‘Rare Work for the Professors’: Phrenologists and the Australian Skull, c. 1815–1860
This chapter explores the meanings and values that Indigenous Australian crania held for practitioners of the unorthodox cerebral science of phrenology. Historians of racial thought have assumed that phrenology enjoyed widespread credence in colonial Australia, and was an influential ingredient in the coalescence of racialist perceptions of the continent’s first peoples. Convinced phrenologists, and colonists curious about this unconventional cerebral science, were responsible for probably the majority of desecrations of ancestral burial places that we know occurred during the first half of the nineteenth century. However, as this chapter argues, contribution of phrenology to colonial perceptions of indigeneity was influential only in so far as it reinforced received erroneous and socially pernicious notions that Australia’s first peoples were biologically far less capable of intellectual and moral improvement compared to European and other racial types.