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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
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Department of Anthropology

Mexican masks in storage

 

The Anthropology Department maintains a diverse series of human anatomical specimens, primarily osteological, that are used for studies in biological anthropology (skeletal biology, paleopathology, human variation), medical research, forensic investigations, and questions concerning human origins. Nearly 33,000 specimens represent populations throughout the world.

 

Scope of the Collection

Archaeology Series

The majority of the physical anthropology collection was recovered during archaeological investigations and represents over a millennium of human experience. The Department has been one of the major repositories for federally sponsored archaeological investigations in the United States. Thus, the largest portion of the archaeological series comes from North America (approximately 45%). The balance of the collection is from South America (20%), Asia (15%), Africa (10%), and Europe (5%).

The largest of the North American collections come from Alaska, Maryland, Virginia, South Dakota, New Mexico, California, and Ohio, but other states and representative samples from other countries such as Mexico, are also important. The most extensive South American samples come from Peru, Argentina and Ecuador. Representative Asian groups include Mongolia, Northern China, and Siberia. There are also samples from Japan and the Pacific Island regions. The African continent is mainly represented by small population groups from various countries, with the exception of an extensive collection of Egyptian skeletons from the Lisht and Kharga oases. Among the sample groups from Europe, the collection of skulls from Bavarian charnel houses is the largest along with an anatomical skull series from Berlin. There are also small representative samples from France, England, and Greece.

 

Anatomical Collections

The Division of Physical Anthopology houses several important anatomical collections, accumulated specifically for skeletal biology studies. The Robert J. Terry Collection consists of over 1,700 complete human skeletons from known individuals assembled by Robert J. Terry during his career (1921- 1946) at Washington University Medical School in St. Louis, Missouri. The collection was continued by Mildred Trotter until her retirement in 1964. Accurate age, sex, ethnicity, cause of death are present for each individual. Medical histories, postmortem photographs, death masks, and hair samples are present for approximately half of the total collection. Because of the completeness of the information and excellent preservation of the collection, it has been and continues to be used as a primary resource for research on bone pathology, skeletal biology, and forensic anthropology. It is the most utilized research collection in the Division of Physical Anthropology, averaging 150-160 scholarly visits a year.


Another important anatomical collection in the Physical Anthropology Division was assembled by Dr. George Huntington (1861-1927) for his research in skeletal anatomy at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York. The collection represents over 3,600 individuals of known age, sex, nationality, and cause of death. The collection consists of European Immigrants and New York City residents who died in boroughs of the city between the years of 1892-1920. Unlike the cadavers in the Terry Collection, which were only used for soft tissue study, many of the elements were sectioned or dissected, especially the crania. Thus, not all skeletal elements were preserved or retained. Despite the incomplete nature of the skeletons, the preservation quality and documentation level makes this collection extremely valuable for human variation and skeletal biology research. Besides the individuals' names, sex, age, nationality (usually), and cause of death, there are fascinating examples of trauma, infections, as well as tumorous and congenital diseases.

 

Non-Skeletal Collections

In addition to human skeletal collections, the Department houses:

  • over 3,000 face molds and busts made from living or dead individuals representing ethnic groups from around the world. Many of the living masks are of well-known Native Americans who lived in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
  • human paleoanthropology fossil casts, some of which are quite valuable because they are the only remaining representations of specimens that no longer exist.
  • a number of human and animal desiccated bodies and mummies from various regions of the world.
  • a small collection of wet tissue specimens and a fairly large collection of hair samples from populations throughout the world.

 

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