Determining Race Through a Human Skeleton Term Paper

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Forensic anthropology is a relatively new field in anthropology. When it was first recognized as a forensic science about thirty years ago, there were only six forensic anthropologists, all of whom knew each other (Guntzel, 2004). The role of forensic anthropology in police work is to give investigators specific information about an unknown individual that they can use to help with identification. When the investigators have such information as age, sex, height and ancestry, they can compare that information to known missing people and perhaps identify the body (Byers, 2001).

One such forensic anthropologist is Clyde Snow, who has worked both on individual cases and scenes of political massacres around the world including Guatemala, El Salvador, Argentina, Iraq, Zaire, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and Yugoslavia (Guntzel, 2004). He has also gathered forensic evidence from victims of serial killers such as the Green River Killer and Jeffrey Dahmer, as well as man-made and natural disasters including the Oklahoma City bombing (Guntzel, 2004). Other cases he worked on including identifying the remains of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and bones found at the site of the Battle of Little Bighorn, where Custer and union soldiers were defeated in a battle with Native Americans.

Another forensic anthropologist, Norm Sauer, got a call from the Michigan state police that they had found a body in some woods. There was no identifying information, and visual identification could identify neither race nor sex. He evaluated all of the skeleton, but focused on the pelvis and skull. The pelvis confirmed the sex, but he also took measurements of the distance between the eye orbits, and the length and breadth of the skull. Performing a few calculations, he told the state police that the remains were that of a Black female. He could give her height as between 5'2" and 5'6," and placed her age at between 18 and 23 years. He also determined that she had been dead more than six weeks but less than six months. They compared this information to known missing cases, and found a missing woman from the area: Black, 5'3," and 19 years old (Shreeve, 1994).

While history may be enhanced by investigations into such sites as Little Bighorn and the one described in Bolivia, the most immediately useful work of forensic anthropology is in identifying the remains from unknown bodies to assist in police investigations. Of all the information generated by Sauer's work, the most difficult was establishing the race, or ancestry, of the unknown woman. However, the information was crucial to determining who the missing woman might be.


One obvious difficulty is that opinions abound on what race is. It is a difficult topic, because in our not-so-recent past, race was used to defend vile actions by one group against another. For forensic anthropologists to attempt to identify race based on an individual's skeletal remains, however, race in some form must exist in a physical way. While people might want to erase the notion of race from our culture, as demonstrated by Sauer's example above, determining whether the person is of European, Asian or African ancestry can be an important clue for police investigators. Nevertheless, the issue of race is so complicated that our own government struggles to define what they mean by "race." The Office of Management and Budget, in charge of our ten-yearly census, struggled in the 1990's with racial categories. The ones originally planned for the 2000 Census included White, Black, American Indian (often called Native American), Eskimo and Aleut (also Native American), Asian or Pacific Island, or "other." Noticeably absent was Hispanic and any category for those who consider themselves multicultural. The difficulties with labels based on ancestry reflect difficulties faced by forensic anthropologists when they analyze skeletal remains.

There are essentially two schools of thought on this issue within anthropology. First, there are those who feel that only individual traits should be considered and that they should resist any temptation to cluster people by physical characteristics such as skin color or nose structure. Those anthropologists prefer the terms to cultural affiliation "race." Other researchers recognize that the groupings some call "race" exist and have commonalities, and that those commonalities reflect biological fact. They prefer the term "race" to describe such groups (Byers, 2001).

All agree that all human beings belong to the same biological species, Homo sapiens, which means that all are capable of reproducing without barriers. In reality, however, people are restricted to those known to them when looking for a reproductive partner. As a result of this, in some areas, people of like characteristics tend to cluster together. Over time, then, geographic areas can vary even when the people who live in those areas all appear to be of the same ancestry. However, the issue of race also has important cultural and moral issues. In the past, human variation divided into "races" was viewed as a given, which each race distinct from other ones (Shreeve, 1994). While anthropologists as a group did not support the use of these differences as a way to sort people into some who were better than others, the view assisted those who wanted to assert such claims, insist that the races should be kept separate, and commit any number of social abominations in the name of race, and especially, racial purity. As Shreeve (1994) notes,

Asians... are typically supposed to have "yellow" skin, wide, flat cheekbones, epicanthic folds (those little webs of skin over the corners of the eyes), straight black hair, sparse body hair, and "shovel-shaped" incisor teeth, to name just a few such distinctive traits. And sure enough, if you were to walk down a street in Beijing, stopping every once in a while to peer into people's mouths, you would find a high frequency of these features. But try the same test in Manila, Tehran, or Irkutsk -- all cities in Asia -- and your Asian bushel basket begins to fall apart."

One solution is to increase the number of baskets, and sort people into groups in a more refined way. For instance, we could take the "Asian" race and subdivide it multiple times, but it still wouldn't serve the purpose well. While most Asians have epicanthic folds on their eyes, so do the Khoisan of southern Africa. Shovel-shaped incisors, or the slightly concave back surface, are present in a lot of Native American and Asian teeth, but it's also very common in Sweden (Shreeve, 1994).

A more neutral term that can serve the needs of forensic anthropologists is "ancestry." Forensic anthropologists have to work closely with law enforcement agencies, and the fact is that the physical appearance of the deceased person can greatly help determine who that person was. Their race, or ancestry, is an important piece of information under these circumstances, one that transcends the need to be culturally sensitive or to recognize that superficial appearance tells us nothing regarding the character of the person. Because of the practical need, this paper will follow the textbook example and refer to those whose ancestors originated in the Orient as Asian. Native American will replace American Indian. Hispanic will mean people whose ancestry is a mix of European and Native American. However, forensic anthropologists must recognize that people cross ancestry lines all the time when choosing reproductive partners and that many people possess an ancestry that represents more than one group (Byers, 2001).

This makes the task of the forensic anthropologist difficult when it comes to determining race. Shreeve (1994) makes the point that while ancestry groups vary, there is more variability within each group than between groups. Dog breeders work hard to pair males and female so they can predict offspring that conform to rigid breed standards. Those breeds could be compared to the concept of race, but the truth is that the great majority of humans do not value conformity to arbitrary physical standards based on ancestry, and human physical traits vary significantly.

Certain practicalities exist when it comes to identifying the ancestry of skeletal remains. Since many of these remains will reflect the fact that many, many people have more than one ancestry within their family tree, the person should be assigned a minority ancestry if it is present. This is because as a practical matter, in society, this is how these people were most likely classified by their contemporaries (Byers, 2001). Since the goal is to help law enforcement officials identify the remains of the person, societal factors must be taken into consideration.

As forensic anthropologists look at the physical characteristics that help them assess ancestry, it is important to keep in mind that these characteristics are only reliable for adults and not in children who have not yet reached sexual maturity (Byers, 2001). The one exception to this is the formation of teeth.


In the United States, the Census provides us information regarding the ancestry of the people who live here. According to the 1990 census, about 71% were white and non-Hispanic; 13% were…[continue]

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