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All about skulls 

Speaking of skulls, which we weren’t, show me a skeleton and I can say “That’s a skeleton” as good as the next man. Show me a tibia or a fibula or a humerus, and, well, that’s where my knowledge of anatomy gets a bit shaky. But show me a skull and I know precisely what it is and where it goes. It’s the part of the skeleton that fascinates people more than any other bone in the body.

In the Museo de Naturaleza y Hombre, the Museum of Nature and Man, in Santa Cruz, there is a display case containing thirty-two skulls. The only description they have is that they are Guanche skulls, the former natives of Tenerife.

Incidentally, most of the skulls are almost toothless. This is not through old age, because most Guanches died before the age of 40, but they could have fallen out through time or else have been removed as souvenirs. An English visitor to Gran Canaria in 1884 noted the great demand for Guanche skulls, and a lot of the graves were being robbed to obtain them.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, after the theory of evolution had become accepted and the age of reason and science progressed, there was an upsurge in the desire to discover man’s origins which, although it led of course to solid scientific research, gave rise to some dodgy ideas, the most notorious probably being ‘Piltdown Man’. In this hoax, pieces of a skull were found at Piltdown in England in 1912 which, when put together, appeared to be a completely new species of pre-human anthropoid. And even though Piltdown Man had always had his sceptics, it was only in 1953 that he was proved positively to have been a forgery. For 41 years he had fooled the world – or some of it – as being the possible ‘Missing Link’.

Before the arrival of the Piltdown skull there was phrenology. The dictionary definition of ‘phrenology’ is the “study of external conformation of cranium as supposed index to development and position of organs belonging to the various mental faculties”. In other words a person’s character and mental abilities could be determined by examining the lumps and bumps and general shape of their skull. This ‘science’ was popular from about 1810 to 1840 when it became discredited, but then it underwent a revival during the early part of the 20th century by those ‘researchers’, such as followers of Nietzsche, who were looking for racial types, especially with an aim to establish racial superiority (i.e. the superiority of their own race).

The Canary Islands have had their share of questioning and questionable theorists who were acceptable in their time but who are now looked on askance.

In 1892 a visitor to Tenerife returned to Canada with a small collection of Guanche skulls and a mummy. Because measuring skulls was the thing to do at the time, the skulls were duly measured and a theory put forward in 1895 that was published in the Transactions of the Victoria Institute in London, by Sir J. William Dawson of the McGill University of Montreal, in which, based on this evidence, a strong correlation was found to link the Guanches of the Canary Islands with the natives of the east coast of North America. (Oh yes?)

Rene Verneau (1851-1938), a Frenchman, was an early anthropologist who visited the Canary Islands several times in the 1880’s and the 1890’s, when the economy of the archipelago was dominated by British financial interests. He found characteristics in common between the Guanches and Cro-Magnon man, whose remains had been discovered in the Dordogne area of south western France in 1868. However, Verneau’s investigations might not have been purely academic because he went on to evolve theories of racial types that coincided with political aims. After 1910 he travelled to North Africa to look for Cro-Magnon man, possibly with a view to establishing a racial link with France, and, what do you know, the French government also happened to be looking at that part of North Africa with a view to colonising it, so a racial link would help their imperial claim. Perhaps the Canary Islands were a lost economic and political cause for French influence.

The first major study by American physical anthropologist Earnest Albert Hooton (1887-1954), was the ‘Ancient Inhabitants of the Canary Islands’, a huge tome of 400 pages published in 1925. Among other things, by filling the gaps between the few known facts, he presumed the existence of a blond haired (Nordic) aristocratic class that were the overlords or menceys. Returning to the U.S., he went on to develop theories of racial types and the classification of human beings into ‘primary races’ and ‘sub-types’, focuss-ing on Negroes in particular, laying down racial stereotypes that are disgusting now but were acceptable in certain quarters at the time.

In a similar vein Dr. Ilse Schwidestsky (1907-1997) was an assistant in Germany during the 1930’s and 1940’s to one of the leading racial theorists of the Nazis. But she redeemed herself later, when, according to her ‘Wikipedia’ entry, she became a leading light during the “resurgence of German anthropology after the war and its re-integration into interna-tional science.”

Her heyday for research and prolific publication were from the 1960’s to the 1980’s. In 1963 her study of ‘The Pre-Hispanic population of the Canary Islands: An atro-phropogical investi-gation’ was published in Spanish and German. Had she shaken off her former in-fluences?

So where does this leave the Guanche skulls? Was position of the Guanche in the human league table tainted by these potentially biased studies? I don’t know, they might have been in the past, but not any more. Today it is accepted that the Guanches were descended initially from tribes of the Berber region of North Africa – a Cro-Magnon type (Verneau was right!), who arrived around the 1st millennium BC, who over time were joined by a Mediterranean type. In his book ‘The Guanches: Survivors and their Descendants,’ Jose Luis Concepcion wrote that, “According to Dr. Schwi-destsky, the Cro-Magnon type is recognised by his strong-featured, broad face and long, narrow skull, and the Mediterranean type by its long delicately-featured face and short broad skull.” This fits with written records of early mariners who noted that there were basically two types of Canary Islanders, one with white skin (Cro-Magnon) and the other with brown skin (Mediterranean).

By the way, the Cro-Magnons had a larger brain capacity than we homo sapiens have – doesn’t that make you feel second-rate on the ladder of racial superiority? (We can take comfort, however, that mental performance and brain capacity are not related, although to some people size might matter.)

And finally, in an article from the Daily Mail newspaper of 29th January 1934, entitled “How Girls can Choose the Ideal Husband: Know him by the Shape of his Head: Shun the Man with the Flat Skull,” Dr. Ida Spelleman, librarian with the British Phrenological Society, gave a talk at the Royal College of Surgeons during which she advised girls to go for men with “well-balanced” heads. Excuse me while I take a look in the mirror.