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Figure 1.--These wonderful illustrations showcase the racial diversity around the world. The thre basic groups or raaces are Cacasoid. Mongolid, and Negroid. Some anthropologists belive that Australoid (the Australian/New Guinea Aborigines as well as some South Asians) constitute a fourt group. The artist is Birte Koch.

Race has at time been a powerful force in history. This has varied greatly over time and from country to country. Many ancient civilizatons appear to have given relatively limited attention to race, including Egypt and Rome. In other socuties it has been a powerful force. While race may have not been a major determinant of history, racism has at times been an important factor in the cultural life of many countries. Race has been a major factor in American history. America is a multi-ethnic society. Other countries like Japan have a more homogeneous population. The prominence of the Civil Rights Movement in America gave many the impression that racism was an American phenomenon. We note, however, that racism has played a prominent role in non-Western counties as well. Race is an important factor in India. Race was the central factor in the Rwandan genocide. In some countries it has been subtle. In other countries like NAZI Germany it was overt and eventually deadly. The NAZIs saw race as the central force in history. There is in fact little evidence of this. It appears to have surfaced as a more important force in the modern world, in part because of European colonialism, African slavery, and other trends.

Racial Origins

Virtually all evolutionists today maintain that mankind, even the Neanderthals, did not have separate origins. Human rcial groups did not each evolve from a different group of animals. We all have common African oigins. Darwin suspected this because the great apes were primarily found in Africa, but because of the political sensitivity did not go into the issue. Genetic evidence we now have from DNA evidence suggests that modern human species originated in sub-Saharan Africa. It began diverging into different populations (about 180,000 BP). It is at this time that anatomically modern humans (AMHS) appear, evolving from Archaic humans. Some of these populations began migrating out of Sub-saharan Africa and dispersing across Eurasia and North Africa (about 100,00 BP). Highly mobile hunter-gathers populated every corner of the world except Antartica. As a result of this dispersal and geographic separation, we begin to see evolutionary branching of the human species into five sub-species or races. The geographic separation led to reproductve isolation. As a result, different populations of humans evolved in different directions, developing a range of distinctive genetic traits and characteristics which became known as races. Only in the modern era of mass global migrations of people do we see races mingling in large numbers arojnd the world (beginning in the 16th century).

Racial Groups

Anthropologists generally classify people into three or four major racial groups. Caucasoids often called Europens or whites dominate Europe, western Asia, and North Africa. Mongoloids dominted Asia north of the Himalyas and include the Chinese, Inuit or Eskimo, and Native Americans. Central Asia was once populated by Caucasoid people, but were displced by Mongoloids. The Negroids (Africans) doiminated sub-Saharan Africa and are variously divide into subgroups such as Capoids, pygmies, and Congoids. Capoids are the lighter-skinned people in southern Africa referring to the Cape of Good Hope. Congoid refers to the black-skined people of the tropical Congo Basin. Recent research in population genetics refers to Capoids and Congoids populations as 'Khoisanid' and 'Black African'. The Australoid (the Australian/New Guinea Aborigines as well as some South Asians) were the first wave of human migration out of Africa. They are someimes seen as a subgroup of Negroids. These three or four basic divisions are largely geographiclly based, although Asia is an exception. While Central and East Asia is primarily Mongoloid, South Asians are not Mongoloid and include many Cacasoids as well as dark skinned people with some Australoid admixture. Of course humnity is much more complicated than three/four races. Within each major classification, there are many different sub-groups. Many scholars object to the term race because of the damage racism has done. Some try to ban the term in PC speak. Race is, however, something that people notice and continues to be a factor in society. Because of this, anthropolgists will often use the terms 'sub-groups' or 'sub-species' rather than race.

Racial Diversity

The human species is very diverse in appearance as a result of its global distribution. The different races are often defined and named by skin color, but this system is based on only one genetic difference, when actually thousands of genetic harcteristics make us human. There are other physical attributes asociated with race such as hair texture and color, eye color, nose and lip configuration. One difference associated with Mongolids is the Epicanthic eye fold, a skin fold of the upper eyelid, covering the inner corner of the eye. Other The various racial classification are based on geographical regions that are at center of their area of evolutionary development and origin. It is widely believed that that while physical appearance can be quite different, the DNA between human individuals shows that racial differences are essentally trivial. This basic genetic unity means in just one example that Caucasoid Americans who seem far removed from Negroid Americans in appearance, can sometimes be better tissue matches for them than are other Negroid Americans.

