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Forensic Anthropology and Race

Forensic Anthropology and Race






Forensic anthropology is the application of the scientific study of the human skeleton within the context of medical and legal problems, usually in cases involving personal identification and evidence of foul play. Accountability of the dead involves a legal procedure in the United States that requires investigations by the police, a medical examiner (M.D.) who may perform an autopsy, a coroner who provides the death certificate, and in cases with skeletal remains a forensic anthropologist (usually a biological anthropologist holding a Ph.D. degree).

Training in archaeological field techniques (forensic archaeology) allows the forensic anthropologist to understand better the nature of the environmental context of a buried skeleton, and by visiting the burial deposit he/she will ensure that all bones and teeth are collected. Methods of the forensic anthropologist may be used in studies of the “eminent dead”when there is uncertainty about the true identity of an interred individual and the name on the grave marker, and when information is sought about the manner of death of known deceased persons whose bodies may be exhumed. With archaeologically recovered remains, the forensic goals are also problem oriented. Discoveries of prehistoric skeletons are not considered forensic cases, although some of the same descriptive procedures used in the study of decomposed bodies and skeletal remains reveal aspects of the lifeways of extinct populations that could not be deduced from artifacts, cemeteries, or other aspects of ancient cultural-behavioral patterns.


Determination of ancestral background (race) of a human skeletal or decomposed body is one essential element in the protocol of a forensic anthropologist’s laboratory examination. Other categories of investigation are the following:

  1. Are the remains human? Bones and teeth of non-human animal species and inorganic materials may be present in a burial deposit.
  2. Do the skeletal remains indicate presence of a single individual? More than one skeleton may be encountered in burials, as in cases of mass genocide, battlefield disposal of the dead, common graves for victims of epidemics, and other situations where commingling of human remains is encountered.
  3. The sex of the decedent.
  4. The individual’s age at time of death.
  5. The stature of a subject may be estimated if bones of the upper and lower extremities are present and sufficiently complete for measurement and the use of regression formulas appropriate for different human populations.
  6. Some diseases leave markers on bones and teeth. If a diagnosis is accurate, this may assist the forensic anthropologist in personal identification.
  7. Evidence of past or recent traumatic assaults to the body, such as bullet holes, infliction of blunt- or sharpforce agents and strangulation, may provide some information about the life history of the decedent.
  8. Time elapsed since death may be estimated on the basis of degree of body tissue degeneration, microenvironment, and insect activity at a burial deposit.
  9. Markers of occupational stress (MOS) are bone or dental modifications resulting from habitual activities continued over relatively long periods of time.
  10. DNA analysis is possible if there is no contamination of the tissues being tested. It may reveal degrees of genetic affinities between individuals and populations.
  11. Cultural practices, such as capping the front teeth with gold for a more sparkling smile, tooth filing, cranial deformation introduced in childhood, and foot binding, may lead to personal identification. These physical characteristics and customs for disposing of the dead may shed light on the lifeways of the deceased.
  12. The manner of death involves determination of evidence of natural causes, accidents, homicides, and suicides, although how the decedent died may be uncertain. Cause of death is determined by a medical examiner.
  13. Determination of ancestry (race).


With respect to this last focus of an investigation, the present-day forensic anthropologist acknowledges the existence of two very different concepts of human biological diversity: (1) a traditional race theory perpetuated in the United States today in census data, applications to schools and universities, and in media sources where it is assumed that humankind is classifiable into natural entities called “races,”for example, blacks, whites, Asians, Native Americans, and so on; (2) recognition that “races,”so defined, do not exist in humans or other organisms as classifiable subspecies (or varieties, breeds, stocks). This conviction is held for the reason that those physical and behavioral criteria (traits) that had been used in naming and classifying populations adapted to natural and cultural conditions in geographically separate regions had been arbitrarily selected by systemic biologists, anthropologists, and historians. Phenotypic traits (detectable manifestations of genotypes) are now understood to be gradients that may occur in high frequencies in some populations, less so in others, or even absent. Thus, it is understood today that while human populations may exhibit relatively high or low phenotypic appearances of given physical traits, such as skin pigmentation, hair form, eye color, and cranial shape, they are not naturally divisible into groupings formerly identified as markers of discrete “races.”The traditional concept of “race”is not predicated on a biological reality (Kennedy 1976; Livingstone 1962; Molnar 2006).

