Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
August 2004

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Anatomy of Indians and Inuit



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, generally well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]



[This article, more than any of the others from the collection, shows its age. It is steeped in the late XIX th -early XX th centuries conceptions of racial categories, and desires to stereotype and systematize the human race, as was commonly done at the time. Rather than human unity and similarity, differences were emphasized and the smallest of these differences were given much play. In the "scientific writings" of this period, vast differences were noted between groups and hierarchies established between "human races", some being "purer", thus "superior", while others were "more mixed", thus inferior. Behind a veneer of science that seemed to give them some credibility, such distinctions were actually ethnocentric. Frequently, these views justified the domination of some groups over others. Today, most experts reject the concept of races as unscientific.   They emphasize that there are no biologically significant group differences; that within all human populations there is a great genetic diversity; that this diversity is greater than that found between the "so-called" races; that there does not exist a "pure" race, separate from others, all groups having been formed from a common genetic pool and having continued, more or less, to intermingle with each other. While the text quoted below does not carry discussion of racial features to the extremes that it was sometimes taken in the early part of the XX th century, it is evidently influenced by these racial conceptions that we reject today. To know more about this, see the discussion about races at the Wikipedia Encyclopedia.]



While the American Indians show many minor and even some important physical variations, and can be separated into several physical types, they present throughout the continent so many features in common that they may properly be regarded as one great race, admitting of a general anatomical description. The [Inuit] form a distinct sub-race of the Mongolo-Malay and must be treated separately.


The Indian, in many of his anatomical characters, stands between the white and the negro. His skin is of various shades of brown, tinged in youth, particularly in the cheeks, with the red of the circulating blood. The term "red Indian" is a misnomer. Very dark individuals of a hue approaching chocolate or even the colour of some negroes are found in more primitive tribes, especially in the S. and among the old men, who often went nearly naked. Most women and school children or others who wear clothing [.] are lighter in colour. Prolonged exposure to the elements tends, as with whites, to darken the skin. The darkest. parts of the skin are ordinarily the back of the hands, wrists, and neck, the axilae, nipples, peritoneal regions, and the exposed parts of the feet. A newborn infant is of varying degrees of dusky red.


The colour of the hair is generally black, with the lustre and alight bluish or brownish tinge that occurs among whites, not the dull greyish black of the African negro. With many individuals of all ages above early childhood who go much with bare head the hair becomes partly bleached, especially superficially, turning to a rusty hue.


The colour of the eyes varies from hazel-brown to dark brown. The conjunctiva in the young is bluish; in adults, especially the old, dirty-yellowish. The iris is often surrounded with a narrow but clearly marked ring.


The skin appears to be slightly thicker than that of the whites. The normal corrugations on the back of the hand and wrist are from childhood decidedly more pronounced in Indians of both sexes.


The hair of the head is straight, almost circular in cross-section, slightly coarser than in the average white, rather abundant and long. The range of variation in natural length is from 40 to 100 cm., or 18 in. to 36 in. Most male Indians would have a slight to moderate moustache and some beard on the chin if they allowed the hair to grow; but side whiskers in many are absent, or nearly so. Both moustache and chin beard are scarcer and coarser than with the whites, straight, of the same black as the hair, and in length 4 to 7 cm., or 1½ in. to 2½ in. The hair in the axilae and on the pubis is moderate in quantity, in some instances nearly absent, and on the rest of the body hairs are shorter and less abundant than with the average white person. The nails are dull bluish in hue and moderately tough.


The face is well rounded and agreeable in childhood, interesting and occasionally handsome during adolescence and earlier adult life, and agreeable but much wrinkled in old age. The forehead in adults with undeformed skulls is somewhat low and in males slopes slightly backward. The eyebrows, where not plucked, are frequently connected by sparser hair above the nose. The eyelashes are moderately thick and long. The apertures of the eyes are slightly oblique, the outer canthi, especially the right one, being the higher. In children the fold called Mongolic is general, but not excessive. The root of the nose is usually depressed, as in most whites. The size and shape of the nose vary much, but it is commonly slightly shorter at the base and relatively wider than in whites, with an aquiline bridge predominating in men. In many men the point of the nose is lower than the base of the septum, the distal length exceeding the proximal. This peculiarity is especially frequent in some tribes. In women the nasal depression is wider and often shallower, and the bridge lower. Thin noses are not found. The lips are well formed and, barring individual exceptions, about as thick as in average whites. Prognathism is greater than in whites. The malars are in both sexes somewhat large and prominent; this becomes especially apparent in old age when much of the adipose tissue below them is gone. The chin often appears less prominent than in whites, but this effect is due to the greater alveolar protrusion. The ears are well formed and of good size, occasionally somewhat thick. The neck is of fair dimensions, never very long or thin.


