Are Caucasians from the Caucasus?

Oct 1, 2010 by

Occasionally when filling out one form or another I run into the question of race and one of the multiple choice answers which says “Caucasian”. Of course, in modern American English usage, that term refers to the “white race”. Ironically, some people from the Caucasus region would not fit into that category. But it is in the Caucasus that the roots of the term “Caucasian” really are.

Originally, the term “Caucasian” was used to describe the entire indigenous population of Europe, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, West Asia, Central Asia, and South Asia, without regard necessarily to skin tone. Note that the Caucasus region falls within that area. In later use, the term became restricted to Europeans and other lighter-skinned populations within these areas, and may be considered equivalent to the varying definitions of white people.

The concept of “Caucasian race” or Varietas Caucasia was developed around 1800 by a German physician, physiologist and anthropologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, a professor of medicine and inspector of the museum of natural history in Göttingen. On the basis of his craniometrical research (analysis of human skulls), Blumenbach divided the human species into five races: the Caucasian race or white race, the Mongolian or yellow race, the Malayan or brown race, the Negroid, or black race, the American or red race. According to Blumenbach, people from the Caucasus region were the archetype of the grouping, so he named the race after them. Blumenbach wrote:

“Caucasian variety — I have taken the name of this variety from Mount Caucasus, both because its neighborhood, and especially its southern slope, produces the most beautiful race of men, I mean the Georgian; and because all physiological reasons converge to this, that in that region, if anywhere, it seems we ought with the greatest probability to place the autochthones (birth place) of mankind.”

According to the then-popular monogenist thinking, God formed humans in their pure form, but as they spread out over the globe, they degenerated in appearance. Blumenbach’s and other monogenists’ ideas led to the widely-held conclusion that the purest and most beautiful whites were the Circassians, one group of the northwestern Caucasus.

The idea gained so much popularity in the later decades of the 19th century that any freak show worth its salt in the 1880s included a Circassian Beauty. She was invariably a pale-skinned young woman kitted out like a hippie from the 1970s: puffy silk pants, sheer-flowing coats, and most importantly, a nimbus of frizzy, Afro-style darkish hair. Usually these women had names beginning with ‘Z’: Zana Zanobia, Zoe Meleke, Zula Zeleka, Zalumma Agra, Zoberdie Luti. Often they would seat themselves cross-legged on stage, holding a water-pipe, and looking demurely at the audience as the pitchman presented them as the purest example available of the Caucasian race. Once! (he would say), once this beauty had lived in the Caucasus, that region on the shores of the Black Sea which formed the cradle of all white peoples. She had been crooooooo-elly stolen from her home during a Turkish raid, and afterwards sold in the white slave markets of Constantinople as the member of a harem to an evil Turk. Beautiful as she was, she had been kept veiled from the rest of the world, and made to do her harem-owner’s bidding before being dramatically rescued.

The Circassian beauties were, of course, a hoax. Zoe Meleke, who appeared on the P T Barnum circuit in the States, was American-born. According to the circus press agent Dexter Fellows in the 1930s, one of the most famous Circassians – ‘Zuleika, The Circassian Sultana’ – was an Irish immigrant from Jersey City. Women tricking themselves up as these beauties would create the trademark “mossy hair” by using beer as shampoo and an artful use of the comb.

But the real world-historical significance of the Circassians derives not from their supposed physical attributes, but from the special niche they occupied for many centuries in the eastern Mediterranean. You can read more about the history and the current controversies surrounding the Circassians on the Geocurrents blog and about Circassian communities in Israel in my earlier posting.

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