Biological Mechanism

Mutations appear to be the cause of genetic change. And this appears to be what has created the various races and other pgyical human differences. Most mutations are of no value and thus do not persist in the gene pool. If the mutation is beneficial and provides an evolutionary dvantage, than it can persist. This appears to have been what caused variation in skin color as humans moved out of Africa. Humans need sunlight to produce vitamin D. Yet dark skin filters outsunlight reducing vitamin D production in northerly latitudes so individuals with lighter skin had a advantage leading to Europe and, especially Svandanavians developing light skin--natural selection. Blond hair is less clear. We know that polar animals have white hair which helps camoplague them. But hiven the small area of hair humans had this mechanism seems less likely. It may be that skin and hair color genes are linked. But sexual selection may be at play. This seems the likely mechanism for blue eyes. This may also explain the persistance of the epicanthic eye fold. Many phyical characteristics are not associted with race. We note, for example, broad chests in people living at high altitudes such as the Andes and Himalayas. Another factor is time. People living in tropical areas tend to have dark skins. The principal exception is the Amerindian population in the Amazon. Some anthropolists believe that a population needs to reside in an area before environmental changes begin to be manifessted.

Ancient Civilizations

One interesting question is how race was a factor in ancient civilizations. Here we have only limited information at this time. Race seems to been a greater concern to moden people than in ancient civilizations. I am not sure precisely why this may have beem, but this is a topic we hope to persue.


AThe union of the Upper and Lower Kindoms meant a melding of people. A Black population was more pronounced in the Upper Kingdom, especially as it expanded north into Nubia. The prominance of Blacks in Egypt is a subject comntroversy. As Egyptology became a subject of interest in Europe during the late 18th and early century 19th, Europe strongly influenced by racism, tended to obsure the role of Blacks in Eguptian culture.


We am unsure about the role of race in Greece. The Greeks although separated in independent cities states were ethnically of the same stock. There was no racial dimension to slavery in Greece. In fact, the Spatans enslaved a whole other Greek city state, the Messians, although this was unusual. There were slaves in all Greek city states and they were in primarily other ethnic Greek themselves. Alexander tried to build a multi-ethnic empire.


We are ubsure about the full ramifications of race in Rome. At first citizenship was open only to Romans and not even other Italians. Gradually citizemnship was open to other Italians and eventually to people throughout the mult-ethnic Roman Empire. This included Gauls, Britins, Spanish, and peoples from the East in Anatolia, Syria, and Egypt. The Empire included North Africa, but we are unsure to what extent it included areas with Black populations. There were some Black slaves, but as in Greece there were no racial connotatuons to slavery. Many slaves were of Italian stock. One of the aspects of the wars conducted by the Romans was obtaining slaves. Thus the slaves pouring into Rome often reflected the most recent war. Wars with the Celts resulted in lkarge numbers of blond, blue-eyed slaves.

Medieval Era

Christian Europe

We have little information on racial attitudes in Medieval Europe. We know that strong atitudes of racial superority began to form in the 16th century as the Voyages of Discovery brought expanded contacts with non-European poples.


Islam when the Arab conquet began developed approches for dealing with the "conquered peoples". The conquered peoples were "protected persons" only if they submitted to Islamic domination by a "Contract" (Dhimma), paid poll tax - jizya - and land tax - haraj - to their masters. Any failure to do so was the breach of contract, enabling the Muslims to kill or enslave them and confiscate their property. Their fundamental concern was religion. Race does not appear to have been a factor of importance in Islam. Christians are normally seen as having played a major role in the African slave trade. In fact Arab slave traders apparntly played a major role in the slave trade. We believe they primarily targeted pagan African tribes.

Race and History

Modern attitudes toward race are strongly colored by the fact most successful modern countries are ppopulated by people of largely European ancestry meaning Caucasian people. As a result many Americans and Europeans naturally concluded that caucasians were superior peole. Using this logic, the NAZIs in Germany took the next logical step, maintaining that thet among caucasian people that there were superior strains, the aryans of Nordic ancestry. The development of undustrial Japan in the 19th century and the Aaian Tigers (South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore) in the 20th century confirmed that race was not a meaningful factor in the success of Western civilization. A historian has recently discussed the historical process but which Europe emerged as the leading center of civilization in the modern world. [Diamond] He stresses the importants of guns, germs, and steel. He presents powerful arguments, although he often negelects China and as a result overlooks the importance of law and economics. Even so he does persusively explain why major civilzations did not develop in areas peopled by blacks.

