Skull: A thing or a person? Pt.1

Skull is one of the most cliché symbols. It represents both power and mortality and has been preserved for scientific and artistic purposes. It is very important in terms of forensic anthropology to tell the biological profile of the deceased: sex, age, and ancestry. And on the other hand, it has significant yet different meaning in cultures. In other words, skull or head sometimes symbolizes as a person, and sometimes merely as a thing. In this following entries, together with the next, I will endeavor to illustrate and discuss the meanings of skulls from biological anthropology and cultural anthropology.


Let’s begin with the anatomy of a skull.

Skull composed of 22 visible bones (3 ear ossicles on each side are not counted). Other than the mandible (the lower jaw), these bones are tightly articulate at the suture line. As a person aged, the suture lines will fuse together, and thus keep bones in place. Skulls are widely studied by scholars, thus divided into four topical areas: bones, sinuses, landmarks and sutures. We are going to look at them one by one in brief:


As mentioned above, it is the lines where the bones of the skull meet and fuse together in the later stage of one’s life. Some sutures would even completely obliterated in old age, which is definitely a feature to help determine age of deceased.


Sinuses refer to the pockets of air within sections of some of the cranial bones. The frontal sinus is an open area that lies above the upper boarder of the eye orbits, as well as the lower portion (towards nose) of the frontal bone. Maxillary sinuses are other larger sinuses in the upper jaw. Research has it that frontal sinuses in particular are unique enough for getting positive identification by comparing with antemortem (before death) radiographs.


These are the measuring reference points for measurement or description purposes.


Speaking about bones, I would like to focus on how anthropologist use skull to sex and determine ancestry from the anthroposcopic characteristics. First for sexing, including the overall size of the skull, there are 6 traits anthropologist would look for when sexing with the skull: mastoid process, nuchal crest, supra-orbital margin, supra-orbital ridge, and mental eminence.

  • Mastoid Process: Male exhibits larger (and fatter) mastoid process when compares with females
  • Overall size: Male skull is larger in size and more robust, and usually with more prominent and pronounced features
  • Nuchal crest (or, the hook at the back of one’s head) : Male usually comes with a rugged nuchal area with inion hook, while female usually has a smoother nuchal area and the inion hook is absent.
  • Supra-orbital margin (the margin of the upper eye socket): Males usually have more rounded and smooth margin, whereas female exhibits a sharper and pointy margin in comparison.
  • Supra-orbital ridges: Male has a more pronounced ridge, where female has less pronounced or absent of ridges
  • Mental eminence on the lower jaw: Male usually observed with a more squared chin, while female is usually observed with a more pointed one.


For ancestry estimation, anthroposcopic traits are the main way for ancestry classification. Yet, traits are categorized by gradation, and thus the ambiguities make ancestry as the most difficult attributes to be made.  



These days, differentiations are no longer obvious as above. It mostly relied on the sense of touch when the osteologist or anthropologist feel and “communicate” with the bones. Also, anthropologists would never solely determine a biological profile component from one characteristic. Rather, they would gather as much info as possible from the skeleton in order to make the estimation more accurate.


Byers, Steven N.. (2011). Introduction to Forensic Anthropology. 4th edition. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, Chapter 7-8.

Forensics and Race: Why Anthropologists Need to Identify It ?

Forensic Anthropologist begins the job by establishing biological profile after has identified the remains are human. The items in the biological profile include sex, age, ancestry, and stature. These all come down to a hope on making a positive identification from police’s missing person poll.

Among the four items in the biological profile, ancestry is the most controversial. Ancestry here usually refers to the classification of the deceased as either Black, White, or Asian.  Anthropologists, especially biological/ physical anthropologist denies the idea that race is biological varied. Yet, we are required, or even has to be good at identifying it. This dilemma has been circulating in the academia for decades, or centuries. Lately, Dr. Robert Wald Sussman has published a book entitled The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea, revisited and popularized the debate and discussion on the myth of race again.

Let’s not make the following discuss too much an academic jargon, but a general discussion on race with the help of criminal anthropology, and forensic sciences/ forensic anthropology.

