Racism and the Earliest European Face

By Heather Pringle

A photo published in the Independent, one of Britain’s best newspapers, this week sparked outrage from some readers. The image showed a new facial reconstruction by British forensic artist Richard Neave of the earliest known anatomically modern human in Europe. Neave based his reconstruction on a partial skull and jawbone excavated from a cave in Romania and radiocarbon dated to some 34,000 to 36,000 years ago. But here was the shocker for some British readers: the reconstruction, made for the BBC’s The Incredible Human Journey program, showed a dark-skinned individual who blended what we think of as European, Asian and African features.

First some background. Neave is a leading facial reconstruction expert whose work has long received accolades from both archaeologists and by British homicide detectives. I have met him, interviewed him, and found him a meticulous researcher. Moreover, current scientific evidence tells us that anatomically modern humans originated in Africa some 200,000 years ago, and likely migrated into Eurasia 60,000 years ago or earlier. So the idea that Europe’s first Homo sapiens sapiens possessed facial features from Asian or African populations makes perfect sense to me and to many others. Indeed, Alice Roberts, a physical anthropologist at Bristol University, reportedly told the BBC’s Radio Times, “That’s probably what you’d expect of someone who was among the earliest populations to come to Europe.”

But some British readers took real umbrage at the idea that they were descended from Africans. “This is total crap. Pseudoscience,” wrote one angry reader on the Independent’s website. “Expect more insults and junk science until the BNP [the far-right British National Party, which reportedly has a whites-only policy] comes into power,” warned another. Someone else offered up his own origins myth. “The white and oriental races are not of this planet,” he explained. “Our first visit here was 22 million years ago….Theories such as originating in Africa from Lucy, Iraq cradle of civilization, etc., is mainstream misinformation.”

There was much here that disturbed me—the blatant racism, the disdain for science, and the touting of nutty ideas gleaned from crackpot internet sites. But I think what bothered me most was that I had heard this all before, when I was researching archaeology and anthropology in Nazi Germany for my book, The Master Plan. Senior Nazis, including Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler, believed that most Germans descended from blonde-haired, blue-eyed supermen and women who climbed down from heaven and lived for a time in Atlantis. These Nazi leaders deliberately ignored all the scientific evidence on human origins.

Achaeology for more

Comments are closed.