Can skeletons have a racial identity?
A recent article by Dr Ross and Dr Williams, who are close friends, examines Panama and Colombia as a test case. An estimate of ancestry could suggest that people from both countries would have similarly shaped skulls. But the affinity of the population recognizes that the transatlantic slave trade and colonization by Spain led to the establishment of new communities in Panama which changed the composition of the country’s population. “Because of these historic events, the people of Panama are very, very different from those of Colombia,” said Dr Ross, who is Panamanian.
Dr. Ross even designed his own software, 3D-ID, in place of Fordisc, the most commonly used forensic software that categorizes skulls in inconsistent terms: white. Black. Hispanic. Guatemalan. Japanese.
Other anthropologists say that, for all practical purposes, their own ancestry estimates have become affinity estimates. Kate Spradley, forensic anthropologist at Texas State University, works with unidentified remains of migrants found near the US-Mexico border. “When we benchmark data that uses local population groups, it’s really about affinity, not ancestry,” Dr Spradley said.
In his work, Dr Spradley uses databases of missing persons from several countries that do not always share DNA data. Bones are often damaged, fragmenting DNA. Estimation of affinity can “help provide a preponderance of evidence,” said Dr Spradley.
Still, Dr DiGangi said switching to affinity might not address racial bias in law enforcement. Until she sees evidence that prejudice doesn’t prevent people from identifying with themselves, she says, she doesn’t want a “checkbox” that is about ancestry or affinity. .
In mid-October, Dr. Ross is waiting for the American Academy of Forensic Sciences Standards Board to hold a vote to determine whether the ancestry estimate should be replaced with population affinity. But the larger debate – about how to bridge the gap between bones and a person’s identity in real life – is far from settled.
“In 10 or 20 years, we might find a better way to do it,” said Dr Williams. “I hope it is.”