Assumed Differences; Unquestioned Typologies The Oversimplification of Race and Ancestry in Forensic Anthropology

Main Article Content

Sean D. Tallman
Nicolette M. Parr
Allysha P. Winburn


Forensic anthropologists traditionally estimate “race” or “ancestry” as part of the biological profile. While practitioners may have changed the terms used to describe regionally patterned human skeletal variation, the degree to which they have altered their typological approaches remains unclear. This study analyzed 119 peer-reviewed forensic anthropology articles published in four relevant journals (1966–2020) by matching combination(s) of the key words “race,” “ancestry,” “ethnicity,” and/or “population affinity.” Results indicated that while “ancestry” has supplanted “race,” this change has not brought concurrent modifications in approach, nor deeper scrutiny of underlying concepts. “Race” and “ancestry” were infrequently defined in 13% and 12% of sampled articles, respectively, and a plethora of social, geographic, and pseudoscientific terms persisted. Forensic anthropologists increasingly engaged with questions addressing the forces patterning human biological variation: 65% of studies postdating 1999 discussed population histories/structures and microevolution; 38% between 1966–1999. Fewer studies contextualized or critiqued approaches to analyzing population variation (32% of studies postdating 1999; 4% from 1966–1999), and virtually no studies considered the possibility that skeletal variation reflected embodied social inequity (5% of studies postdating 1999; 0% from 1966–1999). This lack of interrogation and clarity contributes to the faulty notion that all forensic anthropologists share similar definitions and leads to an oversimplification of complex biocultural processes. While the lack of
definitions and biocultural engagement may be partly due to editorial and peer-review pressures, it is likely that many forensic anthropologists have not interrogated their own perspectives. This article holds that it is essential for us to do so.

Article Details

Research Articles