These differentiations occurred following long-standing claims about the alleged differences between the Nordic and the Mediterranean people. Such debates arose from responses to ancient writers who had commented on differences between northern and southern Europeans. The Greek and Roman people considered the Germanic and Celtic peoples to be wild, red haired barbarians. Aristotle contended that the Greeks were an ideal people because they possessed a medium skin-tone, in contrast to pale northerners. By the 19th century, long-standing cultural and religious differences between Protestant northwestern Europe and the Roman Catholic south were being reinterpreted in racial terms.
In the 19th century, the division of humanity into distinct races became a matter for scientific debate. In 1870, Thomas Huxley argued that there were four basic racial categories (Xanthochroic, Mongoloid, Australioid and Negroid). The Xanthochroic race were the "fair whites" of north and central Europe. According to Huxley,
On the south and west this type comes into contact and mixes with the "Melanochroi," or "dark whites"...In these regions are found, more or less mixed with Xanthochroi and Mongoloids, and extending to a greater or less distance into the conterminous Xanthochroic, Mongoloid, Negroid and Australioid areas, the men whom I have termed Melanochroi, or dark whites. Under its best form this type is exhibited by many Irishmen, Welshmen and Bretons, by Spaniards, South Italians, Greeks, Armenians, Arabs and high-caste Brahmins...I am much disposed to think that the Melanochroi are the result of an intermixture between the Xanthochroi and the Australoids. It is to the Xanthochroi and Melanochroi, taken together, that the absurd denomination of "Caucasian" is usually applied.
By the late 19th century, Huxley's Xanthochroi group had been redefined as the "Nordic" race, whereas his Melanochroi became the Mediterranean race. As such, Huxley's Melanochroi eventually also comprised various other dark Caucasoid populations, including the Hamites (e.g. Berbers, Somalis, northern Sudanese, ancient Egyptians) and Moors.
In Germany, Britain, and the United States, it became common for white supremacists to promote the merits of the light-coloured hair, light-coloured eyes Nordic race as the most advanced of human population groups: the "master race". Southern/Eastern Europeans were deemed to be inferior, an argument that dated back to Arthur de Gobineau's Nordicist claims that racial mixing was responsible for the decline of the Roman Empire. However, in southern Europe itself alternative models were developed which stressed the merits of Mediterranean peoples, drawing on established traditions dating from ancient and Renaissance claims about the superiority of civilisation in the south.
Giuseppe Sergi's much-debated book The Mediterranean Race (1901) argued that the Mediterranean race had likely originated from a common ancestral stock that evolved in the Sahara region or the Eastern part of Africa, in the region of the great lakes, near the sources of the Nile, including Somaliland, and which later spread from there to populate North Africa, and the circum-Mediterranean region. Sergi added that the Mediterranean race "in its external characters is a brown human variety, neither white nor negroid, but pure in its elements, that is to say not a product of the mixture of Whites with Negroes or negroid peoples." He explained this taxonomy as inspired by an understanding of "the morphology of the skull as revealing those internal physical characters of human stocks which remain constant through long ages and at far remote spots[...] As a zoologist can recognise the character of an animal species or variety belonging to any region of the globe or any period of time, so also should an anthropologist if he follows the same method of investigating the morphological characters of the skull[...] This method has guided me in my investigations into the present problem and has given me unexpected results which were often afterwards confirmed by archaeology or history."
According to Robert Ranulph Marett, "it is in North Africa that we must probably place the original hotbed of that Mediterranean race".
Later in the 20th century, the concept of a distinctive Mediterranean race was still considered useful by theorists such as Earnest Hooton in Up From the Ape (1931) and Carleton S. Coon in his revised edition of Ripley's Races of Europe (1939). These writers subscribed to Sergi's depigmentation theory that the Nordic race was the northern variety of Mediterraneans that lost pigmentation through natural selection due to the environment.
According to Coon, the "homeland and cradle" of the Mediterranean race was in North Africa and Southwest Asia, in the area from Morocco to Afghanistan. He further stated that Mediterraneans formed the major population element in Pakistan and North India. Coon also argued that smaller Mediterraneans had travelled by land from the Mediterranean basin north into Europe in the Mesolithic era. Taller Mediterraneans (Atlanto-Mediterraneans) were Neolithic seafarers who sailed in reed-type boats and colonised the Mediterranean basin from a Near Eastern origin. He argued that they also colonised Britain & Ireland where their descendants may be seen today, characterized by dark brown hair, dark eyes and robust features. He stressed the central role of the Mediterraneans in his works, claiming "The Mediterraneans occupy the center of the stage; their areas of greatest concentration are precisely those where civilisation is the oldest. This is to be expected, since it was they who produced it and it, in a sense, that produced them".
