Dead woman’s skull leads to racism-in-science project

The discovery of a mysterious human skull in an obsolete department at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa has exposed links to Nazi Germany and led to a groundbreaking new ‘racism in science’ research project by the faculty of arts and social sciences.

The unexpected find of the skull and two hair and eye-colour charts among the remnants of the closed down department of anthropology (volkekunde), was made by a postgraduate student in the department of sociology and social anthropology while she was researching the former department’s history.

The skull, according to a report by Dr DF du Toit, formerly of the Stellenbosch Medical School, belonged to a 35- to 50-year-old female of mixed ancestry, and was not an exhumed skull from a coffin or grave.

Although it had no registration identification marks, his report confirmed it had come from a legally designated anatomy facility and formed part of a collection that conformed to the Human Tissue Act.

Now the research team’s aim is to explore the role of science in the race-based policies of South Africa’s history and, specifically, to what extent “racism in science” influenced the wider intellectual and pedagogical environment of Stellenbosch University in the past.

During the apartheid era, Stellenbosch was considered the intellectual heart of Afrikanerdom.

“The project is expected to take at least five years,” Professor Johan Hattingh, dean of the faculty of arts and social sciences, told University World News.

Scientific questions

The discovery of the skull and other items has raised serious scientific questions among the university’s social anthropologists. While skeletal remains and cadavers are routinely used for teaching in anatomy departments, staff were intrigued by how the skull was used for teaching the human sciences discipline of anthropology.

“The project is a precursor to a much wider and deeper scholarly question on the impact and influence of the political and social paradigms of academic leaders on the curricula and teaching models of our higher education institutions,” said Professor Eugene Cloete, vice-rector for research and innovation.

“As thought leaders it is our moral duty to ask critical questions about the context, focus, relevance and legacies of the scientific endeavours of our institutions.”

What was the role of science in the race-based policies of the past? How widespread was the use of research and teaching models grounded in racial thinking in South African universities?

The research team will focus on the role and contribution of academic thought and intellectual paradigms of the past on policies that divided people into racial and cultural ’types’, sought to prevent racial mixing, and provided the basis for discrimination.

Hattingh said the academics were very excited about the discovery. The research team, led by Dr Mandisa Mbali, Dr Thomas Cousins and professors Steven Robins and Kees van der Waal, will investigate the historical breaks and continuities in the human sciences, he said.

“The topic is so involved we would need to put PhD students on to it, and we have already started collaborating with a number of our overseas peers,” Hattingh told University World News.

The Nazi connection

Central to the research would be clarification of how the objects landed up where they did, he said. Although it is unclear how the skull and the hair and eye-colour charts were used in research and teaching at Stellenbosch, the hair colour chart is in a silver metal case bearing the name of Dr Eugen Fischer.

Professor Robins found an identical instrument at the Max Planck Society Archives in Berlin while doing research on Fischer, a leading German eugenics scientist during the first half of the 20th century.

Apparently these kinds of measuring and classifying instruments were used in many parts of the world to advance ideas of eugenics and racial hygiene that were developed by scientists like Fischer.

“This project aims to interact with international researchers and is inspired by the idea that by understanding the 20th century history of the human sciences, and anthropology in particular, it may be possible to better understand the ethical challenges facing science in the 21st century,” said Robins.

Fischer, who was director of Berlin’s Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics (KWI-A) from 1927-42, became Hitler’s most senior racial scientist. His work also gave credence to widely held scientific claims about the ‘problem’ of miscegenation.

A 1908 study of the Rehoboth Basters in what was then German South West Africa launched Fischer’s scientific career in Germany, and Hitler read his work with keen interest when he was in prison in Munich in 1923.

Given the tragic history of the abuse of science during the Nazi era, the university plans to establish how these eugenics-related research and teaching materials ended up at Stellenbosch and whether they were used in research and teaching in one way or another.

The research has implications that go well beyond the university’s department of sociology and social anthropology. Fischer’s ideas were influential in anthropology departments and medical schools throughout the world. Some have argued that certain ethical problems generated by eugenics persist in current genetic science and cognate disciplines.

Hattingh said speculation was that the skull and other items “had formed part of the teaching material used in the now-defunct department of volkekunde”.

“The hypothesis is that they were used in teaching and research in the first part of the 20th century in physical anthropology. That department closed down in 1998 when student numbers dwindled and it was no longer a viable department. The remains were put into storage.”

He said the find, and the new research programme, “ties in nicely with the University of Stellenbosch’s programme of continual transformation.

“We always want to become more relevant to society, and stumbling upon this will help us to think about the role of the social sciences in the 20th century, and the tragic abuse of social science in history,” Hattingh told University World News.