In Conversation with Maya Bahl on Morphology, Sex, Race and Skin Color

Photo by Trust “Tru” Katsande on Unsplash

Maya Bahl is an editor and contributor to The Good Men Project with me. She has an interest and background in forensic anthropology. As it turns out, I hear the term race thrown into conversations in both conservative and progressive circles. At the same time, I wanted to know the more scientific definitions used by modern researchers including those in forensic anthropology. Then I asked Bahl about conducting an educational series. Here we are, part two.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Regarding the question of race and its distinctions within the professional circles, what are the distinct characteristics in facial morphology utilized to determine someone’s race? How does skull morphology identify someone’s race within forensic anthropology? Why does hip morphology only indicate sex and not race?

Maya Bahl: Aspects of the face and hips are indicators in telling the difference between men and women posthumously, where forensic anthropologists take measurements in providing an accurate reading.

The nasal arch, forehead, jawline, and what is known as the mastoid process that is behind the jawline are indicators of race, although, it’s also the case where individuals of a race could show features that are distinguishable of another race.

Hip Morphology simply indicates sex because of the single anatomical and biological difference between males and females and how it relates to the birthing process, and how in humans the role of giving birth has been assigned to the female.

Jacobsen: Can one determine the race by bone structure and, therefore, infer skin color through forensic anthropology?

Bahl: Through modern imaging and scanning programs, yes one could run a prediction and generate an image of an individual and therefore infer skin color. Many times image technicians have done so whether it’s to help law enforcement identify a perpetrator or victim or to bring closure through identification of a loved one. Even outside of Anthropology, facial and skeletal reconstruction has also aided historians and researchers in seeking the truth, like with reconstructing “Otzi” or the Iceman that was found in the Swiss Alps. Without image processing software though, one couldn’t determine race by bone structure.

Jacobsen: How does race differ from ethnicity according to the experts who spend their lives in this field?

Bahl: Race captures the scientific rigor of genetics and biology whereas ethnicity attempts to group perceived ancestry, ethnicity by definition is more specific as it goes deeper in linking people together. One may have an Asian Ancestry for instance, but have a Khmer Ethnicity from Cambodia.

Jacobsen: What are some inferences one can make about race through some practical, low-level, simple examples of skeletal morphology?

Bahl: I would also turn the question around and just point out that variation among people are surfacing each day, where the distinct shapes of one’s face or nose is now not enough to claim someone’s race. There is 1 in every 1,666 births of identifying as a Transgendered individual, according to the 2000 study in the American Journal of Human Biology, where variation would undoubtedly be found.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Maya.

Photo by Trust “Tru” Katsande on Unsplash