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 longstanding 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 try to determine.
That fall, they published a longer paper 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 grown critical of ancestry estimation and want to replace it with something more nuanced. Criminal cases in which the victim’s identity is entirely unknown are rare. But in these instances, some forensic anthropologists argue, a tool like an ancestry estimation can be crucial.
The assessment of race has been a part of forensic anthropology since the field’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 on skeletons, Dr Hrdlicka helped law enforcement identify human remains, laying the blueprint for the professional field. Forensic anthropologists thereafter were expected to produce a profile with the “Big Four” — the age at death, sex, height and race.
In the 1990s, as more scientists debunked the myth of biological race — the notion that the human species is divided into distinct races — anthropologists grew sharply divided over the issue. One survey found that 50 per cent of physical anthropologists accepted the idea of a biological concept of race, while 42 rejected it. At the time, some researchers still used terms like “Caucasoid,” “Mongoloid” and “Negroid” to describe skeletons, and DNA as a forensic tool was still many years away. Today in the U.S., the field of forensic anthropology is 87 per cent white.
In 1992, Norman Sauer, an anthropologist at Michigan State University, suggested dropping the term “race,” which he considered loaded, and replacing it with “ancestry.” The term became universal. But some researchers contend that little changed about the practice.
When Shanna Williams, a forensic anthropologist at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine Greenville, was in graduate school around a decade ago, it was still customary to sort skeletons into one of the “Big Three” possible populations — African, Asian or European.
But Dr Williams grew suspicious of the idea and the way ancestry was often assigned. She saw skulls designated as “Hispanic,” a term that refers to a language group and has no biological meaning. She considered how the field might try, and fail, to sort her own skull. “My mom is white, and my dad is Black,” she said. “Do I fit that mould? Am I perfectly one thing or the other?”