The body as a rule is of good proportions, symmetrical, and, except in old age, straight and well nourished. The chest is of ample size, especially in men. The abdomen, which in children is often rather large, retains but slight fullness in later life. The pelvis, on account of the ample chest, appears somewhat small, but is not so by actual measurement. The Spinal curves are only moderate, as are the size and prominence of the buttocks. The thighs are rather shapely; the calves are usually smaller than in whites. The upper limbs are of good shape and medium musculature. The feet and hands are well moulded and in many tribes smaller than they ordinarily are in whites. The toes are rather short, and, where the people walk much barefoot or in sandals, show more or less separation. The proximal parts of the second and third toes are often confluent. In the more sedentary tribes the women, and occasionally also the men, are inclined to corpulence. The breasts of women are of medium size; in the childless the conical form predominates; the nipple and areola are more pronounced than in whites; in later life the breasts become small and flaccid. The genital organs do not differ essentially from those of the whites.


The Indian skull is, on the average, slightly smaller than that of whites of equal height. Cranial capacity in men ranges from 1,300 to 1,500 c.c.; in women from about 1,150 to 1,350 c. c. The frontal region in men is often low and sloping, the sagittal region elevated, the occipital region marked with moderate ridges and, in the dolichocephalic, protruding. Sutures are mostly less serrated than in whites; metopism, except in some localities, is rare, and occipital division is uncommon, while malar division is very rare and parietal division extremely so. Intercalated bones are few in undeformed crania; in deformed crania they are more numerous. The glabella, supraorbital ridges, and mastoids in male skulls are well-developed and sometimes heavy; in women they are small or of medium size. The nasal bridge is occasionally low, the nasal spine smaller than in whites; the lower borders of the nasal aperture are not often sharp, but nasal gutters are rare; subnasal fossae are rather common. Orbits are of fair volume, approaching the quadrilateral, with angles rounded. Malars are often large, submalar depressions medium or shallow. The upper alveolar process, and occasionally also the lower, shows in both sexes a degree of prognathism greater than the average in whites, but less than in the negro. The protusion on the whole is somewhat greater in the females. The face is meso- or ortho-gnathic. The lower jaw varies greatly. The chin is of moderate prominence, occasionally high, sometimes square in form. The prominence of the angles in full-grown males is not infrequently pronounced.


As to base structures, the foramen magnum is seldom large, and its position and inclination are very nearly the same as in whites; the styloid process is mostly smaller than in whites and not infrequently rudimentary; petrous portions on the average are less depressed below the level of neighbouring parts than in whites; anterior lacerated foramina are smaller; the palate is well formed and fairly spacious, mostly parabolic, occasionally U-shaped.


The teeth are of moderate size; upper incisors are ventrally concave, shovel-shaped; canines not excessive; molars much as in whites; third molars rarely absent when adult life is reached. The usual cuspidory formula, though variations are numerous, is 4, 4, 3, above; 5, 5, irregular, below. A supernumerary conical dental element appears with some frequency in the upper jaw between, in front of, or behind the middle permanent incisors.


The bones of the vertebral column, the ribs, sternum, clavicles, and the smaller bones of the upper and lower limbs present many marks of minor importance. The pelvis is well formed, moderately spacious, approaching the European in shape. The humerus is rather flat, at times very much so; the fossa in 31 per cent. is perforated; but vestiges of asupra-condyloid process are much rarer than in whites. The humero-radial index of maximum frequency in adult males is 77 to 80 (in whites 71 to 75); humero-femoral index, 71 to 75 (in whites 70 to 74). The femur is quite flat below the tuberosities; the tibia, often flat (platycnemic.)


