This is because gender, much like race, is a fluid, changing social construct. To make it even more confusing, at least for Americans, the gender binary – or the idea that male and female are the only possible gender identities – is not universal. But, that’s for another time.
Unlike race, however, gender is directly linked biologically. For example, a transgender person identifies opposite of the sex assigned to them at birth. Based on skeletal evidence, there’s no way of knowing what gender an individual identified with in life.
What forensic anthropologists can determine is the biological sex of an individual.
There are four areas that should be looked at when finding the sex of adult remains, and the more used, the better. Combining data from the pelvis, the skull, stature and the thickness of the bones is preferable – if you have all those measurements available. If not, the pelvis is really the best way to go.
Even if you have a perfectly in-tact skeleton, sex is determined on a scale: male, possible male, indeterminate, possible female and female. This is useful because the biological variation of humans can be unpredictable. We’re barely scratching the surface of human variation with this example, but to put it simply: Some females have thick bones and lack baby-making hips, and some males have sharp chins and wide derrières.
If the scientist is not sure, it’s better to leave the sex undetermined in medico-legal contexts. If they think the individual is male and that is their final determination, searches in databases will be limited to that sex. If they made a mistake, an hypothetical Jane Doe’s identity may go undiscovered.
Even more challening is determining the sex of subadults, or individuals who are literally less than adult age. Unlike adolescents, children don’t have sexually dimorphic traits, so in that case it’s always undetermined.
For a better understanding, take a minute to look at this very basic educational exercise I created for your enjoyment.
Okay, are you back? Good. Now you have a slight inkling of the challenge of determining sex of a skeleton.
Once again, this information is important for all the same reasons as ethnicity or age. It’s more than just scientifically fascinating. It helps to identify human remains, which could lead to closure for a family whose loved one went missing or help find the person responsible for the individual’s wrongful death. As we talked about last week, this is the ultimate goal.