However, the traditional concept that humans, ancient and modern, are divisible into discrete categories based upon physical and behavioral characters continues today as a popular way of referring to an individual’s ancestry. It serves as a social construct of human biological diversity expressed by commonly held images of our species’ physical diversity. When the forensic anthropologist submits his/her written examination and research report to a medical examiner or legal representative, the old terminology is conjured up. The point of this inconsistency is that the common “racial”names may assist in giving one’s client an understandable label to define the ancestry of an unidentified body or skeleton. (A historical account of the fall of the traditional race concept in science would not be helpful to the work of legal and medical practitioners for example.) If the forensic anthropologist receives a subpoena to appear in court to answer questions about a report, both judge and jury will gain a clearer comprehension of the identity of the decedent when the labels “Caucasian”or “white,”“black”or “Negroid,”“Mongoloid,”“American Indian”and “Malaysian”are used.

Forensic anthropologists are well aware of this contradictory mind-set. Norman Sauer (1992) titled one of his papers “If Races Don’t Exist, Why Are We So Good at Identifying Them?,”and one of his forensic anthropology colleagues published an article with the title “But Professor, Why Teach Race Identification if Races Don’t Exist?”(Kennedy 1995). In short, in the United States, Canada, and most of Western Europe this conflict is recognized by

anthropologists: They maintain a social view of human biological diversity, sometimes called “ethnicity,”and a scientific perspective that does not support the traditional race concept. The consequences of assuming there is a natural classification of humans into races, as understood in its social context among most North American citizens, is a reasonable reaction of confusion when one is informed by biological science that “races”do not exist. This is because phenotypic diversity in ancient and modern humans is misunderstood as classifiable into natural sub-species or natural entities.

Forensic anthropologists have replaced the earlier appellations assigned to physically and culturally diverse human populations by identifying them by the names of their geographical habitats, for example, peoples of south-central Europe (not “Alpinoids”), northern Europeans including Scandinavians (not “Nordics”), peoples of China (not “Mongoloids”), and so on. An elaborate nomenclature had developed by the early half of the last century, for example, “Indo-Afghans,”“Pre-Dravidians,”“Melanides,”and “Proto-Australoids.”These specific “racial divisions”were imagined by anthropologists to be present in a single landmass—the Indian subcontinent. Other terms flourished for prehistoric and living populations of the Asian landmass, Africa, Europe, Oceania, and the Americas.

No single physical or genetic trait provides an answer to the question of ancestry of a skeletalized or decomposed individual. The forensic anthropologist examines a number of bone and dental features known from other research sources to appear in highest frequencies among inhabitants of different geographical regions. Most of the traits are nonconcordant. That is, darkly pigmented skin and black hair, both resulting from a high amount of the substance melanin, may not always appear together in an endogamous population, nor are these variables genetically linked with blood groups. Blood group B of the ABO system appears very often in people of Near Eastern and Asian descent, but B blood is present also in human inhabitants of other continents. Blue eyes are frequent in northern Europe, but they appear as well in people of the Hindu Kush Mountains of northern Pakistan. In short, these and other phenotypic traits of interest to the forensic anthropologist have their separate patterns of geographical distribution within our species because each trait selected for observation has its own independent “history”of diffusion over the earth in space and time. Some traits are subject to the forces of natural selection, but if these have an adaptive value and are therefore an advantage to the reproductive success of a population, then they may endure over many generations. New features appear as a result of genetic mutation and interbreeding of neighboring or foreign peoples, but no individual contains all of the genetic materials in his/her population.


