Morton, the Maya and Me: Reflections from a Yucatec Maya Graduate Student

This essay is one of a series of “Participant Observations” on the removal of the Samuel Morton Cranial Collection from public display and legacies of scientific racism in museums. Read more reflections from this series here.

My second day as a PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania, I entered classroom 190 in the CAAM labs of the Penn Museum—what I would later half-jokingly term the Penn Museum’s catacombs. As I sat, I took in the crania sitting on shelves lining the walls, naively assuming they were ethically collected medical specimens or realistic models. Later that week, one of my colleagues informed me: “those are Morton’s skulls.” My second time in the classroom, uneasy in my seat, I looked at the skulls immediately to my right, and observed that one of them had the number 990 and a label across its forehead: “Maya from Yucatan.” [1]

I am Maya from Yucatan. The effects of colonization’s dehumanization on my ancestors and what Walter Mignolo terms “the web of imperial/modern knowledge” were staring me in the face.[2] This was an encounter between two people of Yucatec Maya ancestry, one living, one dead, one a student of anthropology, one its object of study, one at Penn voluntarily, one wrenched from their intended final resting place to be measured, evaluated, and stored in the service of scientific racism. What was the connection between the Maya and Samuel Morton?

Researching this connection, I learned that one of the Maya remains in the Morton Collection was sent by explorer John Lloyd Stephens, whose expeditions and reports of the depopulated cities of the Ancient Maya stimulated European and North American popular interest and began a tradition of projecting a Western imaginary onto Ancient Maya culture.[3] In Stephens’s wake, archaeological research in the Maya area acted as a form of epistemic colonization that distorted and dispossessed Maya people from their own histories.[4] Stephens’s contribution to Morton’s collection means he is also implicated in physical anthropology’s foundations in the material theft and study of remains of Indigenous people.[5] Specifically, he contributed a young woman “taken from an ancient tomb at Ticul” with “white and fresh” dentition catalogued as number 1050.[6]

Stephens’s work is credited as beginning early anthropological interest in the Maya. Among those who built off of Stephens’s work was Daniel Garrison Brinton, the first university professor of anthropology at Penn, and the United States.[7] Brinton articulated his belief that the Maya “‘achieved a higher grade of culture than those of the regions to the north,’” situating his study firmly within the larger project of racial hierarchization coming out of a particularly Philadelphian intellectual genealogy of white supremacy within anthropology.[8] Additionally, Brinton was influential in the establishment of American anthropology, particularly within the University of Pennsylvania, the institution where Morton’s collection now resides. The connection from Morton to Stephens to Brinton implicates their work not just in slavery, but in the interrelated dispossession and dehumanization of Indigenous people. Moreover, it illustrates the premise that anthropological renderings of the Other can function more as a reflection of the anthropologists than the anthropologized.[9] This highlights the deeply ingrained racism behind these early anthropologists’ intellectual endeavors and demonstrates how intertwined, embedded, and fundamentally racist ideologies structure the history of our academic epistemologies, ontologies, and institutions.

The continued use of Morton’s collection for research at Penn has been justified as affording “whole new vistas” for scientific research.[10] However, such use furthers the objectification and dehumanization of these remains. The removal of the collection from classroom 190 is an opportunity to disentangle these remains from the web of causation of imperial/modern knowledge which has made its study and display permissible. That the manner in which students like myself encountered these skulls was ever deemed appropriate demonstrates why critical reevaluation of the collection using a decolonial lens is necessary. Decolonization means starting to take into consideration the humanity of the people Morton collected, the condition of their mistreatment, and the impact of his research on the descendants of colonized and enslaved peoples. For Yucatec Maya people, along with other Indigenous people from Mexico and Central America, this includes their continued exploitation in the context of migration and their marginalization in the shadow of the tourist industry founded on the study of their antecedents. 

The sole value of the Morton Collection lies in drawing these connections and in using its social history to more forcibly argue for an “anthropology of liberation” that aims to improve the lives of the people on whose study anthropology was founded.[11] Not the least of which could be creating institutional environments where indigenous students like myself can see themselves reflected in efforts to undo Morton’s legacy of scientific racism, rather than in glass cabinets which condone it. 


[1] According to the Penn Museum’s Open Research Scan Archive, Morton number 990 was given to S.G. Morton by Chevalier Friedrichthal. Morton number 1050, collected by John Lloyd Stephens, is currently documented as not present in the collection and did not occur in either the 1937 or 1941 inventories of the Academy of Natural Sciences, where the Collection was housed prior to being transferred to the Penn Museum.

[2] Walter D. Mignolo, “Epistemic Disobedience, Independent Thought and Decolonial Freedom,” Theory, Culture & Society 26.7–8 (2009): 20.

[3] R. Tripp Evans, Romancing the Maya: Mexican Antiquity in the American Imagination, 1820–1915 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004); William E. Lenz, Ruins, Revolution, and Manifest Destiny: John Lloyd Stephens Creates the Maya (New York: Peter Lang, 2013).

[4] Avexnim Cojti Ren, “Maya Archaeology and the Political and Cultural Identity of Contemporary Maya in Guatemala,” Archaeologies 2.1 (2006): 8–19.

[5] Ann Fabian, The Skull Collectors: Race, Science, and America’s Unburied Dead (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2010); Samuel Redman, Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016).

[6] Fabian, Skull Collectors, 230. Samuel George Morton, Catalogue of Skulls of Man, and the Inferior Animals, in the Collection of Samuel George Morton (Philadelphia: Merrihew & Thompson, 1849).

[7] Lee D. Baker, “Daniel G. Brinton’s Success on the Road to Obscurity, 1890–99,” Cultural Anthropology 15.3 (August 2000), : 394–423; Lee D. Baker, Anthropology and the Racial Politics of Culture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013).

[8] John M. Weeks et al., eds. The Library of Daniel Garrison Brinton (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 2002).

[9] George W. Stocking, ed., Objects and Others: Essays on Museums and Material Culture, History of Anthropology, v. 3 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985); Henrika Kuklick, The Savage Within: The Social History of British Anthropology, 1885–1945 (New York: Cambridge University Press,1993); Margaret M. Bruchac, Savage Kin: Indigenous Informants and American Anthropologists (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2018).

[10] Emily Renschler and Janet Monge, “The Samuel George Morton Cranial Collection,” Expedition Magazine 50.3 (2008): 38.

[11] Faye Venetia Harrison, ed. Decolonizing Anthropology: Moving Further Toward an Anthropology of Liberation, 2nd ed. (Arlington, VA: Association of Black Anthropologists, American Anthropological Association, 1997).

Francisco Diaz: contributions / website /

1 Comment

  1. Ernesto Solis Jr.

    July 13, 2021 at 2:30 pm

    Thanks for playing a role in the decolonialization of anthropology’s past.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.