University of Cambridge > > Wolfson College Lunchtime Seminar Series - Wednesdays of Full Term > Linnaeus and the Troglodyte: Natural History and Europe's Encounter with Human Diversity in the Eighteenth Century

Linnaeus and the Troglodyte: Natural History and Europe's Encounter with Human Diversity in the Eighteenth Century

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  • UserDr Christina Skott, Director of Studies in History & Tutor, Wolfson College; College Lecturer & Director of Studies in History, Magdalene College; Affiliated Lecturer, Faculty of History
  • ClockWednesday 26 October 2011, 13:00-14:00
  • HouseCombination Room, Wolfson College.

If you have a question about this talk, please contact ed299.

This paper sets out to discuss how early modern European expansion informed Enlightenment debates about the relationship between man and beast, and consequently fed emerging theories of race. The paper takes as a case study the classification of humans in the tenth edition of Carl Linnaeus’ Systema Naturae (1758), which in many ways was an entirely new work: the term Homo sapiens was now used for the first time, but in addition Linnaeus proposed two entirely new species of humans, named Homo caudatus and Homo troglodytes, both of which were said to reside in Southeast Asia. The idea that humankind could be divided into several species caused considerable controversy, and these curious beings soon had to be abandoned; historians of science have explained them through prevailing European dependence on the ancient ‘marvels of the East’, misunderstandings, superstition, and Linnaeus’ uncritical belief in ‘travel lies’.

This paper takes a fresh look at the origins of these species of humans, by tracing Linnaeus’ sources back to early modern Southeast Asia. Here, a new scene opens up, revealing complex knowledge networks involving Swedish visitors to the East-Indies, but also internal ‘othering’, inter-ethnic tensions and the power of local beliefs. One of the keys to Linnaeus’ creation of the Homo troglodytes, I argue, is to be found in the ambivalent relationship between Southeast Asia’s coastal peoples and the inhabitants of the interior, thus reflecting the ethnic duality which is a prominent theme in the history of the region. The paper, therefore, revisits discussions about the origins and dissemination of knowledge of the world, and highlights the often overlooked local circumstances generating the information which propelled European science in the eighteenth century.

This talk is part of the Wolfson College Lunchtime Seminar Series - Wednesdays of Full Term series.

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