Race determination

Race is difficult to determine from the skeleton, not only because of the lack of definite racial traits expressed in an individual, but also because of the lack of a precise definition of what race is and how it is recognised (El-Najjar and McWilliams 1978; Reichs 1986). Often, racial classification is uncertain, while in other cases allocation is clear, resulting in an unknown individual being placed in one of the five major racial groups; Caucasian, Mongoloid, Negroid, Australoid or Polynesian.

In cases where an unknown individual is a genetic blend of two or more racial stocks, placement in one of these five groups becomes exceedingly difficult (Gill 1976). Inter-racial mixing and the resulting phenotypic expression of skeletal traits is an issue that is becoming increasingly evident in today's society.

The racial characteristics of the skeleton have been extensively studied (Giles and Elliot 1962; Krogman 1962; Stewart 1979; Gill 1986; Krogman and Iscan 1986; Iscan 1988). The morphological and anatomical features of racial affinity are outlined below (for the cranium and mandible only, also see Wood and Hodgson 1996). The postcranial skeleton does not provide any accurate means for the determination of race.

1. Visual examination of the Caucasian cranium

2. Visual examination of the Mongoloid cranium

3. Visual examination of the Negroid cranium

4. Visual examination of the Australoid cranium

5. Visual examination of the Polynesian cranium

In addition to the standard morphological features useful for racial determination, anthropometric measurements have also been described in an attempt to minimise subjective errors. Giles and Elliot (1962) provide a series of discriminant functions for the assessment of racial ancestry using the skull. This technique, however, has been criticised by Birkby (1966) for being no less subjective in the end result. The cranium and mandible are by far the best indicators of race. There have been limited attempts to use the postcranial skeleton (Stewart 1962). Their reports indicate that these methods tend to be less accurate than methods based on the cranium and mandible.

Racial determination for the Pandora skeletons was not possible from any of the postcranial material available. The skull is the only area of the skeleton from which an accurate determination of race can be made (Bass 1987). Amongst the Pandora remains there were mandibles from each individual, one complete skull and fragments of another skull.

The reconstructed fragments of the cranium belonging to Tom provided insufficient detail for any racial extrapolations. Although unreliable in the determination of race, the mandibles of Tom and Dick did provide some clues about race. The mandibles of both Tom and Dick had similar features, and did not display the presence of a rocker jaw (convex inferior curvature of the mandible, seen in Polynesian populations). Furthermore, the mandibles of Tom and Dick did not exhibit any degree of alveolar prognathism evident in Negroids. The mandibles offered no obvious discrimination from typical Mongoloid features, though it is highly unlikely that the Pandora dead originated from this population. Historical accounts and the available dentition indicated that neither Tom or Dick were Aborigines. Therefore, through a logical process of elimination, and considering that the Pandora was of British origin, the assumption was made that these two mandibles were of Caucasian origin.

The complete skull belonging to Harry provided the only real means for an attempt at racial determination. This skull, however, did not demonstrate many of the typical traits seen in others; this was thought to be the result of a pathological state. Therefore, in reality a reliable racial determination from Harry's complete cranium was not possible.

Some Caucasian features the cranium demonstrated are as follows:

Harry's skull showed more Caucasian characteristics, even in the presence of developmental anomalies, than of the other racial groups. It is the opinion of the authors that the skull was Caucasian. In summary, there was little skeletal material available to allow for the reliable determination of race. However, in the light of what examination could be made, the most likely racial affiliation of Tom, Dick, and Harry was Caucasian.


© Internet Archaeology URL:
Last updated: Thu Mar 28 2002