C. G. Seligman also asserted that "it must, I think, be recognized that the Mediterranean race has actually more achievement to its credit than any other, since it is responsible for by far the greater part of Mediterranean civilization, certainly before 1000 B.C. (and probably much later), and so shaped not only the Aegean cultures, but those of Western as well as the greater part of Eastern Mediterranean lands, while the culture of their near relatives, the Hamitic pre-dynastic Egyptians, formed the basis of that of Egypt."
In the U.S., the idea that the Mediterranean race included certain populations on the African continent was taken up in the early 20th century by African-American writers such as W. E. B. Du Bois, who used it to attack white supremacist ideas about racial "purity". Such publications as the Journal of Negro History stressed the cross-fertilization of cultures between Africa and Europe, and adopted Sergi's view that the "civilizing" race had originated in Africa itself.
According to Beals and Hoijer in An Introduction to Anthropology, the Mediterranean race was traditionally regarded as one of the primary Caucasoid races next to the Nordic, Alpine and Armenoid.
The first physical and social description of the Mediterranean race (then termed "Celtic race") was given by the Scottish scientist William Rhind in 1851. In Section XV: The Caucasian Race and its Sub-Races, Rhind gave the following description:
The Celtic Race (anc. Galatae, Pyreni), are characterised by a well-formed head, elongated from front to back, and moderate in breadth; face oval; features well defined and elegantly formed; complexion dark; dark brown or black eyes; black hair turning early grey; form middle size, handsome; feet and hands small. Mental powers quick, active and energetic, rather than profound. Passions and affections strong. Fond of society, but not forgetful of injuries. Monarchial in their governments. They occupy the southern and insular parts of Europe.
According to William Z. Ripley, the marked features of the Mediterranean race were dark hair, dark eyes, a long face, dolichocephalic skull, and a variable narrow nose.
C. S. Coon wrote that marked Mediterranean features included skin color ranging "from pink or peaches-and-cream to a light brown", a relatively prominent and aquiline nose, considerable body hair, and dark brown to black hair.
According to Renato Biasutti, frequent Mediterranean traits included "skin color 'matte'-white or brunet-white, chestnut or dark chestnut eyes and hair, not excessive pilosity; medium-low stature (162), body of moderately longilinear forms; dolichomorphic skull (78) with rounded occiput; oval face; leptorrhine nose (68) with straight spine, horizontal or inclined downwards base of the septum; large open eyes."
^The Races of Europe by Carlton Stevens Coon. From Chapter XI: The Mediterranean World – Introduction: "The next strip to follow, in a geographical sense, would be the whole highland belt of central Europe stretching over to the Balkans, to Asia Minor, and across to the Caucasus and Turkestan. This second zone, however, is one of immense racial complexity. In it various branches of the greater Mediterranean family, of Neolithic date and later, have been modified by combining in various proportions with each other and with the autochthonous Alpine race. The key to the complexity of this zone lies in the genetic action of this last entity, which is apparently a reduced, somewhat foetalized, or more highly evolved branch of the old Paleolithic stock than those which we have been studying in the north. Since, however, it is the action of this element upon the Mediterranean family which is important here, it will be easier to study this zone after having surveyed the population of a third belt, that occupied by the purest living representatives of the Mediterranean race. This third racial zone stretches from Spain across the Straits of Gibraltar to Morocco, and thence along the southern Mediterranean shores into Arabia, East Africa, Mesopotamia, and the Persian highlands; and across Afghanistan into India. This zone is one of comparative racial simplicity. In it the brunet Mediterranean race lives today in its various regional forms without, in most cases, the complication of the Paleolithic survivals and reemergences which have so confused the racial picture on the ground of Europe itself. Only in the mountains of Morocco and Algeria, and in the Canary Islands, is such a survival of any importance. The Careful study of living populations of the Mediterranean race in its early homelands will do much to simplify the task which lies ahead."
^The Races of Europe by Carleton Stevens Coon. From Chapter X: The British Isles: "The Neolithic economy was probably first brought to Britain by the bearers of the Windmill Hill culture from the Continent, and they in turn were members of the group which had invaded western Europe from North Africa by way of Gibraltar. The racial type to which these Windmill Hill people presumably belonged was a small Mediterranean, but there is little or no direct skeletal evidence from England to confirm this. By far the most important Neolithic movement into Great Britain, and into Ireland as well, came by sea from the eastern Mediterranean lands, using Spain as a halting point on the way. It was this invasion which passed up the Irish Channel to western and northern Scotland, and around to Denmark and Sweden. The settlers who came by sea were the Megalithic people, and belonged to a clearly differentiated variety of tall, extremely long-headed Mediterranean, which was presumably for the most part brunet. This racial group furnished both Great Britain and Ireland, which consisted, before their arrival, of nearly empty land, with a numerous and civilized population which has left many descendants today."
