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Bone Basics


An Inside Look at Bone
Young or Old?
Male or Female?
Human or Non-Human?

In living and past peoples, there is wide range of variability. Despite this variability, our bones
have features that can be clues to ancestry. Many of these features reflect evolutionary processes, including adaptation to the environment.


Bone cells retain "biogeographical" information that is found in our DNA. These inherited markers are due to mutational changes that gradually accumulate and differentiate populations over time. DNA can help associate an individual with a region of the world.

We can also assess ancestral origins by looking at the skeleton itself. The bones of the skull express inherited features from one generation to the next. Measuring the cranium gives us information that is similar to that from DNA. By comparing a skull's measurements with data from populations worldwide, scientists can statistically evaluate that individual's relationship to a world group.

Identifying Ancestry in the Colonial Chesapeake

The archaeological cases in the Written in Bone exhibition focus on identifying skeletal remains from only three groups who were here in the 1600s and early 1700s — individuals of American Indian, European, and African origins.

  1. Individuals with American Indian ancestry have proportionately wider faces and shorter, broader cranial vaults.
  2. Individuals with European ancestry tend to have straight facial profiles and narrower faces with projecting, sharply angled nasal bones.
  3. Individuals with sub-Saharan African ancestry generally show greater facial projection in the area of the mouth, wider distance between the eyes, and a wider nasal cavity.

Illustrations by Diana Marques    


  • The color of a bone does not reveal ancestry. Bone color has more to do with what happens to a body after death than in life.

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