Do white people really come from the Caucasus?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Aug. 19 2008 7:22 PM

Do White People Really Come From the Caucasus?

How Caucasians got their name.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. Click image to expand.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili

Russia continues to occupy the former Soviet state of Georgia, despite agreeing to a cease-fire last week. "The Caucasus is a difficult and complicated place," one Russian political scientist told the Financial Times, referring to the small mountainous region between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea that comprises Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Wait, do white people really come from the Caucasus?

It's highly unlikely. There are scholarly disagreements about how and when some of our dark-skinned ancestors developed lighter skin, but research suggests humans moved across the Asian and European continents about 50,000 years ago. Some anthropologists think that natural selection would have favored lightening mutations as humans moved away from the equator and faced a diminished threat from ultraviolet exposure. In this case, it's possible that light skin would have evolved in many places independently.

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So why do we call white people Caucasians? The term was popularized by the German scientist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, who in 1795 divided the human species into five races: Caucasian, the "white" race; Mongolian, the "yellow" race; Malayan, the "brown" race; Ethiopian, the "black" race; and American, the "red" race. He considered the Caucasians to be the first race on Earth, consistent with the common conception of the Caucasus as a place of human origin. The Bible describes Noah landing his ark at a place called Mount Ararat, which was thought by Europeans of Blumenbach's time to be on the modern Turkish-Armenian border. (Ararat is still the name of the largest mountain in Turkey.) In Greek mythology, Zeus chained Prometheus to a rock in the Caucasus.

Blumenbach considered the skulls of the Georgians to be the epitome of the white race, and he named the first class of humans after the country's home in the Caucasus Mountains. Blumenbach's class of Caucasians included most Europeans, Northern Africans, and Asians as far east as the Ganges Delta in modern India. As more scientists pursued racial classification in the 1800s, they relied on Blumenbach's nomenclature, cementing the region's legacy in anthropology.

Americans still use the word Caucasian to mean "white" despite the fact that they haven't always been synonyms in the eyes of the law. In U.S. v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923), the Supreme Court argued that although Asian Indians were technically Caucasian, they couldn't be U.S. citizens because they weren't "white." That decision was reversed with the Luce-Celler Act of 1946, which made naturalization legal among Filipinos and Indians.

Bonus Explainer: Does the Caucasus have anything to do with political caucuses? Almost certainly not. The word caucus appeared in New England in the 1760s; some suggest it comes from the Algonquian word caucauasu, meaning "counselor."

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Damon Dozier and Joseph Jones of the American Anthropological Association. Thanks also to reader Eric Ekvall for asking the question.

Derek Thompson is a senior editor at the Atlantic, where he oversees business coverage for TheAtlantic.com.

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