Buckshot for Brains


Phrenologists linked personality to features of the skull

Is all Communication Persuasive?

(Note: My fellowship at Vancouver Island University allows me to meet students and faculty across campus, and I was delighted to talk about how early studies of human skulls and brains affects ways discourse transmits notions of Indigenous identity. Professor Dawn Thompson—who has written eloquently on identity and children’s literature—let me share my research with one of her classes, and, what follows are my notes from the talk).

I came across a statement while reading a treatise that declared all communication is persuasive.

The statement gave me pause.

I turned it upside down: are there instances when communication is not persuasive?

News media critics have long argued that reporters cannot be objective because we ordinary muggles cannot be objective.

To dig deeper I asked a neurologist—a specialist on the brain—whether this sounds reasonable:

Is all communication is persuasive?

The neurologist-by-day, and husband-by-night, invited me to stick out my arm and wriggle my fingers.

He explained that my fingers were grasping, and trying to connect—doing what my brain instructed.

The area of the brain that controls my hand also controls my communication.

So it is possible, he said, that—like the grasping hand—my communication tries to touch, grasp and persuade.

Truth is, we know little about how the brain works.

Enter the Phrenologists

Scientists in the 1830s in Europe and North America were keen on learning how the brain affects the mind, but had few ways to glean empirical evidence.

Franz (Francois) Joseph Gall set out to study the brain in the late 18th Century and created an inventory of personality traits—ranging from combativeness to generosity—and located the traits on a drawing of the brain.

Gall’s rendering of the brain is a literal map of personality traits.

Problem is, his assumption about the location of the traits on the brain was a guess.

He reckoned that if a pious woman had a thick brow, then piousness must be connected to the shape of the brow.

A more pronounced brow would indicate piousness.

You can still find ceramic busts with Gall’s map of human attributes created by Orson and Lorenzo Fowler, who ran a brisk business in Philadelphia where they sold books, pamphlets, and a salmagundi of curios at their shop on Chestnut Street, the Phrenological Cabinet.

You could pop into their shop in the 1830s and have your head examined.


The Fowlers would read your noggin and then reveal your personality traits to you.

Just a few block from the Fowler brothers lived a prominent phrenologist: Samuel George Morton.

Morton, a professor and physician, wrote the definitive text on phrenology, Crania Americana, which was published in three volumes in the 1830s and 1840s.

Morton developed a technique for measuring intelligence.

He would get a human skull, scoop out the brain-like jelly, boil the head, and polish the interior.

Morton would pour buckshot into the skull cavity until it was full, and then dump out the pellets and weigh them.

The heavier the buckshot, the more the brains.

Morton argued that Caucasoid peoples had the largest skulls, and were therefore the most intelligent.

The Caucasoid race was considered the finest of all.

Next in line came the Malayan, the Mongoloid, the American and the Ethiopian, according to many phrenologists of the era.

The terms were given to what some scientists considered different “races” of humans.


The Fowler brothers made a plaster bust of Black Hawk’s head and studied it prodigiously

American Indians were Judged Harshly

Morton amassed skulls from across the globe, with more than 800 in his collection.

He studied American Indian skulls on many occasions, thanks to grave-robbers who could earn cash for sending crania to eager scientists.

Morton declared that their heads revealed that Native Americans were warlike and aggressive.

But Indians were also characterized as lacking the ability to be civilized.

Armed with this “science,” politicians, railroad builders, business-folk and the military seized the opportunity to wrest lands from the first inhabitants, declaring that our minds lacked the skills to manage our own destinies.

We could not be civilized.

Today’s brain researchers decry phrenological interpretations of the human race.

And yet the entailments of phrenology continue today.

When a 9000-year-old skeleton was unearthed in the Columbia River near Kennewick, Washington, in 1996, it was heralded as a scientific discovery.

In truth, the bones were removed from his grave without permission from local Native American tribes, whose ancestors are protected by Federal law.

Kennewick Man

Local tribes demanded the return of the ancestor while a group of anthropologists sued for the right to study the bones.

Meanwhile, the head and skeleton of the ancient body were moulded, and a complete copy was made by an anthropologist who told reporters the skull looked Caucasian.

The scientist said the skull resembled the fictional television character, Jean-Luc Picard.

News media had a field-day with the story, and paired pictures of the ancient skull alongside images of British actor Patrick Stewart (who plays Jean-Luc Picard).

In essence, media reports raised the spectre that the ancient bones belonged to a mysterious Caucasian visitor to the Pacific Northwest.

Not a Native American.

The scientists won the lawsuit and received permission to study the bones.

They published their findings in a coffee-table sized book in 2014, and determined that Kennewick Man was Polynesian.

But the story doesn’t end there.

Danish scientists had been honing their DNA-extracting skills and were finally able to unlock the keys to Kennewick Man’s genetic origins.

In 2015 they published their findings: the skeleton’s DNA is linked to the DNA of members of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.

Tribal member worked with elected officials to have the bones returned, and in early 2018, the ancient one was returned to the earth.

So, let’s return to the question at hand:

Is all communication is persuasive?

What data do we have to support the claim?

  • We know that Indian graves were often robbed of their occupants and their belongings, which were often sold
  • We know from historical texts that Native people were considered incapable of civilization: a view that was held by phrenologists who studies skulls in the 19th Century
  • We know politicians and military officials used the uncivilizable myth as evidence to remove Native people from their homelands
  • We know that, while today scientists agree there is only one human race, the terms used to distinguish one group from another is linked to a past shaped by phrenologists who believed in separate races
  • We know that more variation occurs within “ethnic” groups than across “ethnic” types
  • We misjudge people by the way they look, letting our stereotypes get in the way of critical thinking

My thanks to Professor Thompson and Vancouver Island University for the opportunity to be a part of the community of scholars and neighbors.


19 November 2019

British Columbia
















About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
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