But how does the forensic anthropologist determine ancestry? No single methodological approach provides an answer; rather, several kinds of data acquisition are required. One of these involves the examination of the form and structure of the skeleton as a whole and of each of its bony components and teeth. This is called “morphological analysis.”Examples are the configuration of the nasal aperture (is it long and narrow? short and broad?), presence or absence of “shovel-shaped”incisor teeth, straightness or projection of the lower portion of the face, heavy or small brow ridges, degree of curvature of one or more bones of the lower extremities, and literally scores of other physical features.

“Metric analysis”refers to measurement of bones and teeth with precision instruments, such as calipers, head spanners, and osteometric boards for measuring the lengths of bones of the upper and lower extremities. Since the end of the eighteenth century hundreds of different “anthropo-metric”instruments have been invented and patented with the goal of achieving very accurate size values, and today an instrument employed in dental measurements is graduated to one-tenth of a millimeter. The metric system is used in taking anthropometric measurements. From these numerical data, a ratio of length-breadth measurements is called the “index”(plural “indices”when references are made to multiple ratios). Commonly known indices include the relationship of maximum cranial length to maximum cranial breadth, the so-called “Cranial Index”(with its classifications into “dolichocrany,”or long-headedness, and “brachycrany,”or broad-headedness). Measuring instruments are set in place on standard “landmarks,”which may be anatomical points or regions of bones and teeth.

Metrical data are quantified for statistical analyses that may reveal degrees of biological relationships between modern human populations as well as between prehistoric peoples when their skeletal remains have been preserved. Today a host of multivariate statistical procedures shed light on population affinities. Metric data are added to molecular biological-genetic studies, which are also useful in estimations of the degree to which populations are genetically related. However, molecular biologists would not be able to account for age at the time of death of adult subjects, markers of trauma or MOS, and other aspects of the life history and lifeways of a skeletal subject.

Accurate determination of an individual’s ancestry from skeletal remains rests upon the analyses of the data from a forensic anthropological investigation acquired by some of the instruments listed above, comparative studies of skeletons of known ancestry, and the level of training achieved by the forensic anthropologist.


Prior to World War II in the United States, individuals practicing forensic anthropology were men with medical backgrounds and anatomists. An American anthropologist, W. M. Krogman (1939), published his “A Guide to the Identification of Human Skeletal Material”in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin in 1939. This marks a turning point in the development of the forensic sciences, as skeletal biologists were needed by U.S. military forces for identification of war dead at the end of World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam conflict. The Pentagon and FBI were interested in Krogman’s description of the kinds of information that could be used for personal identification. By 1972 a new section of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS), founded in 1948, was organized. Beginning with fourteen practicing forensic anthropologists, the Section of Physical Anthropology had a 2005 membership of over 275 forensic anthropologists. The latter fall into rankings of fellow, member, associate member, honorary member, trainee affiliate, and student affiliate within a total membership of over 5,152 forensic science experts. The AAFS official organ of publication is the Journal of Forensic Sciences to which forensic anthropologists and other members of the association’s ten sections may submit research articles for publication. These other sections include Criminalistics, Engineering Sciences, General, Jurisprudence, Odontology, Pathology-Biology, Psychiatry and Behavioral Science, Questioned Documents, and Toxicology.

Independent of the AAFS is the American Board of Forensic Anthropology (ABFA), established five years after the Physical Anthropology Section was formed. At present there are nearly seventy Diplomates. This title (Diplomate of the American Board of Forensic Anthropology, or D.A.B.F.A.) is awarded to practicing forensic anthropologists who take written and practical board examinations for certification. This process offers a credential that guarantees that the title’s holders are considered by their peers to be among the finest and most experienced professionals in forensic anthropology. It is an advantageous award for establishing one’s qualifications when examined in court as an expert witness.

