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Activity: Can You Identify Ancestry?

Background

The bones of a human skull express inherited features from one generation to the next. Many of these features have developed in response to evolutionary processes, including adaptation to the environment. Since certain anatomical features are found with greater frequency in certain populations, their presence or absence are clues to ancestry.

Forensic anthropologists determine the ancestry of a skeleton by examining the morphology, or shape, of the skull and by taking measurements of the skull vault (cavity) and face. By comparing these results with data from populations worldwide, scientists can evaluate that individual's relationship to a world group.

Because only three main ancestral groups were represented around the Chesapeake Bay in the 17th century - American Indians, Europeans, and Africans from the sub-Saharan region - the features from these three groups can be used to compare with the skeletal remains in the cellar. Figure 1 depicts European, American Indian, and sub-Saharan African skulls.


 

Drawings of a European skull; frontal and side views.
Figure 1a. European skull. (Source: Smithsonian Institution, illustrator Diana Marques)


 

Drawings of a American Indian skull; frontal and side views.
Figure 1b. American Indian skull. (Source: Smithsonian Institution, illustrator Diana Marques)


 

Drawings of a Sub-Saharan African skull; frontal and side views.
Figure 1c. Sub-Saharan African skull. (Source: Smithsonian Institution, illustrator Diana Marques)


 

European Charcteristics

Figure 2 depicts the characteristics of a European skull. Individuals with European ancestry tend to have straight facial profiles and narrower faces with projecting, sharply angled nasal bones, and these features:

  • Long and narrow face
  • Sloping eye orbits
  • Larger nasal spine
  • Narrow, high nasal opening
  • Sharp inferior nasal border

Drawings of frontal and side views of an example of a skull from European ancestry showing sloping eye orbits and large nasal spine.

Figure 2. European skull characteristics.
(Source: Smithsonian Institution, illustrated by Diana Marques)

American Indian Characteristics

Figure 3 depicts the characteristics of an American Indian skull. Individuals with American Indian ancestry have a high occurrence of the following features:

  • Wide face and short, broad cranial vault
  • Large prominent cheek bones
  • Nasal opening flared at the base (heart-shaped)
  • Rounded eye orbits
  • Large teeth with shovel shaped incisors

Drawings of frontal and side views of an example of a skull from American Indian ancestry showing rounded eye orbis and a flared nasal opening.

Figure 3. American Indian skull characteristics.
(Source: Smithsonian Institution, illustrated by Diana Marques)

Sub-Saharan African Characteristics

Figure 4 depicts the characteristics of a person from sub-Sahara Africa. Individuals with sub-Saharan African ancestry tend to show greater facial projection in the area of the mouth, wider distance between the eyes, a wider nasal cavity, and these features:

  • Facial prognathism (facial forwardness)
  • Smooth and depressed inferior nasal border
  • Wide nasal chamber
  • Smaller nasal spine
  • Rectangular eye orbits
  • Large teeth, wrinkling of molars

Drawings of frontal and side views of an example of a skull from sub-Shaharan African ancestry showing smooth and depressed nasal border and prognathism.

Figure 4. Sub-Saharan African skull characteristics.
(Source: Smithsonian Institution, illustrated by Diana Marques)

Evidence of Ancestry in the Skeleton Being Examined

Examine the skull of the skeleton in the cellar in Figure 5 and select an ancestry group that you think depicts each feature of the skull - American Indian, European, or sub-Saharan African.

Frontal and side views of the skull found in the cellar.

Figure 5. Skull of the skeleton in the cellar. (Source: Smithsonian Institution)

Feature
European
American Indian
Sub-Saharan African
Shape of cranial vault and face
The long and narrow face is a European feature.
Correct
Incorrect
Incorrect
Facial Prognathism
This feature is absent, a European feature.
Correct
Incorrect
Incorrect
Cheek bones
The prominent cheek bone feature is absent, so this is likely a skull of European or sub-Saharan African ancestry.
Correct
Incorrect
Correct
Eye orbit shape
The eye orbit shape is slanted, a European feature.
Correct
Incorrect
Incorrect
Nasal opening shape
The nasal opening is narrow and high, European features.
Correct
Incorrect
Incorrect

What was this person's ancestry?
This person was most likely of European ancestry.
Correct
Incorrect
Incorrect
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