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Activity: Is the Skeleton Male or Female?

The pelvis tells the story.

Distinct features adapted for childbearing distinguish adult females from males. Other bones and the skull also have features that can indicate sex, though less reliably. In young children, these sex-related features are less obvious and more difficult to interpret. Subtle sex differences are detectable in younger skeletons, but they become more defined following puberty and sexual maturation.

What are the differences? Compare the two illustrations below in Figure 1.

Female Pelvic Bones
  • Broader sciatic notch
  • Raised auricular surface
Male Pelvic Bones
  • Narrower sciatic notch
  • Flat auricular surface

Drawing of the leftt female and male pelvic bones.  Arrows point to the sciatic notch and the auricular surface.

Figure 1. Female and male pelvic bones.
(Source: Smithsonian Institution, illustrated by Diana Marques)

The left pelvic bone from the skeleton.  The sciatic notch is narrow and the auricular surface is short as in the male drawing above.

Figure 2. Pelvic bone of the skeleton in the cellar. (Source: Smithsonian Institution)

Skull (Cranium and Mandible)

Male Skulls

  • Generally larger than female
  • Larger brow ridges, with sloping, less rounded forehead
  • Greater definition of muscle attachment areas on the back of the head
  • Larger projections behind the ears (mastoid processes)
  • Square chin with a more vertical (acute) angle of the jaw

Drawings of male skulls (frontal and side views) with arrows pointing to the chin, the brow ridge, forehead, angle of the chin, mastoid process and muscle attachment area at the back of the head.

Figure 3. Male skulls. (Source: Smithsonian Institution, illustrated by Diana Marques)

Female Skulls

  • Smoother bone surfaces where muscles attach
  • Less pronounced brow ridges, with more vertical forehead
  • Sharp upper margins of the eye orbits
  • Smaller projections behind the ears (mastoid processes)
  • Chin more pointed, with a larger, obtuse angle of the jaw

Drawings of female skulls (frontal and side views) with arrows pointing to the chin, the brow ridge, forehead, angle of the chin, mastoid process and muscle attachment area at the back of the head.

Figure 4. Female skulls. (Source: Smithsonian Institution, illustrated by Diana Marques)

What Do You Think?

Comparing the skull from the cellar in Figure 5 (below) with the illustrated male and female skulls in Figures 3 and 4, check Male or Female to note the sex depicted by each feature.

Frontal and side views of the skull from the cellar.

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

Feature
Male
Female
Brow ridge
The brow ridge appears male; it's large and sloping.
Correct
Incorrect
Neck muscle attachments
The sex is difficult to discern with the neck muscle attachment; it could be male or female.
Correct
Correct
Mastoid process
The sex is difficult to discern with the mastoid process; it could be male or female.
Correct
Correct
Upper eye orbit margin
This feature appears male; the upper eye orbit margins do not appear to be sharp.
Correct
Incorrect
Angle of jaw
The sex is difficult to discern with the angle of the jaw; it appears to be female.
Incorrect
Correct
Chin
The chin appears rather square, which is a male feature.
Correct
Incorrect

Are the bones of the skeleton in the cellar male or female?
This person was most likely male based on the bone evidence presented - the broad brow, square chin, and ridge for neck muscles.
Correct
Incorrect
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