Robert Broom and race science

Paleontologist Robert Broom is a man with a complicated legacy. On the one hand, he excavated hundreds of therapsid skulls and made gargantuan contributions to our knowledge of stem-mammal evolution (Wyllie 2003). He also excavated some of the most complete and important fossil hominin skulls, perhaps the most famous of these being Mrs. Ples (the most complete Australopithecus africanus skull known) and the holotype of Paranthropus robustus.

Bust of Robert Broom holding the skull of Mrs. Ples, at the Ditsong National Museum of Natural History. Photo by Rute Martins via Wikimedia Commons.

On the other hand, he was an “arch-splitter” (Wyllie 2003). He had a “one-skull-one-species” taxonomic approach: pretty much every skull he found was given a new species name if it had any difference in morphology, geography, or stratigraphy. This is understandable for the time given the large amount of disparity among therapsid skulls, which is now recognized as being in part the result of ontogeny and sexual dimorphism as well as taxonomy; were this not recognized, an extremely high diversity might be the most parsimonious conclusion (Kammerer et al. 2011). Broom ended up naming 369 therapsid species; of these, less than 57% are still valid (Wyllie 2003), and the taxonomic mess is still being cleaned up. Broom and other early South African fossil collectors also had a habit of “headhunting”, i.e., almost exclusively focusing on the collection of skull material. Any other preserved bones would be left in the field: to quote Raath (1997), “over the years the Karoo became littered with these sad victims of palaeontological decapitation”.

But less talked about is Broom’s anthropological work. He also had an interest in anthropology, particularly regarding Khoe-San people. Given this was anthropology during the turn of the 20th century, it’s perhaps unsurprising that this work can be quite racist when viewed through a modern lens. But upon further investigation, a picture of Broom appears as a man who harbored unquestionably racist views. And some of his actions even at the time may have been considered unethical (and they’re certainly vile looking back now). Although Broom has been dead for over 70 years, it’s still worth bringing up this work and these views now.

CONTENT WARNING: this post will contain not only descriptions of Robert Broom’s race science, but also his methods for acquiring and processing human remains. They may be uncomfortable to read about. There is also outdated racial terminology, some of which is now offensive, used uncensored through this article (and in the titles of some of the references). You might want to skip this post if this content is potentially triggering.

First, a note on terminology. “Khoe-San” (this is the term preferred by the Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa; South African San Institute 2022) is an umbrella term for indigenous South Africans that don’t speak Bantu languages. They’re traditionally divided into the hunter-gathering San and the pastoralist Khoekhoen. Keep in mind that the San consist of many distinct nations that shouldn’t be treated as a monolith, and they don’t necessarily see themselves as culturally united with the Khoekhoen.

Now, for a brief history of Robert Broom. Broom was born in Scotland, where he got his BSc and MB. At first he worked as a doctor, first in Scotland and then Australia. Wanting to study mammal origins, he started by looking at marsupials and monotremes, but once he learned about the synapsids of Karoo, he moved to South Africa in 1897 and basically stayed there for the rest of his life. He started as a doctor in Port Nolloth, and eventually became a professor at what is now Stellenbosch University in 1903. He focused mostly on Permo-Triassic therapsids until the 1920s, when, after the discovery of the Taung child, he also started working in paleoanthropology (Watson 1952).

Unrelated side note from Broom’s history: due to the amount of therapsid fossils he found, he was appointed curator of the South African Museum’s herpetology collection. He was fired after selling a bunch of specimens to the AMNH (Watson 1952, Scott 2019).

As he gained an interest in paleoanthropology of South Africa, so too did he gain an interest in the indigenous people of the region, particularly the Khoe-San. He did not have particularly high opinions of them; in his writings, he would describe them as “more or less degenerate” (Broom 1923). In 1907, he suggested that they may have been “degraded… remnant[s] of a race as intelligent as [White people]” (Štrkalj 2000), which he would later suggest may have been “Boskop Man” (more on that later) (Broom 1923). He would later single out San and !ora people as being “degenerated” descendants of “more advanced” prehistoric peoples. In Broom’s eyes, the climate of South Africa encouraged “degeneration” and decreases of brain size, as opposed to the harsher climate of Europe, which produced, quote, “the highest type of man we have yet had on earth” (Broom 1933).

