Notes from the Hassler archives: Peruvian skulls

[This post is part of a series on the archives of the 1871-1872 Hassler expedition, written by Bruno Costelini, Science without Borders intern at the Ernst Mayr Library]

By the end of May 1872 the Hassler deep-sea dredging expedition had reached the warm waters of Peru, the steamer anchoring in Callao, next to Lima. There once again the fame of Professor Louis Agassiz would pay off with invitations to excursions on newly built railroads up the Andes and fancy dinners that much impressed the young James H. Blake:


A short walk brought us there, a very large house, almost a palace. White with long marble columns or pillars in front. We first went into a room where was a servant to black our boots brush our clothes etc, then was ushered into the gentlemans drawing room […] When we entered there were some 20 gentlemen dress very stylish […] Soon we were introduced and invited to the adjoining room to a cocktail. […] I was called by Mr. Wigs & introduced to his daughter whom I took in to dinner. There were sixty-two in all, about ½ as many ladies as gentlemen. We had about 40 different courses and sat down at 5 and arose about 9.30. Everything the country afforded was in the table it seemed – meats, fowl, gellies, pastry many kinds and fruit, six or seven varieties.


Views of Lima, Peru
"Views of Lima, Peru, from the Hassler scrapbook"


But perhaps the greatest result came from an acquaintance with the British Consul Thomas J. Hutchinson, who had just recently spent some time collecting bones at the beaches of Ancon, a village some ten miles north of Lima. So while Blake was left in the capital to pay some bills, the ship went there for the day to gather “several hundred skulls of Indians and pottery” which “were gotten from an old Indian burying ground” and “had been exposed to the wind & sea, so they lay scattered for miles.” The next day Blake was put in charge of packing what turned out to be some 360 skulls, which were immediately dispatched through another ship to Cambridge.


The interest in these skulls laid primarily in the deformations that some of them presented as the causes for such were still a point of contention at the time between craniologists. The collection would end up at the Peabody Museum of Harvard which welcomed them as “one of the largest which has been made from any single locality” and summed up their peculiarity in their annual report thus:


One of the chief characteristics of Peruvian skulls is, as is well known, artificial deformity, resulting either from compression applied from before backwards, shortening the cranial portion and increasing its breadth to a corresponding degree, or applied in a circular manner so as to diminish its transverse and increase its longitudinal diameter, as is seen in the crania from the chulpas near the great lake of Titicaca and from other burial places. With a single exception all the crania in the collection we are speaking of belong to the first group, and are more or less flattened from before backwards, showing an uniformity of habit in the region about Ancon.[1]


Peruvian skulls
"Peruvian skulls, from Nature (May 21, 1874)"


From Peru the Hassler sailed next to Galapagos, the cradle of the Darwinian theory of Evolution, where Agassiz, who still resisted it expected to find some evidence to disprove the great English naturalist.

[1] Report of the Curator in Seventh Annual Report of the Trustees of the Peabody Museum of American Archaelogy and Ethnology, Presented to the President and Fellows of Harvard College, May, 1874. Salem Press, Salem, Mass.