Of the brain and other soft organs but little is known. Two adult male Apache brains, collected by Dr. W. Matthews and now preserved in the U. S. National Museum, weighed after removal 1,191 and 1,304 grams, respectively. Both show good gyration.


The [Inuit] differs anatomically from the Indian in many important features. His hair and eyes are similar in shade, though the eyes are more obliquely set; but his skin colour on the whole is lighter, being yellowish or light brown, with a pronounced redness of the face. The Eskimo skull is high, normally acaphoid, and usually spacious. The face is large and flat, and the nasal bones are narrower than inj any other people. The bones of the body are usually strong. There is less flattening of the shaft of the humerus, of the upper part of the shaft of the femur, and of the tibia. The superior border of the scapula shows often an angular instead of a curved outline.


In anthropometric differentiation the native tribes N. of Mexico are primarily separable into Indians and [Inuit]. Some of the adjacent Indian tribes show [Inuit] admixture.


The Indians among themselves vary considerably in stature, in form of the head and face, and of the orbits, the nose, and the nasal aperture. Low stature, from 180 to 185 cm. in males, is found among some of the Californian tribes (as the Yuki of Round Valley agency), many of the Pueblos, and some of the tribes of the N. W. coast, as the Salish of Harrison lake and Thompson r., and others. Among the Tigua, Tewa, Apache, Navaho, Comanche, northern Ute, Paiute, and Shoehoni, among the majority of California, Washington, and Oregon tribes, and among the eastern Cherokee, Chickasaw, Kiowa, and Iowa the height in male adults ranges between 185 and 170 cm., while among the Yuma, Mohave, Marioopa, Pima, Nez Percés   Sioux, Crows, Winnebago, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Iroquois, Osage, Chippewa, and eastern Algonquians the prevalent stature of adult men is from 170 to 175 cm. The range of variation in the majority of tribes and in both sexes is within 30 cm. The stature does not regularly follow the geographic or climatic features, nor does it agree wholly with the distribution of the other principal physical characteristics. The women are on the average about 125 cm., shorter than the men; the difference is greater among the tall than among the short tribes.


The distribution of the Indians according to cephalic index is of much interest. Excluding tribes that are known to be much mixed, there are found in the territory N. of Mexico all the three principal classes of cranial form, namely, dolicho-, brachy-, and meso-cephalic. Among the extremely dolichocephalic were the Delawares and the southern Utah cliff-dwellers. Moderate dolichocephaly, with occasional extreme forms, was and is very prevalent, being found in the Algonquian and the majority of the Siouan and Plains tribes and among the Siksika, Shoahoni, soma Pueblos (e. g., Tam), and the Pima. Pure brachycephaly existed in Florida, and prevailed in the mound region and among the ancient Pueblos. It is best represented to-day among the Apache, Walapai, Havasupai, Nez Percés, Harrison Lake Salish, Osage, and Wichita, and in a less degree, among the Hopi, Zuni, most of the Rio Grande Pueblos, Navaho, Mohave, Yuma, California Mission Indians, Comanche, Winnebago, many of the north-western tribes, and Seminole. Mesocephaly existed principally among the California Indians, the Cherokee, and some of the Sioux and Iroquois. There are numerous tribes in North America about whose cephalic form there is still much uncertainty on account of the prevailing head deformation. As to the height of the head, which must naturally be considered in connection with the cephalic index, fair uniformity is found. In the Apache the head is rather low, among moat other tribes it is moderate.


The form of the face is generally allied, as among other peoples, to the form of the head, being relatively narrow in narrow heads and broad in the brachycephalic. Orbits show variations, but the prevalent form is mesoseme. The nose and the nasal aperture are generally mesorhinic; the principal exception to this is found on the W. coast, especially in California, where a relatively narrow nose (leptorhinic) was common. The projection of the upper alveolar region is almost uniformly mesognathic.


The [Inuit] range in height from short to medium, with long and high head, relatively broad flat face, high orbits, and narrow nose, showing alveolar prognathism like the Indians.

Return to the Index page of Indians of Canada and Quebec


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada , Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Boardf Canada, Ottawa, 1913, 632p., pp. 22-24.



© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College