Broom’s anthropological work was effectively based on racial classification of skulls. A similar approach to what he did with fossil therapsids. As an example, he came up the concept of the Korana “race”. The “type” of the Korana was the remains of a !ora man (more on him below) (Morris 1987), which he insisted was morphologically different from other Khoe-San skulls. He initially suggested that the Korana were of mixed Khoekhoe, Bantu, and “Australoid” descent (Broom 1923). Later on, however, he started considering the Korana a distinct “race”, with affinities to “Australoid” people (Štrkalj 2000). By the 1940s, after a lot of contradicting himself, he ended up dividing indigenous South Africans into four racial groups. He thought that successively more “superior” groups of people would inhabit the same place over time (racial succession was also a common hypothesis among anthropologists of the time), and so the following groups lived in South Africa pre-colonization in this order: “Australoid” (Korana), “Bush” (i.e., San), “Negroid” (i.e., Bantu-speaking peoples) and “Boskop” (Boskop Man; more on that later) (Štrkalj 2000, Morris 2008); the Khoekhoen were of mixed San and Korana descent (Broom 1941). He cited previous work that recovered evidence for differences in the blood types of San and Khoekhoen people (Pijper 1935); without justification, he concluded that the Khoekhoen people sampled were “probably mainly Korana”, and thus took this paper as supporting his ideas (Štrkalj 2000). Circular reasoning, great. He would also speculative that the San and Korana were descended from North and Central Asian people respectively (Broom 1941); this shows that he subscribed to the “Out of Asia theory”, a common hypothesis in the early 20th century that stated humanity can’t have originated in Africa because [insert negative stereotypes of African people here].

Basically nobody bought his proposal of the Korana (e.g., Wells 1951). Other anthropologists couldn’t find evidence that the !ora were in any way separate from other Khokhoe except culturally. When Broom was asked about it at the end of his career, his response was “I invented the Korana!” (Štrkalj 2000). Here he admitted that his racial classification was arbitrary and subjective – he could up and invent a race of people based mostly on superficial characteristics and his preconceptions. Ignoring genetics, culture, history, etc., people could be classified the same way that therocephalian skulls could. Dobzhansky (1962) called this practice of racial typology out for basically letting a researcher do whatever he wanted.

(I think that the people who Broom considered Korana, the !ora, are now considered Khoekhoen. Broom had previously stated that the Korana were a subgroup of the Khoekhoen (e.g. Broom 1918), and Štrkalj (2000) reiterates this. I’ll admit my unfamiliarity with ethnic groups of South Africa, so if this is wrong please correct me.)

And then there’s Boskop Man. In 1913, a skull was found near Boskop, South Africa, when two farmers were digging a trench. A guy named F.W. FitzSimons would provide a short description, comparing it to Neanderthals. Broom would end up describing the specimen in 1918. He estimated the specimen as having a brain volume of 1972 cc, which he considered as higher than those of Khoe-San people and more comparable to the brain volume of European Cro-Magnon Man. Instead of, I don’t know, considering this a possible ancestor of the indigenous people who lived in the region or something, he named it as a new species of fossil human, Homo capensis – Boskop Man. At the time he considered it a close relative, possibly an ancestor, of Cro-Magnon Man, with the justification that because of how large its estimated brain size was, it had to have affinities with European humans (Broom 1918). He would later revise his ideas, suggesting that they were probably the ancestors of the San, who by modern times had “degenerated” (Broom 1923).

Reconstruction of the skull of Boskop Man. From Broom 1918.