^Patrizia Palumbo. A Place in the Sun: Africa in Italian Colonial Culture from Post-Unification to the Present. University of California Press, 2003. P. 66.
^Anne Maxwell. Picture Imperfect: Photography and Eugenics, 1870–1940. Paperback edition. Sussex Academic Press, 2010. P. 150.
^ abc"Our area, from Morocco to Afghanistan, is the homeland and cradle of the Mediterranean race. Mediterraneans are found also in Spain, Portugal, most of Italy, Greece and the Mediterranean islands, and in all these places, as in Southwest Asia, they form the major genetic element in the local populations. In a dark-skinned and finer-boned form they are also found as the major population element in Pakistan and northern India ... The Mediterranean race, then, is indigenous to, and the principal element in, the Southwest Asia, and the greatest concentration of a highly evolved Mediterranean type falls among two of the most ancient Semitic-speaking peoples, notably the Arabs and the Jews (Although it may please neither party, this is the truth.). The Mediterraneans occupy the center of the stage; their areas of greatest concentration are precisely those where civilization is the oldest. This is to be expected, since it was they who produced it and it, in a sense, that produced them.", Carleton Coon, the Story of the Middle East, 1958, pp. 154–157
^C.S. Coon, Caravan : the Story of the Middle East, 1958, pp. 154-157
^G. W. F. Hegel claimed that the Latin people maintained "the principle of disharmony" in contrast to the Germans. Johann Fichte asserted that the Mediterraneans were deficient because of the corruption of their language. See Poliakov, L., The Aryan Myth, 1974
^Wells, H.G. The Outline of History New York:1920 Doubleday & Co. Volume I Chapter XI "The Races of Mankind" Pages 131–144 See Pages 98, 137, and 139
^Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, "Dans le Bassin méditerranéen, la ressemblance entre tous les peuples vivant des deux côtés de la mer est remarquable" ("In the Mediterranean Basin, the similarity between all peoples living on both sides of the sea is great"), Evolution biologique, évolution culturelle (L'evoluzione della cultura), Odile Jacob, 2005, p. 119
^Eleven populations around the Mediterranean basin were analysed by Tomas et al. 2008 (Catanzaro, Cosenza, Reggio di Calabria, Sicily from the South of Italy; Valencia, Ibiza and Majorca from the East of Spain; Tunisia; Morocco; Turkey and Iraq) and the genetic distance between them was very low (except for Moroccans). Tunisians and Middle Eastern populations did not show a significant level of differentiation with northern populations. The conclusion was :"Tunisians did not show a significant level of differentiation with northern populations as mentioned by others. (...) The genetic distance between populations in the Middle East and the western part of the Mediterranean area was very low, most likely reflecting the effect of the Neolithic Wave and recent migration events. Only the Moroccan population showed a significant genetic distance from the remaining Mediterranean populations including populations that are geographically close to it, showing the importance of the Strait of Gibraltar as a geographic barrier and supporting the idea of a low impact of the Neolithic demic diffusion and more recent migrations in North-West Africa", X-chromosome SNP analyses in 11 human Mediterranean populations show a high overall genetic homogeneity except in North-west Africans (Moroccans), Tomas et al. 2008
^"The genetic proximity observed between the Berbers and southern Europeans reveals that these groups shared a common ancestor. Two hypotheses are discussed: one would date these common origins in the Upper Paleolithic with the expansion of anatomically modern humans, from the Near East to both shores of the Mediterranean Sea; the other supports the Near Eastern origin, but would rather date it from the Neolithic, around 10,000 years ago (Ammerman & Cavalli-Sforza 1973; Barbujani et al. 1994; Myles et al. 2005; Rando et al. 1998). Common polymorphisms (i.e. those defining H and V lineages) between Berbers and south Europeans also could have been introduced or supported by genetic flows through the Straits of Gibraltar. For example, genetic exchanges could have taken place during prehistory, while European populations retreated from ice sheets and expanded from refuge, around 15,000 years ago (as evidenced by the H and U5b mitochondrial lineages).", The Complex and Diversified Mitochondrial Gene Pool of Berber Populations[dead link], Coudray et al., december 2008
^Nida, Eugene Albert (1954). Customs and Cultures. Pasadena.
^Rhind, William (1851). Second-Class Book of Physical Geography. Edinburgh.