The naturalist Joseph Banks (1743-1820) brought back some seventy human skulls from Cook’s first voyage (1768-1771). Over time, he distributed these and other skulls he acquired to collections across Europe, including those of John Hunter and Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, as part of a global network of exchange.
From the late eighteenth century onward, many anatomical collections shifted focus from medicine to what we would now call anthropology, coupled with comparative anatomy as a way to demarcate human from non-human. These collections privileged the skull over the skeleton as a whole. Long held to be the repository of identity, the skull now helped to redefine late-Enlightenment ideas about the nature of the human, including not only identity but also ethnicity. Discourses of language and nationalism contributed to this redefinition.
Upon the death of the anatomist and surgeon John Hunter in 1794, the disposition of his vast collection was contested for several years, until it became the museum of the new Royal College of Surgeons in 1800. The debates surrounding this collection and particularly its skulls (many of which can be traced to Banks), and subsequent decisions about new acquisitions of skulls in the early nineteenth century, offer a unique glimpse into the redefinition of human remains in this period and the critical role the skull came to play.