (which may have resulted in their death), while others showed evidence of cranial trauma (which may have occurred during the process of enslavement).

Overall, my research provides a clearer understanding of the identity and the lives of some of the people whose crania found their way into the Morton Collection. Furthermore, as perhaps the only known skeletal sample of people who were born in Africa yet died under enslavement in the New World, this research provides important comparative information for the wider anthropological community and, in particular, has generated much interest among skeletal biologists interested in the African Diaspora. In the future, I hope to probe more deeply into the history and lifeways of all of the crania in the Morton Collection.

Cite This Article

Renschler, Emily S.. "A Historical Osteobiography of the African Crania in the Morton Collection." Expedition Magazine 50, no. 3 (November, 2008): -. Accessed April 18, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/a-historical-osteobiography-of-the-african-crania-in-the-morton-collection/

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