Binghamton, NY – Pedigree estimation – a method used by forensic anthropologists to determine ancestral ancestry through the analysis of skeletons – is rooted in “race science” and perpetuates white supremacy, according to a new research paper prepared by a forensic anthropologist at Binghamton University, SUNY.
By themselves, the bones appear somewhat uniform to the untrained eye. They lack the traits we often use to classify humans: hair texture, nose and eye shape, and skin pigmentation.
Forensic anthropologists know that race is not based on biological fact, but on a history and culture that defines meaning for the physical features that occur between different human groups. Why, then, do they still rely on a tool from the negative roots of the field in “race science”?
Elizabeth Dejangi, professor of anthropology at Binghamton University, addresses this issue in a recent article in American Journal of Physical Anthropology. Jonathan Bethard of the University of South Florida has authored a book titled Abolishing a Lost Problem: Decolonizing Ancestry in the United States, a practice that goes back to the origins of forensic anthropology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
This field was initially established by anatomists who had human skeletons in their museums or medical schools; They began to study the bones to see what could be learned from their features. Ancestral estimation, which analyzes skeletons – particularly those in the face or skull – to determine ancestral origin was among the early developments.
However, this practice was originally not neutral: scholars used these features to categorize the races they had previously identified arbitrarily, with the aim of demonstrating the superiority of European men. It should be noted that these scholars were all European men themselves, Dejangi said.
When forensic anthropology became formal later in the twentieth century, it maintained the practice of ancestry estimation.
“Since the time of professionalization in this field in the late 1970s, we have considered the fact that ratios estimation can and should be done,” she said.
Social vs. Biological race
The categories we all know from census forms to employment applications – African American / Black, European American / White, Asian American etc. – are examples of social race. These categories are not only man-made, but have changed over the years based on government priorities and social sentiments. In the early 20th century, for example, Irish and Italian immigrants were not considered white, although they are today.
“Biological race is a myth that there is something biological in nature about the differences between these formed groups, and that the human race is divided into genera. This myth has been debunked for decades.” The problem is that science has been responsible for teaching the world that the biological race was real, Dejanji said. But he was completely unsuccessful in rescinding it, explaining why we were wrong and atoning for the terrible misunderstanding.
These perceptions can influence how we interpret neutral phenomena, such as bones. Like any other part of the body, bones have slight variations from one individual to another, such as the exact location of the hole a nerve passes through or the rough area of a muscle attachment. An estimate of proportions is based in particular on the features of the skull and the bones that make up the face, known as morphological features.
Morphoscopic features have always been assumed to indicate a person’s ancestors, and there has been some research into the differences of specific traits between different human groups. However, Dejanji explained that the research has never determined the inheritance of these traits, making their association with certain groups largely narrative. There are other problems, too: If you were to study whether these traits could be inherited, how would you define the line between different groups?
In other words, pedigree estimation is not based on good science.
However, those who advocate its use say it’s a necessary tool. In the United States’ complex system of investigating deaths, forensic anthropologists work side by side with law enforcement when it comes to identifying human remains. Morphoscopic traits, dental features, and skull measurements that support ancestral esteem would be meaningless to investigators unless they could be assigned to ethno-social categories.
But it is difficult to determine whether an estimate of proportions really helps identify people, the authors note. Estimates tend to be based on cases in which the object is successfully identified – and do not take failures into account.
And then there is also the disturbing legacy of white supremacy that underpins police action in the United States. In the paper, the authors hypothesized that racial bias on the part of investigators could lead to delays or lack of identification of people of color, and issued an urgent call for research.
“People in forensic sciences tend to think that we are working for justice for the victims, we are above quarrels and racism does not apply to us or the institutions in which we work,” Dejangi said. “As far as I’m concerned, the time has come for a reality check.”
Changing the exclusion culture
Today, the discipline established by white anatomists is called biological anthropology, in part to distinguish it from its earlier racial roots. This history should not be forgotten, Dejanji said, but instead “actively possess it and atone for it, which includes ensuring that the system is more fair and inclusive.”
Biological anthropology has made some progress in this field, but forensic anthropology, a subset of this larger field, has not done the same.
Today, 87% of forensic anthropologists are white and DiGangi is rare. In fact, she is the only board-certified person identified as black in the history of the American Board of Forensic Anthropology, which was founded in 1977.
While diversity is badly needed, it should be more than just a buzzword. Concrete actions must be taken not only at the board level, but in anthropology departments, student organizations, and mentoring relationships for undergraduate and graduate students, all of which lead future forensic anthropologists to major.
These measures include increasing transparency and penance for past and present damages to a diverse population: people of color, women, the LGBTQ + community and those who are neither physically nor neurologically able. One of these damages is a history of exclusion.
“The leadership may think that they are not exclusionary, but any organization whose membership is overwhelmingly white is an exclusionary organization, and the organization and its members are responsible for knowing the factors that led to it and reforming it,” she said.
Organizations need specific policies and procedures to create a welcoming environment. Think of a typical summer barbecue: Nobody will invite themselves, especially if the other attendees are unlike them and the food and music are unfamiliar, Dejangi says. But if barbecue attendees are welcome, interact with this new person, make adjustments to meet their needs and listen carefully, the situation changes.
This is not an issue unique to forensic anthropology.
“All the sciences, and certainly other forensic disciplines, need to confront the issue of how racism and other forms of discrimination have been a major force in everything from recruiting and retaining our members to our methods and how we interpret the results,” she said.