William W. Howells: Leading Anthropologist, Is Dead at 97

Historians in the News

William W. Howells, a leading physical anthropologist who focused on the origins of humans and the evolution of races, died on Dec. 20 at his home in Kittery Point, Me. He was 97.

The death was announced by his family.

Professor Howells, emeritus professor of anthropology at Harvard, made perhaps his most important contribution to the field through his statistical analyses of the physical variations among today's humans. His conclusion, based on skull measurements, was that modern humans are of one species, with little to tell them apart.

He made a lasting contribution to anthropology in the mid-1960's when discord and controversy clouded the debate of racial issues. With his wife, Muriel, as his assistant, Professor Howells undertook a pioneering study of measurements taken from thousands of skulls at dozens of sites in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Pacific.

His data came from specimens representing local populations of unusual homogeneity, and his analysis of the measurements he collected indicated to him that the variations within these groups far exceeded the variations distinguishing group from group. The evidence from his research bolstered the proposition that all modern humans are of one homogeneous species, whereas earlier humans, even very recent relatives like the Neanderthals, differed from them as distinctly alien species.

Later methods, like analysis of DNA, further buttressed that finding. In fact, anthropologists still use the raw data of his skull measurements, along with other techniques, in studying relationships among various ethnic groupings.

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