Can Skeletons Have Racial Identity?Breaking News
tags: racism, anthropology, scientific racism
Racial reckonings were happening everywhere in the summer of 2020, after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis by the police. The time felt right, two forensic anthropologists reasoned, to reignite a conversation about the role of race in their own field, where specialists help solve crimes by analyzing skeletons to determine who those people were and how they died.
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 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” — age at death, sex, height and race.
In the 1990s, as more scientists debunked the myth of biological race — the notion that the humans species is divided into distinct races — anthropologists grew sharply divided over the issue. One survey found that 50 percent 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 percent white.