In search of nuance: can skeletons have a racial identity?

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Dr Elizabeth DiGangi of Binghamton University and Jonathan Bethard of the University of South Florida published a letter in The Journal of Forensic Science that questioned the long-standing practice of estimating ancestry, or a person’s geographic origin, as a proxy for estimating race. Ancestry, along with height, age at death, and assigned sex, is one of the key details that many forensic anthropologists are trying to determine.

That fall, they published a longer article with a more ambitious call to action: “We urge all forensic anthropologists to abolish the practice of ancestry estimation. “

In recent years, a growing number of forensic anthropologists have criticized ancestry estimation and want to replace it with something more nuanced. Criminal cases in which the identity of the victim is completely unknown are rare. But in these cases, some forensic anthropologists argue, a tool such as an ancestry estimate can be crucial.

Breed assessment has been a part of forensic anthropology since the estate’s inception a century ago. The earliest scholars were white men who studied human skulls to support racist beliefs. Ales Hrdlicka, a physical anthropologist who joined the Smithsonian Institution in 1903, was a eugenicist who looted human remains for his collections and sought to classify humans into different races based on certain appearances and traits.

An expert in skeletons, Dr. Hrdlicka has helped law enforcement identify human remains, laying the foundations for the professional field. Forensic anthropologists then had to produce a profile with the “Big Four” – age at death, sex, height and race.

In the 1990s, as more and more scientists debunked the myth of the biological race – the idea that the human species is divided into distinct races – anthropologists were sharply divided on the issue. A survey found that 50 percent of physical anthropologists accepted the idea of ​​a biological concept of race, while 42 rejected it. Back then, some researchers were still using terms like “Caucasoid,” “Mongoloid,” and “Negroid” to describe skeletons, and DNA as a forensic tool was still a long way off. Today in the United States, the field of forensic anthropology is 87 percent white.

In 1992, Norman Sauer, an anthropologist at Michigan State University, suggested removing the term “race”, which he considered heavy, and replacing it with “ancestry”. The term has become universal. But some researchers argue that little has changed in practice.

When Shanna Williams, a forensic anthropologist at the University of South Carolina at Greenville School of Medicine, was a student about ten years ago, it was still customary to sort the skeletons in one of the “Three major” populations possible – African, Asian or European.

But Dr Williams began to distrust the idea and how ancestry was often attributed. She saw skulls referred to as “Hispanic,” a term that refers to a linguistic group and has no biological meaning. She thought about how the field might try, and fail, to sort out her own skull. “My mom is white and my dad is black,” she said. “Do I fit into this mold?” Am I perfectly one thing or the other?


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