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Carleton Coon was born in Wakefield, Massachusetts to an established Yankee family. He developed an interest in prehistory, and attended Phillips Academy, Andover where he studied hieroglyphics and also developed an excellent profiency in ancient Greek. Coon went on to study at Harvard, where he began to study Egyptology with George Reisner. However he, like many students, was swayed to the field of anthropology by Earnest Hooton and he graduated magna cum laude in 1925.

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Coon continued on in Harvard, making the first of many trips to North Africa in 1925 to conduct fieldwork in the Rif area of Morocco, which was still politically unsettled after a rebellion of the local populace against the Spanish. He earned his Ph.D. in 1928 and returned to Harvard as a lecturer and later a professor. His work from this period included a 1939 rewrite of William Z. Ripley's 1899 The Races of Europe. Coon was a colorful character who both undertook adventuresome exploits and like his mentor Earnest Hooton he wrote widely for a general audience. He published several novels and fictionalized accounts of his trips to North Africa, including The Riffians, Flesh of the Wild Ox, Measuring Ethiopia, and A North Africa Story: The Anthropologist as OSS Agent.

This last book was an account of his work during World War II, which involved espionage and the smuggling of arms to French resistance groups in German-occupied Morocco under the guise of anthropological fieldwork, a practice generally condemned by working anthropologists today, in the context the 21st century science ethics.

In 1948, Coon left Harvard to take up a position as Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, which had an excellent museum attached to it. Throughout the 1950s he produced a series of academic papers, as well as many popular books for the general reader, the most notable being The Story of Man (1954). Coon's own interest was in attempting to use Darwin's theory of natural selection to explain the differing physical characteristics of various racial groups.

In 1962, he published his magnum opus The Origin of Races. Unfortunately for Coon, physical anthropology had changed greatly since his time as an undergraduate at Harvard. Contemporary researchers such as Sherwood Washburn and Ashley Montagu were heavily influenced by the modern synthesis in biology and population genetics, as well as a Boasian revolt against typological racial thinking. The human species was now seen as a continuous serial progression of populations rather than the five parallel genetically distinct races. The 1960s were a controversial time for racial theories, and Coon's cousin Carleton Putnam suggested that Coon's work, among others, justified racial segregation. Coon stepped down as President of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in disgust after the association voted to censure Putnam's book Race and Reason: A Yankee view. Coon continued to write and defend his work. He died on June 3, 1981, in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

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This map shows the racial classification scheme of Carleton S. Coon. Gray/ Caucasoid; Black/ Negroid; Green/ Capoid; Red/ Mongoloid; Blue/ Australoid.

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