Ancestry Estimation in Practice An Evaluation of Forensic Anthropology Reports in the United States

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Hillary Parsons


The medicolegal system relies on forensic anthropologists to construct accurate biological profiles from skeletal remains
to narrow the pool of potential missing persons and provide support for positive identifications. The ancestry estimation component of the
profile offers physical descriptions of decedents through a combination of metric analysis and the interpretation of discrete traits believed
to correlate with visible physical features. Forensic anthropologists employed in medical examiners’ offices in the United States regularly
construct these profiles in casework. However, ancestry estimation methods have been questioned in their ability to accurately describe the
racial classification of the deceased. Although validation studies have documented the accuracy of ancestry estimation methods on skeletal
collections, it is unknown how well they operate in forensic casework and the assumption that methods mirror the results observed in
academic research studies remains unproven. In an effort to understand how well methods preform, this research was designed to evaluate
the accuracy ancestry estimation practices within three medical examiners’ offices in the United States. The results show an accuracy rate
of 99% among 177 cases when both definitive and ambiguous ancestral and racial terminology was used to describe remains. Because
unidentified cases lack antemortem information, it remains unknown if the ancestral assessments of the 280 unidentified individuals
included in this study confer the same level of accuracy shown in resolved cases. The results presented here are informative not only for
the vital statistics obtained, but also for what this data reveals about the factors influencing ancestry estimation in practice.

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