Posted on March 5, 2021

Ancestry Estimation Perpetuates Racism, White Supremacy

Binghamton University, February 24, 2021

Ancestry estimation — a method used by forensic anthropologists to determine ancestral origin by analyzing bone structures — is rooted in “race science” and perpetuates white supremacy, according to a new paper by a forensic anthropologist at Binghamton University, State University of New York.

By themselves, bones seem somewhat uniform to the untrained eye. They lack the traits we so often use to categorize fellow humans: hair texture, the shape of nose and eye, skin pigmentation.

Forensic anthropologists know that race isn’t based in biological fact, but in a history and culture that assigns meaning to physical traits that occur among different human populations. Why, then, are they still relying on a tool from the field’s negative roots in “race science”?

Binghamton University Associate Professor of Anthropology Elizabeth DiGangi addresses this issue in a recent article in The American Journal of Physical Anthropology. Co-authored with Jonathan Bethard of the University of South Florida, “Uncloaking a Lost Cause: Decolonizing ancestry estimation in the United States” explores a practice that dates back to the very origins of forensic anthropology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The field was initially created by anatomists who had human skeletons in their museums or medical schools; they began studying the bones to see what could be learned from their features. Ancestry estimation, which analyzes bone structures — especially those in the face or skull — to determine ancestral origin was among the early developments.


“Biological race is the myth that there is something inherently biological about the differences between these constructed groups, that the human species is divided into races. This myth has been debunked for decades,” DiGangi said. “The problem is that science was responsible for teaching the world that biological race was real, yet has not fully succeeded at rescinding it, explaining why we were wrong and atoning for the gross miscommunication.”

These concepts can influence how we interpret otherwise neutral phenomena, such as bones. Like any other part of the body, bones have subtle variations from individual to individual, such as the precise location of a hole where a nerve passes through or a roughened area for a muscle attachment. Ancestry estimation particularly relies on skull features and the bones that make up the face, known as morphoscopic traits.

It has long been assumed that morphoscopic traits indicate a person’s ancestry, and there has been some research into specific feature variations among different human groups. {snip}


Those defending its use, however, say that it’s a needed tool. In the United States’ complex system of death investigation, forensic anthropologists work alongside law enforcement when it comes to identifying human remains. The morphoscopic traits, dental traits and skull measurements that underpin ancestry estimation would be meaningless to investigators unless they can be mapped onto social racial categories.

But it’s hard to say whether ancestry estimation really helps identify people, the authors point out. Estimates tend to rely on cases where a body is successfully identified — and don’t take the failures into account.

And then there is also the troublesome legacy of white supremacy that underpins policing in the United States. In the paper, the authors hypothesized that racial bias on the part of the investigators could lead to delayed or nonexistent identification for people of color, and issued an urgent call for research.

“People in the forensic sciences have a tendency to think that because we work for justice for victims, we are above the fray and racism is not applicable to us or the institutions we work for,” DiGangi said. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s well past time for a reality check.”


Today, the discipline once created by white anatomists is called biological anthropology, partially to distinguish it from its earlier racist roots. We shouldn’t forget that history, but instead “own it and actively atone for it, which includes ensuring that the discipline is more equitable and inclusive,” DiGangi explained.

Biological anthropology has made some progress in this area, but forensic anthropology, a subset of that larger field, hasn’t done the same.

Today, 87% of forensic anthropologists are white and DiGangi is a rarity. In fact, she’s the only board-certified person who has identified as Black in the history of the American Board of Forensic Anthropology, which was established in 1977.