The term eugenics, defining a theory of human evolutionary genetics and “racial improvement” that exerted a profound influence on archaeological interpretation in the Mediterranean basin and Near East, was coined In 1883 by Francis Galton. A widely respected Victorian statistician and social critic, Galton sought to apply the principles of Darwinian “natural selection” to the improvement of the human race. According to the genetic theory first detailed in Galton's most famous work, Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry into its Laws and Consequences (New York, 1870), human races possess varying levels of intelligence and physical capabilities. Indeed, the ability of each race—so the theory went—could be measured, to provide a clear hierarchy of racial groups.
The movement of history, Galton contended, was propelled by the effects of this hereditary inequality, with “superior” races naturally conquering and subsequently dominating “inferior” ones. Galton and his followers further believed that uncontrolled interbreeding between superior and inferior races led inevitably to the degeneration of the former, and to their inevitable conquest by yet purer and superior racial groups. The early supporters of the eugenics movement in England were primarily concerned with modern racial issues: the social effects of massive immigration into the country in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the often problematic relationship between British imperial administrators and the millions of Asians, Africans, and Middle Easterners they presumed to rule. Yet, one of the most important intellectual tasks undertaken by the supporters of eugenics was to demonstrate that racial inequality had been an operative factor throughout history—and that uncontrolled “race mixing” had uniformly disastrous results in all societies in which it occurred.
William M. Flinders Petrie was among the first archaeologists to be deeply affected by Galtonian eugenics in the reconstruction of past societies. In 1885, Petrie accepted employment by Galton to travel up the Nile River and photograph ancient Egyptian reliefs. The expectation was that the standard complement of human races, identifiable by their standard facial and bodily characteristics, could be traced back to pharaonic times. The result of this expedition was Petrie's book Racial Photographs from the Egyptian Monuments (1887), which was among the first archaeological works to describe the various ethnic groups of the ancient Near East with modern racial terminology. Petrie further elaborated the idea of racial hierarchy in the ancient Near East in his later excavations both in Egypt and Palestine. His recognition of successive strata of occupation at every site was linked to a sequence of historical conquests. Indeed, Petrie and the generation of Near Eastern archaeologists he trained and influenced grew accustomed to associating the appearance of new classes of artifacts at stratified sites such as Gurob in Egypt and Tell el-Ḥsi in Palestine with the arrival (and conquest) of aggressive and technologically superior ethnic groups.
The legacy of Petrie's eugenical thinking continued to exert an effect on the implicit racial thinking of Near Eastern archaeology until long after his death In 1940. The statistical assumptions underlying the seriation techniques used to construct a chronological typology of ceramic types (pioneered by Petrie at Naqada, Hu, and Abadiya in Egypt) were based on the acceptance of the inevitability of a rise-floruit-fall cycle in every aspect of human cultural production—implicitly paralleling the supposed genetic rise-floruit-fall of every interbreeding racial or ethnic group. Moreover, the identification of external invasion as the primary motivation for the major cultural breaks in every major archaeological period, from the Chalcolithic to the end of the Crusader period, served to transform modern archaeological research, at least partially, into an ideological justification for the aggressive expansion into the Near East of the professedly superior European imperial powers. The assumptions of Petrie and his followers about the cultural superiority of the supposedly northern Hyksos or Aegean-based Philistines are two cases that illustrate his eugenical belief about the effect exerted by superior, or more innovative, races on the basically uncreative culture of Palestine.
Racial terminology and eugenical thinking remained prominent in archaeological thinking through the 1930s. Considerable attention was paid by scholars to the racial origins of excavated skeletal remains and the racial connections of cultural forms and artifact types. Through the continuing use of Petrie's basic methodology of distinguishing discrete strata often uncritically linked to invasions of historically mentioned ethnic groups, race remained a prominent (though scientifically unverified) element in reconstructions of ancient Near Eastern history. In the continuing, uncritical acceptance of rise-floruit-fall cycles in pottery types, and in the undefined attribution of social or cultural change to outside “influence” or internal “disintegration,” some scholars may still implicitly promulgate the basic concepts of eugenical history. When, or if, they do, those concepts are promulgated as inherited ideology rather than empirically verified fact.
In the wake of World War II, however, the scientific bases for eugenical theories were largely undermined. Revulsion at the Nazis' final solution to the problem of “racial degeneration” ultimately paved the way for the final fall of eugenics, both as a modern social program and a scientific theory. In the 1950s and the 1960s, with the discovery of DNA and the beginning of research into population biology and the complexity of genetic inheritance, it became clear that the concept of “races” as distinct or even measurable entities was a dangerous oversimplification. New approaches—economic adaptation, innovation, cultural borrowing and exchange—in addition to invasion, came to be examined as the cause for changes in patterns of material culture.
[See also the biography of Petrie.]
- Cowan, Ruth S. “Francis Galton's Statistical Ideas: The Influence of Eugenics.” Isis 63 (1972): 509–528.
- Galton, Francis. Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry into Its Laws and Consequences. New York, 1870.
- Kendall, David G. “A Statistical Approach to Flinders Petrie's Sequence Dating.” Bulletin of the International Statistical Institute 40 (1963): 657–681.
- Kevles, Daniel J. In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity. New York, 1985.
- Lorimer, Douglas. “Theoretical Racism in Late-Victorian Anthropology, 1870–1900.” Victorian Studies 31 (1988): 405–430.
- Petrie, W. M. Flinders. Racial Photographs from the Egyptian Monuments. London, 1887.
- Petrie, W. M. Flinders. “The Earliest Racial Portraits.” Nature 39 (1888): 128–130.
- Silberman, Neil Asher. “Petrie and the Founding Fathers.” In Biblical Archaeology Today, 1990: Proceedings of the Second International Congress on Biblical Archaeology, Jerusalem, June–July 1990, edited by Avraham Biran and Joseph Aviram, pp. 545–554. Jerusalem, 1993.
Neil Asher Silberman