Why the “Big Four” should become the “Big Three” in the discipline of forensic anthropology

by Chelsey Voegt

Forensic anthropologists have a critical role to play in the justice system by providing law enforcement officials with a biological profile (sex, age-at-death, stature & ancestry) for unknown individuals. While the estimation of ancestry stems from anthropology’s racist history, it is still performed because law enforcement officials believe it helps with identification. Performing ancestry estimation in the 21st century is risky because firstly, it reinforces societies understanding that race is biological – even though it has been discredited by the discipline; secondly, anthropology has a very racist past where physical traits were used to classify humans into one of 3 racial categories (black, white, or mongoloid) without considering how fluid social races are; and thirdly, the effectiveness of using these traits to understand intersectional identities is not known.

With all that said, why are practitioners so set on estimating ancestry when the discipline is against the racist history that formed its foundations? Moreover, authors are interested in the negative effects that this specific parameter may have on case outcomes for black, indigenous people of colour (BIPOC), who make up the majority of the casework in the justice system.

Ancestry estimation is performed by analysing 17 morphoscopic traits. Only 5 of these traits have been linked to hereditary information and poor knowledge exists on how the remaining 12 may be associated with estimating geographical origin. This is problematic since the public relies on the science we produce. By unintentionally perpetuating racial and social assumptions and stereotypes, we legitimise these incorrect notions, which ultimately reinforces the status quo, all while providing the public with misinformation. On one hand, casework statistics support the estimation of ancestry since it has the power to narrow down the missing persons list during investigations. However, by including it on forensic reports, we do not know what effect it may have on the outcome of cases, especially since racial bias from the investigating officers’ perspectives could result in longer periods of identification for POC. A hypothesis that has been reinforced in society with the notion of “the missing white woman syndrome”- where women of colour receive less media coverage and resources during abduction cases as opposed to their white counterparts. The image below depicts the racial bias present in the American justice system, which further provides support for the argument.

Figure 1. Adapted from Bethard & DiGangi, 2020.

As a practicing biological anthropologist, I do not believe the authors are suggesting that social race doesn’t exist, because it indeed does, especially since it is influenced by several external factors as discussed in the above figure. They are rather suggesting that just because law enforcement officers require it, does not mean it must be done. This is just an excuse used to maintain the status quo that upholds the racist structural systems in institutions that ultimately harm BIPOC and benefit white citizens. Scientists are at the forefront of research and have the power and responsibility to control the science produced. Simply understanding the harm it inflicts is not enough. We need to take the initiative and start having those difficult conversations that will act as catalysts for change. Therefore, the authors suggest that all practicing forensic anthropologists should move towards eliminating ancestry estimation from their biological profiles. By doing this, we will be using our power and positions in society to lobby for change and deconstruct the colonial narratives that previously, and still today, cause harm to the marginalised groups in society. It must also be noted that this change will make people uncomfortable and brings with it complications such as increasing the number of people to search through on missing persons databases. However, forensic anthropologists chose this discipline on the basis that they wanted to positively contribute to justice – something that applies to all, irrespective of their race, age, or gender.


DiGangi EA, Bethard JD. 2020. Uncloaking a lost cause: decolonizing ancestry estimation in the United States. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 175:422-436. DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.24212

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