Ancestry, Race, and Anthropology
Ancestry is the pattern of evolutionary, or genetic, descent of an individual. While anthropologists recognize that different groups of people around the world display varying physical features, these variations are now understood as a continuous spectrum of genetic variation within and among different groups of people, and are not considered to imply that there are distinct biological racial divisions among humans. The conceptual understanding of race has changed in the scientific community within the past century, and anthropologists now argue that the idea of race is best understood as a social construct – a way of classifying people based on different cultural ideas, which is not based on scientific methodology or principles. For more information, see The American Association of Physical Anthropologists Statement on Race and Racism.
Within the field of Forensic Anthropology, specialists look for skeletal features that can help them to identify the most likely race or ancestral group of an unknown individual to comply with traditional law enforcement records and reports. However, these racial categories are bureaucratic in nature, and are intended to help narrow down the identity of an unknown individual in conjunction with other skeletal features and measurements.
Ancestry and its limitations
Because humans are a very mobile species, the amount of geographic and genetic isolation between groups of people on a global level has declined. For thousands of years, people from a wide variety of geographic ancestry groups have traveled, met, and produced offspring who then pass a variety of genetic traits down through the generations. As a result, there is a lot of overlap between ancestry groups, and individuals may have skeletal features that indicate more than one ancestry category. Forensic anthropologists must therefore be careful when trying to determine the ancestry of an individual. When skeletal features point to more than one ancestral group, forensic anthropologists will make that clear in their report.
In humans, there are numerous skeletal features that are examined when attempting to determine the ancestry of an individual. Like sex determination of skeletal remains, ancestry markers are difficult to identify in juvenile skeletons. The variation that exists among different skeletal features helps forensic anthropologists to determine the ancestry of an individual as accurately as possible. It is important to remember that there is variation in the degree to which these features are shaped and/or present or absent within an ancestry group. When making their report, forensic anthropologists will give their estimation of an individual’s ancestry within a degree of likelihood.