Terminology Used to Describe Human Variation in Forensic Anthropology

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Marin A. Pilloud
Cassie E. Skipper
SaMoura L. Horsley
Alba Craig
Krista Latham
Chaunesey M. J. Clemmons
Katie Zejdlik
Deborah A. Boehm
Casey S. Philbin


To understand the implications of the forensic anthropological practice of “ancestry” estimation, we explore terminology that has been employed in forensic anthropological research. The goal is to evaluate how such terms can often circulate within social contexts as a result, which may center forensic anthropologists as constituting “race” itself through analysis and categorization. This research evaluates terminology used in anthropological articles of the Journal of Forensic Sciences between 1972 and 2020 (n = 314). Terminology was placed into two categories: classifiers and descriptors. Classifiers were standardized into one of five options: “race,” “ancestry,” “population,” “ethnic,” or “other.” Descriptors included terms used to describe individuals within these classificatory systems. We also compared these terms to those in the NamUs database and the U.S. census. Our results found that the terms “ancestry” and “race” are often conflated and “ancestry” largely supplanted “race” in the 1990s without a similar change in research approach. The NamUs and census terminology are not the same as that used in forensic anthropological research; illustrating a disconnect in the terms used to identify the missing, unidentified, and in social contexts with those used in anthropological research. We provide histories of all of these terms and conclude with suggestions for how to use terminology in the future. It is important for forensic anthropologists to be cognizant of the terms they use in medicolegal contexts, publications, and in public and/or professional spaces. The continued use of misrepresentative and improper language further marginalizes groups and perpetuates oppression rooted in systemic racism.

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