European Colonialism and Race

An all to important part of European imperialism was racism. We are not entirely sure why that was. Racism does not always flow from imperialism. There were many empires in history that did not develop such fervent racist attitides as the European colonialists. This appears to be the case with the Persians, Romans, Ottomans and other great empires. We note many many web pundits that insist that colonialism by its very nature is racist. This has, however, not been the historical experience. A reflection of this was slavery. This was an institution that until modern times was common and often an important part of the imperial economies. Slavery in these empires, unlike the slavery created by the Europeans was not race based. European colonialism, however, was indeed racist. And we do not fully understand why racism became so intense in the Western world. There seem to have been several different factors that fueld European racism. 1) The inballance in technology seemed to suggest that white Europeans were a more avanced people. 2) That technological inballance led to an inballance in military power. Thus the Europeans had the ability to impose their will on others peoples. 3) The inballance in technology as well as the ability to exploit other peoples created an inballance in living standards which strengthen the European view that they were superior. 4) Christian religious teaching fueld and justicied colonialism as bringing civilization to the heathen. (Here Christianity also taught against the worst abuses and was a major factor in the fight against slavery.) 5) Science by the 19th century became seen as road to the future and some authors connected evolution with racism--Social Darwinism. 6) Nationalism emerged as a powerful force in the 19th century and some rabid nationalists connected race with the nation. This was especually true in Germany, ironically the European power with the least experience with other races because of its small colonial empire. Racist attitudes varied from country to country. Here historical experiences affected popular attitudes toward race. And within countries there were a range of indivudal attitudes.

Modern Era

Race has at times been a powerful force in modern economics and history. Race seems to be a more important factor i the modern world than was the case in earlier eras. We are not sure precisely why this was, but surely improved communications and mixing of peoples is a factor. Race has played a relatively minor role in modern European history, although the economics of the slave trade was a major factor in the growing wealth of pre-industrial Europe. It also colored European colonial policies and was an important element of European Fascism. Race has been a major factor in American hisyory during the 19th and 20th centuries. Most Americans fail to appreciate the importance of race in American history. The importance of race in Amerucan appears to be subsiding, but it is still a powerful force. . Race may be more of a factor in Europe in the 21st century as populations of Middle Eastern and Arican peoples grow in importance. One important factor to note is that racism is not a white or European phenomenon. There are many instances of racism in Asia and Africa. European and American racism is perhaps best studied because it was in Europe that powerful countries developed which established colonial empires. America was a major importer of African slaves.

Children and Race

Some argue that children do not notice race. This is simply untrue. Children are very observant and notice all aspects of physical appearance. I got in trouble once when vary young for loudly asking my dad, "Daddy, why is that man so fat?" Children notice all kinds of phyical differences among people and some of gthose differences are race based. What children do not know is what importance to attribute to racial differences. Here the "South Pacific" song, "You have to be taught" rather much summs up what happens. While children anf youths can be unconcerned about race they can also be very racist depending on just what they are taught. This is in part because they have limited experiences and education to offset racist teachings. Here it should not be assumed that children are overtly taught racist ideas. Some cues they pick up without being taught. The 4-year old daughter of a friend suddenly announced that she doesn't like blacks. They are still trying to sort out where she picked up such thoughts.

Reader Comments

A Swiss reader writes, "Racism could be looked at as when contemplating one of those famous four-faced statues of Angkor-Wat: one face was white, the second black, the third yellow, and the last red. But this statue has also a brain where the different parts could represents the hundreds of existing religions, big ones as well as small sects. Then the hands, ten fingers standing for the different cultures. The eyes - one for the richs, one for the poors. The ears - one for education, the other for lack thereof, etc. etc. Such a statue represents the human being in its diversity. Racism is not only the hate of people of another race (or skin color). It is above all xenophobia, the fear from those that are different. And the more you add up all possible even tiny differences, stronger will be this xenophobia."


Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel.


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Created: October 26, 2003
Last updated: 2:31 PM 2/10/2018