Way, way back in time, when science was still being born, the idea of race was created to divide humankind by skin color. This social construction has persisted over time, despite the fact the there is no biological basis for race. In fact, our perception of race changes through time and space, making it impossible to measure. That’s right – forensic anthropologists can’t tell you exactly what skin color someone had when they died.
What science can determine by looking at the bones of the deceased is the person’s ancestry, or their ethnic descent. Using craniometric variation, or the different measurements of skulls, forensic anthropologists can figure out if a person was Africoid (previously referred to as Negroid), Caucasoid or Asioid (previously referred to as Mongoloid).
How is this any different from classifying based on race? It’s rather simple. These scientists aren’t saying, “This dead guy was black, and this one was white.” Rather, they are saying, “This dead girl had the cranial structure of someone whose ancestors were from a European country.” This can help make a positive identification on a John or Jane Doe, or to confirm the identity of a known person.
Of course, like most scientific techniques involving human variation, this isn’t 100% accurate. In the modern human population, it isn’t impossible to find a female’s remains that have male characteristics, just as it isn’t impossible to find an Asioid skull with Caucasoid characteristics. Sometimes, this can result in a faulty identification, in which case it would be better to leave it undetermined.
Some forensic scientists argue that race is an acceptable measurement. Norman Sauer, for example, was the co-director of the forensic anthropology program at Michigan State University. In an article, he proclaimed assigning race to skeletal remains doesn’t justify the social construct of race, but it does predict the individual’s racial category as assigned by the society in which the individual lived.
“In ascribing a race name to a set of skeletonized remains, the anthropologist is actually translating information about biological traits to a culturally constructed labeling system that was likely to have been applied to a missing person.”-Sauer
Now, Sauer is not saying race is a biologically defined and accepted concept. He is giving the forensic anthropologist the power to try to think anthropologically about race and ask, how would the society this individual lived in classify their race based on the craniometric determination of ancestry?
While the scientific community does disagree about ideas regarding racial classification, they all agree on one thing: Forensic anthropology is changing. It is transforming in a way that discontinues antiquated ideas about not only race, but also gender, DNA and human rights cases.