Caucasian is originally a geographical term, meaning relative or pertaining to the Caucasus region of eastern Europe. It has in time acquired other specific meanings:
- in linguistics, the Caucasian languages are a large number of languages spoken in the Caucasus area; often specifically those that have no demonstrated relatives outside of that region, which are classified into the
South, Northwest, Northeast, and North-central Caucasian language families.
- in physical anthropology, the Caucasian race is meant for a specific race of Homo sapiens, sometimes given a Latin designation such as "Varietas Caucasia" (sic), which does not follow the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature.
- in forensic anthropology and census contexts, especially in the United States, the Caucasian type is a specific combination of physical attributes, especially white skin.
-in common usage and political contexts in the USA, Canada, and Australia, Caucasian refers to light-complexioned people indigenous to, or descended from Europe, northern Africa, southwest Asia, and the Indian subcontinent. In North America, Caucasian usually means a white person of northern, southern, eastern, and western European, Middle Eastern, and North African descent, excluding people with significant Asian, African, or American Indian ancestry. Usage of the term "Caucasian" for "White Person" is common in many countries of the Anglosphere, but it is not universal.
-in bartending, a Caucasian is a mixed drink also referred to as a White Russian.
History of the concept
The concept of a "Caucasian race" or Varietas Caucasia (sic) was first proposed under those names by the German scientist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840). His studies based the classification of the Caucasian race primarily on skull features, which Blumenbach claimed were optimized by the Georgians, a people living in the Southern Caucasus. Populations, formerly called "varieties," are no longer distinguished by Latin names, according to the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature.
The reason the Caucasus had such an attraction to Blumenbach and other contemporaries was because of its (imagined) proximity to Mount Ararat, where according to Biblical legend Noah's Ark eventually landed after the Deluge.
Later anthropologists, including W.Z. Ripley in 1899 and Carleton Coon in 1957, have further expanded upon the classification of the Caucasian race proposed by Blumenbach, and have subdivided the group into Nordic, Alpine, Mediterranean, and at times Dinaric and Baltic subdivisions. Nordicism, the belief that the blond Nordic sub-division constitutes a "master race", was influential in Northern Europe and the United States during the early twentieth century, eventually becoming the offical ideology of the Nazi state. It was used to justify eugenics programs and the persecution and extermination of so-called "inferior" races then living in Europe, such as Jews and Slavs.
The concept of Caucasian race and its stated or implied superiority over other races was often used as a moral excuse for colonialism by Western European countries, in the 19th and 20th centuries. In Europe, usage of the term declined in the 19th century as it did not allow for enough distinctions as required by the new forms of nationalism which were emerging, but in the United States it enjoyed a use which continues to the present. It has been (and is still) used to justify social discrimination in many other places of the world, such as against descendants of Native Americans, African slaves, and immigrants in the Americas and South Africa, and many more.
Nevertheless it is currently often used in the US as a more "scientific sounding" term for "white", and even used by many anthropologists and geneticists to refer generically to people of European origin.
It is clearly observable that many people do not correspond easily to one racial/subracial type or another. There is currently extensive debate on the scientific validity of racial classifications, and many people reject systems of racial classification as inherently arbitrary and subject to wide divergences in most populations. Indeed, the advances in biochemistry over the past 30-40 years have revealed that the traditional racial divisions have extremely little genetic basis. Its relevance is debatable as a physical anthropological, ethnic/cultural or socio-political concept.
- Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, On the Natural Varieties of Mankind (1775) — the book that introduced the concept.
- Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man — a history of the pseudoscience of race, skull measurements and IQ inheritability.
- L. Luca Cavalli-Sforza, The History and Geography of Human Genes — a major reference of modern population genetics.
- L. Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Genes, Peoples, and Languages.
- H. F. Augstein, "From the Land of the Bible to the Caucasus and Beyond," in Waltraud Emst and B. Harris, Race, Science and Medicine, 1700-1960 (London: Routledge, 1999): 58-79.