Cesare Lombroso from Italy took Darwinism (the theory of evolution), hinted with a horrifying twist and established a lists of criminal traits, which for some reasons implemented for years. He believes people are born into crime.


Shapes of ear help decide people are law breaker or not, according to Lombroso (Crime and Justice Blog)

He even claims that “This is not merely an idea, but a revolution.” (which is true to certain extents). In 1911’s Criminal Man summarized by Lombroso’s daughter, list of qualities include:

  • Projection of lower face and jaws (prognathism)- mostly found in negros
  • Oblique eyelids- mostly found in Asian/ Mongolian characteristics
  • A nose with a tip like an isolated peak from the wollen nostrils
  • Tattoos are resemble to the hieroglyphics used by ancient men.
  • Missing of earlobe- common to apes
  • A hooked nose
  • Prolongation of the coccyx, aka the tailbone

Cesare Lombroso (from Wikipedia)

Basically, Lombroso sees animals as criminals. He sees them as violent and prone to murder. One type of criminal is known as “the Woman”. He sees criminal as a form of degeneration of normal mankind.

Lombroso adapted his “brilliant” theory from the social Darwinism, which is the brutal application of natural selection to human society to boost the “strong” and disgrace the “weak”. His long list of traits and attributes are helping the stigmatization.

By no means of comparing the following two, but the dilemma of establishing race/ ancestry in the processes of developing the biological profile is in fact sharing the similar grounds. Why we crumbled down Lombroso’s theory but not doing the same to the idea of race?

First, race is a social and culture concept, which till today a lot of people still surprised with it. Quoting Szokan, Dr. Sussman argues in his book race was emerged as a social entity, to as a justification for slavery and imperialism. The brutal adaptation of Social Darwinism mentioned earlier produce the base for the Nazis’ theory of Aryan supremacy and genocide (Szokan 2014).

Admit that, racism is in our daily lives. Be that may where you live, where you go to school, what is your profession, who you interact with, how people interact with you. These all affected by (internal) racism. Even the ordered structure we all born into is still racist. Using the biological variations to classify each other like physical anthropologists do would reinforce the idea that races were “developed using assumptions about genetic relationships and distributions among different human population.”

It is important to remember that forensic anthropologists’ racial identification concept have little to do with or even none to the biological race. Human is one race. In 1942, a student of Franz Boas suggested that there are only clines but no races. Racial traits are factors that distributed independently depend upon environmental and behavioral factors, but not a single genetic factor (Sussman 2014). Variations here refer to physical traits such as skin color. These physical traits not only controlled by one single genes but multiple of them.


The skulls of the three general ancestries: (a) White, (b) Asian, © Black. Byers, Introduction to Forensic Anthropology

Unlike Lombroso, forensic anthropology using race identification not because they believe in one kind of people is superior than the others, or people look different because of the race they belong to. Neither of these is true. Forensic Anthropologist using race as a “pronoun” for the biological traits in terms of a cultural labeling system. This pronoun does not necessarily carry the historic baggage since the development of the Race and the social or historical meaning behind. Forensic anthropologist are really good at matching, but not answering any taxonomic questions of races.  Thus, more and more forensic anthropologists prefer to use the word “ancestry” instead of “race” in order to get rid of the mythical sense of biological race difference.

We all live under the Racism umbrella. Dr. Sussman writes in the Conclusion that “Biologically, Homo Sapiens is on race,…It is only by recognizing this fact and understanding its history that we might one day have a society in which all people are treated with dignity, equality and kindness regardless of their ethnicity or culture.” (Sussman 2014)


Sauer, Norman J. 1992. “Forensic Anthropology and the Concept of Race: If Races Don’t Exist, Why Are Forensic Anthropologists So Good At Identifying Them?” Soc. Sci. Med, 34(2): 107-111.

Simon, Matt. 2014. “Fantastically Wrong: The Scientist Who Seriously Believed Criminals Were Part Ape.” 12 November, 2014.

Sussman, Robert Wald. 2014. “Why Are We Divide by Race When There Is No Such Thing?” Newsweek. 8 November, 2014.

Szokan, Nancy. 2014. “Racial Divide: It’s A Social Concept, Not A Scientific One.” The Washington Post. 4 November, 2014.