Race?- what Race?

Rassismus Aggsbach

This is a model of the famous Oseberg-ship from the 1937 exhibition “Lebendige Vorzeit” in Bremen (“Germanen-Erbe”, 1937). This picture comes from the darkest days of German Prehistory, when the Ideology of a superior “Arische Rasse” was popularized with great success by leading German Prehistorians.

“Racism is usually defined as views, practices and actions reflecting the belief that humanity is divided into distinct biological groups called races and that members of a certain race share certain attributes which make that group as a whole less desirable, more desirable, inferior, or superior”. This concept, although already latent during the European Middle Ages’ but concisely formulated during the 18th century-a late fruit of the enlightenment- was reinforced by western 19th century imperialism and became together with the construct of “national identity”, an important  ideological topos of Western political thinking during the 19th and 20th century. It even remains effective to this day on a globalized level.

germans bronze age aggsbachFew concepts are as emotionally charged as that of race. The word conjures up a mixture of associations—culture, ethnicity, genetics, subjugation, exclusion and persecution. While the “race-concept” during the earlier enlightenment was just a  system to classify humans according to their physical constitution, it was later mixed with assumptions about the character of different “races”. During the 19th century Western scientists assumed the “white race” was as being the most superior.  Eminent founders of prehistoric research during the in the UK (Lubbock, Evans) and continental Europe (De Mortillet, Piette, Much, Kossina) explicitly or implicitly used the race-concept for their reconstructions of the past, but it remained to some of the most influential German prehistians (Riek, Bohmers, Reinert, Jankuhn, Zotz and others) during the 1930ies in cooperation with German anthropologists and the National Socialist party to radicalize the race-concept to its deadly consequences of annihilation the Jews and other “Untermenschen” (subhumans) in the occupied parts of Europe.

For these archeologists,  the “Nordic peoples were represented as simultaneously the most superior and the most vulnerable of the world’s races, and in the absence of an understanding of the role of genetic mutation in human morphological variation, light-skinned, light-haired, light-eyed people were perceived as having necessarily had an evolutionary trajectory separate from the ‘ugly, dark peoples’  of the rest of the world (Bettina Arnold).

Is this tragic history of efforts to define groups of people by race really a matter of the misuse of science, the abuse of a valid biological concept? Is race nevertheless a fundamental reality of human nature? Or is the notion of human “races” in fact a folkloric myth? Although biologists and cultural anthropologists long supposed that human races—genetically distinct populations within the same species—have a true existence in nature, most geneticists and anthropologists maintain today that there simply is no valid biological basis for the concept.

The consensus among Western researchers today is that human races are sociocultural constructs. Sadly enough, the concept of human race as an objective biological reality still persists in the head of people. A turning point in debates on race was marked in 1972 when, in a paper titled “The Apportionment of Human Diversity,” Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin showed that human populations, then held to be races, were far more genetically diverse than anyone had imagined. Lewontin’s study was based on molecular-genetic techniques and provided statistical analysis of 17 polymorphic sites, including the major blood groups in the races as they were conventionally defined: Caucasian, African, Mongoloid, South Asian Aborigines, Amerinds, Oceanians and Australian Aborigines. What he found was unambiguous—and the inverse of what one would expect if such races had any biological reality: The great majority of genetic variation (85.4 percent) was within so-called races, not between them. Differences between local populations accounted for 8.5 percent of total variation; differences between regions accounted for 6.3 percent. The genetic divergence between geographical populations in the course of human evolution does not compare to the variation among individuals. “Since such racial classification is now seen to be of virtually no genetic or taxonomic significance either, no justification can be offered for its continuance,” Lewontin concluded.

There is just no set of specific genes that could be used to define “races” in the conventional sense.  Modern genetics offered no support for those wishing to place precise racial boundaries around groups. According to the results of the human genome project, between 5 and 7 percent of human genetic diversity is between subgroups within the classically defined races; 6 to 10 percent of the total human variation is between those groups that we think of as races in an everyday sense based on skin color. The remainder of the variation occurs at the individual level and cannot be categorized by group or subgroup.

While science has completely dismantled the race-concept, racism is on the rise worldwide. The ugly face of this concept reappears  in popular narratives of “national identity”, “ethnicity”  and in an ongoing  discourses about Us and the Others. For example the “protocols of the Elders of Zion”, an antisemtitic hoax, are still a very popular book in the Arabic world.

My paternal grandparents (both physicians) were lifetime followers of the Nazis and I was early confronted with racist ideas. The following pictures come from a small book from the library of these grandparents: Rassenkunde von Niederdonau (1942). According to the Nazi ideology they show  “Dinaric” (1,2) and “Nordic” (3,4) “types” from Lower Austria.

About antisemitism at the university of Vienna during the interwar years:  Klaus Taschwer: Geheimsache Bärenhöhle (via researchgate)

race poisson aggsbach

Suggested Reading:






Geraldine Hen: The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages I:Race Studies, Modernity, and the Middle Ages (via academia.edu)

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About Katzman

During my whole life I was fascinated by stone age artefacts. Not only the aesthetic qualities of these findings, but also the stories around them and the considerations arising from their discovery, are a part of my blog. Comments and contributions are allways welcome! About me: J.L. Katzman (Pseudonym). Born in Vienna. Left Austria in 1974 and did not regret. Studied Medicine and Prehistory at a German University. Member of a Medical Department at a German University. Copyright 2010-2017 by JLK. All Rights Reserved. You are welcome to use material in these posts so long as you cite the work.
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