Journal of the History of Biology

, Volume 38, Issue 2, pp 327–365 | Cite as

Ancient Hunters and Their Modern Representatives: William Sollas’s (1849–1936) Anthropology from Disappointed Bridge to Trunkless Tree and the Instrumentalisation of Racial Conflict



During the first decades of the 20th century, many anthropologists who had previously adhered to a linear view of human evolution, from an ape via Pithecanthropus erectus(today Homo erectus) and Neanderthal to modern humans, began to change their outlook. A shift towards a branching model of human evolution began to take hold. Among the scientific factors motivating this trend was the insight that mammalian evolution in general was best represented by a branching tree, rather than by a straight line, and that several new fossil hominids were discovered that differed significantly in their morphology but seemed to date from about the same period. The ideological and practical implications of imperialism and WWI have also been identified as formative of the new evolutionary scenarios in which racial conflict played a crucial role. The paper will illustrate this general shift in anthropological theory for one particular scientist, William Sollas (1849–1936). Sollas achieved a synthesis of human morphological and cultural evolution in what I will refer to as an imperialist model. In this theoretical framework, migration, conflict, and replacement became the main mechanisms for progress spurred by ‘ ȁ8nature’s tyrant,’ natural selection.


anthropology beginning of 20th century Britain diversity vs. linearity Grafton Elliot Smith Gustav Schwalbe Henri Breuil human evolution ideology imperialism Marcellin Boule Neanderthal phylogenetic trees Piltdown Pithecanthropus race Thomas Henry Huxley William Sollas WWI 


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© Springer 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Science StudiesSwiss Federal Institute of Technology ETH Zentrum RACZurichSwitzerland

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