The idea of “Boskop Man” wouldn’t be put to rest until 1958, when Ronald Singer pointed out that there was no significant difference between the alleged Boskop skulls (both Broom’s original and those that had been referred since) and those of other indigenous South Africans, effectively proving Broom’s entire classification system artificial (Singer 1958).

As a side note, you may have heard of Boskop Man as this incredibly smart, baby-faced fossil human, possibly “better” than modern humans, and too good to stay alive for long. That is entirely fiction, originated in a less-than-serious essay (Eiseley 1959), uncritically parroted in a neuroscience textbook (Lynch and Granger 2008) and this article for Discover Magazine, and passed around by unscrupulous trivia websites and conspiracy theorists ever since. John Hawks takes the stuffing out of this idea of Boskop Man here and here.

Needless to say, Broom’s anthropological ideas weren’t popular – even his Royal Society obituary notes that his work “has never been completely accepted by any one” (Watson 1952). Considering he pretty much worked alone throughout his entire career (Watson 1952, Morris 2008), this is unsurprising. But perhaps the only thing that could eclipse his anthropological results are his methods. Now we get to the parts that are hard to read about.

At the time, many indigenous people would have their dead bodies collected by museums for their anthropological collections. In the eyes of colonialist curators, to collect the body of an indigenous person was like collecting specimens of the mammalian megafauna of the region. Khoe-San people were no exception; in fact their skeletons were particularly sought after by European museums (Morris 1987). Broom had no issue working with Khoekhoe skulls recovered by digging into 100-250 year old graves (Broom 1923) – skulls that he admitted to digging up in his writings to Henry Fairfield Osborn (Findlay 1972).

Broom would also, uh, collect bodies himself. In 1897, while in Port Nolloth, he somehow acquired the bodies of three elderly Khoekhoen (two men and one woman), who had come to the city in response to a drought and died there (Morris 1987). Broom, as he nonchalantly wrote in a correspondence to L.H. Wells, decapitated their corpses, after which he boiled their heads on his kitchen stove (Wells 1951). He somehow also acquired a seven-month-old Khoekhoe fetus, which he removed the brain from before preserving in formalin (Findlay 1972). This fetus and the decapitated heads were then shipped to the University of Edinburgh (Morris 1987).

In 1921, Andreas Links, a !ora man born in Kenhardt, South Africa, died in prison in Douglas (Morris 1987). Broom somehow acquired Links’ body; in Broom’s words, “it is unnecessary to say how I got the skeleton” (Findlay 1972). Links’ body was then given a “postmortem” in Broom’s garage, before being deposited in the McGregor Memorial Museum as a skeleton (and the “type” of the Korana people; Morris 1987). Not long after this, Broom got his hands on the body of another San inmate from the Douglas jail, an 18-year-old man from Langeberg who died of tuberculosis. The body of this man was “prepared” in Broom’s garden: Broom buried the body so that decomposing organisms would deflesh it, and after several months he dug up the bones and sent them to the McGregor Memorial Museum (Morris 1987). What is particularly disturbing about what happened to these two men is how Broom openly wrote on how he defied South African regulations in order to acquire their bodies, particularly regarding the second San inmate:

There was a regulation which prevented prisoners from being photographed. But of course such regulations will never stop one who is determined. Photograph them while they are working in the garden. If a prisoner dies and you want his skeleton, probably two or three regulations stand in the way, but the enthusiast does not worry about such regulations.

Robert Broom, as quoted in Findlay 1972

Indeed, the photographs of this man were published in Broom 1941.

The San youth, name unknown, whose skeleton is catalogued in the McGregor Memorial Museum as MMK 283. Photographs from Broom 1941, duplicated from Morris 1987.

I’m including these photos here to emphasize that the bodies Broom and other turn-of-the-century anthropologists collected were not merely specimens. They belonged to people. They had names, although many were unrecorded or lost to time. They had families, they had dreams. They laughed and they cried. They were just as complex as you or I. But to these anthropologists, they were just more skulls for the collection.

