Term Paper: Forensic Anthropology Is a Relatively

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[. . .] About 4% were classified as "other," (Byers, 2001) a significant fact for forensic anthropologists, as it illustrates how difficult the task might be when 4% of the population claims no specific ancestry. This suggests their skulls might not follow any clear ancestral pattern.

Very often, the identification of the characteristics listed below is done visually. This makes them somewhat subjective. However, the traits cannot be easily defined in terms of measurement. For instance, the nasal bridge is often used as an important factor in determining ancestry, because it varies by group. However, to use this trait dependably requires that the anthropologist be clear on where the nasal bridge begins and ends (Byers, 2001). In spite of best efforts to be as precise as possible, all these features exist on a continuum. It may be difficult to determine whether a bridge most reflects White, Black, or Asian characteristics.


Forensic anthropologists have established specific ways to measure the bone structure of the skull to identify ancestry. They look a nose structure, specific shapes of the face, the cranial vault, and the jaws and teeth. For the nose, they look at the root, bridge, border, spine and width. Facial features include profile, shape, eye orbits and lower eye border. On the cranial vault, the browridges, muscle marks, vault sutures and postbregma are evaluated. Finally, they look at the lower jaw, the palatal shape, and the upper incisors (Byers, 2001). These features are looked at as precisely as possible, using specialized tools. The anthropometer is used to measure the long bones of the leg. A sliding caliper takes various measures on the skull. A Boley gauge measures teeth. A spreading caliper measures head length and width, and a tape measure measures the diameter of the head (Guntzel, 2004). The need for these measurements is shown by the doctor who found a skull on a Native American reservation. He looked at the skull and decided it was Native American, but he was unduly influenced by the location of the skull. Careful analysis showed that the skull actually belonged to a person of European ancestry (Byers, 2001).

The nose is the most useful facial feature in determining ancestral group, because the nose has five specific features that tend to vary fairly clearly among the three ancestral groups. The root is the spot where the nasals meet the frontal bones. Sometimes it projects outward from the facial plan, while other times it is quite flat, so flat that when looking at the skull from the side, the observer can see both eye orbits (Byers, 2001).

The bridge is a bony ridge formed by the nasals. Typically this ridge is high in Whites and resembles an A-frame house. By comparison, the bridge of a typical Black person resembles a Quonset hut, and in those of Asian ancestry, it will look more like a "sagging tent" (Byers, 2001).

The spine, when present, looks as if it were pinched by fingers into a pointy protrusion. In Whites, it is often significant, but it is smaller in people of Asian ancestry and almost entirely absent in Blacks (Byers, 2001).

The lower border of the nose may be flat, or raised significantly, depending on ancestry (Byers, 2001). The width of the nasal opening varies significantly from ancestral group to ancestral group.

In Whites, it tends to be narrow and shaped somewhat like an isosceles triangle. In Blacks, however, it is more like an equilateral triangle. In Asians, the nasal opening does not aid in identification (Byers, 2001). The chart below summarizes these characteristics.

Structure Whites Blacks Asians (Byers, 2001)

Root high, narrow low, rounded low, ridged

Bridge high low

Lower border sharp ***** flat, sharp

Spine pronounced small

Width narrow wide medium

The face is useful, especially in profile, because it reveals the structure of the lower jaw. Blacks have larger jaws than Whites and Asians, and it tends to protrude more in profile. By comparison, the face of Whites tends to be more flat, or even show a receding jaw, whereas for Asians, the amount of projection will be in between the other two. The shape varies also; Blacks and Whites tend to have narrower faces than Asians (Byers, 2001). Eye orbits also vary; Whites tend to have angular eye orbits, while in the Asian it tends to be round and in the Black somewhat rectangular (Byers, 2001). Finally, the lower eye border varies. Looking in profile, in Asians the lower eye border tends to push forward, but not in those of Whites and Blacks (Byers, 2001). See the chart below:

Structure Whites Blacks Asians (Byers, 2001)

Profile straight projecting intermediate

Shape narrow wide

Eye Orbits angular rectangular rounded

Lower eye border receding projecting

Evaluation of the cranial vault, includes the browbridges, muscle marks, vault sutures, and postbregma, one of the cranial sutures. Whites tend to have both the most pronounced browbridges and the most pronounced muscle marks (Byers, 2001).

The vault sutures of Asians are distinct, with significantly zigzagged edges, while the sutures in Whites and Blacks will not show such extreme undulations (Byers, 2001). Also, at one of the cranial sutures, known as the bregma, Black skulls are typically slightly concave, where that spot, easily observed in profile, will be either flat or slightly convex (Byers, 2001).

Structure Whites Blacks Asians (Byers, 2001)

Browbridges heavy small

Muscle marks rugged smooth

Vault sutures simple complex

Postbregma straight depressed straight

The jaws and teeth can also be useful in determining ancestry. Those of white ancestry often have the characteristic that their teeth are crowded in the jaw without enough space, a problem uncommon among both Blacks And Asians, because they have larger jaws. This is quite marked in Blacks. Their lower jaw is large enough to allow room for a tooth behind the third molar (Byers, 2001). In addition the dental arch varies according to ancestry. The dental arch in Whites is parabolic, or more pronounced in comparison to Blacks, where it is hyperbolic, or less pronounced. In Asians it is flatter still, more rounded than arched (Byers, 2001). The teeth of Asians, particularly the incisors, have a specific shape sometimes called "shoveling." They are scooped out on the anterior side. This trait occurs in about 90% of Asians, including Native Americans, but also in slightly less than 15% of Blacks and Whites (Byers, 2001), demonstrating that all of these traits have significant limitations.

Structure Whites Blacks Asians (Byers, 2001)

Palatal shape small large

Upper incisors spatulate shoveled

While the indicators discussed so far are both somewhat vague and not completely consistent within ancestry groups, using the skeleton for ancestral identification is even more problematic. While some bones have been studied, others have not, and even when bones, such as the pelvis, have been evaluated, whole groups of people have been left out (Byers, 2001), making the post-cranial bones of limited use.

However, there are some differences that can be identified. For instance, the femur, or thighbone, typically curves somewhat. However, Blacks and some Native Americans from South American have relatively straight femurs (Byers, 2001). Other structural differences exist as well, including the shape of the head and neck of the femur. IN blacks, the head and neck tend to be horizontal when laid down on, posterior-side down. However, among Whites, the head and neck are angled when laid this way (Byers, 2001).

In addition, Blacks tend to have lighter bones, with lighter muscle markings. The bones tend to be more slender than White, and the pelvis tends to be higher and not as wide (Byers, 2001). However, these traits by themselves do not definitively separate the two groups.


In an attempt to quantify differences between ancestral groups, various measurements have been used since early 1900's. Using bones of known members of a group, researchers measured the skull as precisely as possible, using the traits described earlier. However, the groups used to establish baseline measures, were not always randomly selected, and therefore don't always represent any given group as a whole. In addition, the measurements themselves aren't always replicable, meaning that someone else could measure the bone and come up with differing measurements. Finally, these measurements are based on observation, just as using traits are, and are least useful when results based on observing traits is ambiguous. In other words, the measurements themselves are based on the same ambiguities that are reflected in observational methods: the measurer must decide where the nose begins and ends, etc.

In an attempt to refine the use of measurements, George Gill and B. Miles Gilber created indexes using the nose for Blacks and Native Americans, using measurements of height and width. They use a simiometer, or specialized caliper. The height was divided by the width and multiplied by 100 to get a percentage, and then compared to data gathered on all three ancestral groups to determine the most likely group for that individual. Once again, this approach is based on traits… [END OF PREVIEW]

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