Forensic anthropologists conduct their research with colleagues in other disciplines. Radiologists can provide X-ray plates that can reveal the nature of a bone fracture or the age of a young individual by the state of dental eruption and the growth and development of cranial and postcranial bones. Molecular biology and DNA analyses may assist in estimating degrees of genetic relationships between individuals and the ancient populations from which their ancestry may be traced. Photography is an essential step in any case because it serves as a visual record of a decedent’s subjection to trauma and disease. Forensic odontologists cooperate with anthropologists with respect to comparisons of dental records, recognizing irregularities in enamel development and confirming data about sex and age at time of death.

The forensic sciences in general have gained great popular interest through television programs, novels in which the forensic anthropologist is the key figure, and in magazine and newspaper articles. Unfortunately, few of these media sources accurately represent the real world of any of the forensic sciences. Efficient training in its anthropological side involves an undergraduate background in the biological sciences, mathematics, and anthropology; a graduate program leading to the doctoral degree (Ph.D.) at a college or university where field and laboratory training is available (at present about a dozen institutions of higher education in the United States and Canada); personal attributes that allow for working well with others, facing the challenges of examining decomposed bodies as well as skeletal remains; commitment to assisting the M.D. or professor; and acquiring a sound background in statistics. After a few years of field and laboratory experience, the junior forensic anthropologist begins attendance at AAFS meetings and may study for certification according to the directives of the ABFA.

At present no academic departments in anthropology and the biological sciences in North America are staffed entirely by forensic anthropologists. Rather, the expert in this field is usually hired by a college or university depending upon his/her qualifications as a biological anthropologist capable of teaching courses about human palaeontology and evolution, biological variables of living human populations and genetics, nutritional anthropology, and other specialties within the broad spectrum of anthropology. However, for the applicant who is able to command these subjects and is trained in forensic anthropology, a position may open up at a research institution, college or university, or the offices of the FBI and other government agencies. Certainly all of the forensic sciences are expanding, and anthropologists with research interests in estimating the ancestry of modern and prehistoric humans will discover a vast literature on the subject and opportunities for refinement of present methods in morphology, anthropometry, human genetics, and the history of how the traditional race concept has been modified in the twentieth-first century.

Forensic anthropologists have written several books that go into detail about their cases and provide both overviews of the state of the discipline and depictions of methods for ancestry determination. These resources provide easy-to-read sources for those interested in the subject (Byers 2002; Thomas 1995; Molnar 2006; Rhine 1998; Ubelaker and Scammell 1992).

SEE ALSO Eugenics, History of; Genetics, History of; Human and Primate Evolution; Human Genetics.


Byers, Steven N. 2002. Introduction to Forensic Anthropology.Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Kennedy, Kenneth A. R. 1976. Human Variation in Space and Time. Dubuque, IA: W. C. Brown.

———. 1995. “But Professor, Why Teach Race Identification If Races Don’t Exist?”Journal of Forensic Sciences 40: 797–800.

Krogman, Wilton Marion. 1939. “A Guide to the Identification of Human Skeletal Material.”FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin 8 (8): 1–29.

Livingstone, Frank B. 1962. “On the Non-existence of Human Races.”Current Anthropology 3 (3): 279–281.

Molnar, Stephen. 2006. Human Variation: Races, Types and Ethnic Groups, 6th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Rhine, Stanley. 1998. Bone Voyage: A Journey in Forensic Anthropology. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Sauer, Norman. 1992. “Forensic Anthropology and the Concept of Race: If Races Don’t Exist, Why Are Forensic Anthropologists So Good at Identifying Them?”Social Science and Medicine 34 (2): 107–111.

Stewart, T. Dale. 1979. Essentials of Forensic Anthropology: Especially as Developed in the United States. Springfield, IL: Thomas.

Thomas, Peggy. 1995. Talking Bones: The Science of Forensic Anthropology. New York: Facts on File.

Ubelaker, Douglas, and Henry Scammell. 1992. Bones: A Forensic Detective’s Case Book. New York: HarperCollins.

Kenneth A. R. Kennedy

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