Testing the Homogeneity of “White” Dental Morphology in Americans and Australians of European Descent

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Heather Edgar
Stephen D. Ousley


The purpose of estimating each part of the biological profile is to reduce the number of missing persons for comparison with unknown human remains. To serve this purpose each part must: 1) derive from information garnered from the remains, and 2) provide information that missing person’s community will generally agree describes them. Observer and statistical error, sampling error, and the disconnect between biological and social categories are all associated with each step of estimation, and can render aspects of the biological profile useless, or even harmful, to the ultimate goal of identification.

Here, we examine patterns of phenetic variation within a group usually treated as homogeneous, European-descended populations in the United States and Australia, usually described as “White” (n = 365). We analyzed dental morphological data for biological distances and using several classification techniques. We find that structure exists among these groups. Accuracy of classification of individuals from contemporary Tennessee approaches forensic significance, compared to samples from New York, Ohio, and Australia. These results point out that researchers commonly seek structured variation among some populations but not others. We examine this point, and make recommendations to the field to change our approach to the estimation of population affinity so that it reflects the biological variation associated with social meaning relevant in local communities. Additionally, our approach to population affinity should be iterative, reflecting cultural changes over time, and reflexive, aware and responding to our own biases.

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