As a final piece of evidence in how little Broom thought of Khoe-San people, let me bring in one more disturbing anecdote from his time as a doctor. He wanted to test whether the sun could help cure influenza. He took two Khoe-San patients, both sick with the flu, locked one in a dark hut and made the other stay outside, exposed to sunlight. The former man died – which, to Broom, supported his hypothesis (Štrkalj 2000).

It is clear that Robert Broom was a man who held racist and white supremacist views and incorporated these views into his scientific work. Unfortunately, this was not uncommon for scientists, especially anthropologists, from his time. This had even permeated the minds of paleontologists (for example, Henry Fairfield Osborn’s open support of eugenics), and it seems that Broom was not an exception. What strikes me as particularly suspicious, however, is how he either skirts around the methods in which he acquired the bodies of dead Khoe-San people, or alludes to illegally circumventing national regulations to do so. And his treatment of Khoe-San people, living and deceased, and detachment from their humanity is shocking to a modern observer. While his views on human races could be considered a product of his time, considering the colonialist context of turn-of-the-century South Africa and the preponderance of scientific racism within the anthropological community, the dehumanizing way he treated the bodies of Khoe-San people, the implied methods through which he acquired them, and the detached manner in which he viewed these actions as late as 1951, might have even been considered objectionable then. Both his views and actions are beyond the pale when viewed through a modern lens. And these should definitely be considered when we assess his legacy.

References

Broom, R. (1918). “The Evidence Afforded by the Boskop Skull of a New Species of Primitive Man (Homo capensis)“. Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History 23(2): 63-79.
Broom, R. (1923). “A Contribution to the Craniology of the Yellow-Skinned Races of South Africa“. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 53: 132-49.
Broom, R. (1933). The Coming of Man: Was It Accident or Design? H. F. & G Witherby.
Broom, R. (1941). “Bushmen, Koranas and Hottentots”. Annals of the Transvaal Museum 20: 217-49.
Dobzhansky, T. (1962). Mankind Evolving. Yale University Press.
Eiseley, L. (1959). The Immense Journey: An Imaginative Naturalist Explores the Mysteries of Man and Nature. Vintage.
Findlay, G.H. (1972). Dr Robert Broom, F.R.S. A.A. Balkema.
Kammerer, C.F.; Angielczyk, K.D.; Frobisch, J. (2011). “A comprehensive taxonomic revision of Dicynodon (Therapsida, Anomodontia) and its implications for dicynodont phylogeny, biogeography, and biostratigraphy“. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 31(sup1): 1-158.
Lynch, G.; Granger, R. (2008). Big Brain: The Origins and Future of Human Intelligence. St. Martin’s Press.
Morris, A.G. (1987). “The Reflection of the Collector: San and Khoi Skeletons in Museum Collections“. The South African Archaeological Bulletin 42(145): 12-22.
Morris, A.G. (2008). “Searching for ‘real’ Hottentots: the Khoekhoe in the history of South African physical anthropology“. Southern African Humanities 20: 221-33.
Pijper, A. (1935). “Blood-Groups in Hottentots”. South African Medical Journal 9: 192-4.
Raath, M.A. (1997). “Coaxing History From the Rocks: The Contribution of the BPI (Palaeontology)“. Palaeontologia Africana 33: 85-8.
Scott, M. (2019). “Robert Broom“. Strange Science: The Rocky Road to Modern Paleontology and Biology.
South African San Institute (2022). “History“. South African San Institute.
Štrkalj, G. (2000). “Inventing Races: Robert Broom’s Research on the Khoisan“. Annals of the Transvaal Museum 37: 113-24.
Watson, D.M.S. (1952). “Robert Broom 1866-1951“. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 8(21): 37-70.
Wells, L.H. (1951). “The Broom Collection of Nama Hottentot Skulls in the Edinburgh University Anatomical Museum8″. South African Journal of Science
Wyllie, A. (2003). “A review of Robert Broom’s therapsid holotypes: have they survived the test of time?Palaeontologia Africana 39: 1-19.

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