Forensic Anthropology and the Determination of Ancestry

Forensic Anthropologists aim to identify skeletal remains. Assessing ancestry can assist in the building of a biological profile and therefore provide a more specific pool of possible identifications. Currently, the United States primarily recognizes just a few ancestral groups in forensic anthropology to estimate an individual’s ancestry: African, European, and Asian/Native American. Hispanic populations are not as well documented, and the assessment of their ancestry is considered to be a more complex process (Hefner, Pilloud, Black, Anderson, 2015). A system that assists in the classification of remains, called Fordisc, is often used to aid in the process of predicting ancestry of remains.

This essay will discuss the range of the term “Hispanic”, issues that arise while attempting to assess the ancestry of Hispanic individuals using Fordisc, and meaning and relevance of Hispanics.

One of the largest changes in the makeup of the United States is the recent increase in the population segment which identifies as Hispanic. In the 2002 census, it was determined that over 12,5% of people living in the United States are of Hispanic origin.

Within that group, approximately 60% are born on U.S. soil (Spradley, Jantz, Robinson, Peccerelli, 2008).This reveals the magnitude of the United States’ growing Hispanic population.

Identifying Hispanics is relevant due to the large amount of deaths surrounding the US-Mexico border. The border patrol reported over 7,000 migrant deaths in the nine years between 1998 and 2017 (McGuire, 2018). Currently, most of the bodies of border crossers have yet to be unidentified. Of the ones that have been, 90% are Mexican (Spradley & Jantz, 2016).

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These data from these bodies is sent to be used in the Forensic Anthropology Data Bank, which is the premise for Fordisc.

However, the term Hispanic itself is flawed one. It is a blanket term that includes various countries, cultures, and characteristics (Hefner et al., 2015). Cubans, which make up the majority of Florida’s Hispanic population, come from a different history and ancestral makeup. Hispanics who hail from Cuba are more likely to show evidence of African ancestry, while Hispanics who hail from Mexico, Central America, and Latin America tend to have more evidence of Native American ancestry their genetic makeup (Spradley et al, 2008).

Some regions are attempting to address these genetic differences through varied classifications instead of just a single broad term of Hispanic. However, different journals contain different ways of breaking down the term “Hispanic”. Instead of differentiating Cuban Hispanics from Mexican, Central American, and Latin American Hispanics like Spradely’s journal discusses, Hefner’s journal discusses separating into even more specific terms such as Southwest Hispanic (hailing from Mexico and Central America), Southeast Hispanic (hailing from circum-Caribbean), New Mexico Hispanic, and South Florida Hispanic. Hefner’s journal also discusses The Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner in Arizona, a state which shares a border with Mexico, and its replacement of “Hispanic” with “Admixed Native American”. This indicates a mixture of Native American, African, and/or European ancestries (Hefner et al., 2015). The proper classification of Hispanics is in no way consistent among all researchers.

While the population of Hispanics has been greatly increasing over time in the US, forensic data for this populace has not improved significantly. Spradley calls attention to the lack of collections of Hispanic skeletons near the magnitude of collections such as the Terry and Todd collections, which contain a large amount of both Black and White Americans’ skeletons to compare to remains to using systems such as Fordisc (Spradley et al., 2008). The Fordisc classification system is comprised of data submitted by anthropologists, which is a weakness of this system, because it only has the ability to reference what has been inputted. (Hefner et al., 2015). This is an issue because Fordisc does not have data from a range of Hispanic samples, making it harder to recognize remains of non- Mexican Hispanics.

The journal by Dudzik and Jantz states that the FDB has contributed measurements from 334 Hispanic skeletons to Fordisc, but the majority, around 85%, are from facilities in the southwest such as Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, and Mexico (Dudzik & Jantz, 2016). The journal states that the Fordisc Hispanic sample is mainly comprised of Mexican ancestry. Overall, the sample contains only a few individuals positively identified as being from Puerto Rico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Panama, and nine who are unidentified (but are likely Cuban.)

Lack of samples being a weakness is a trend among many publications about the classification of remains into the Hispanic ancestral group, including Dudzik and Jantz’s. But, Hughes’ journal has a contrasting point to this within it. While it acknowledges that the Latino sample within Fordisc does have an imbalance between Mexicans and people from other regions such as Central America, South America, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Dominican Republic, it argues that adding in measurements of samples from these groups may cause Fordisc to become less accurate rather than more accurate (Hughes, Dudzik, Algee-Hewitt, Jones, Anderson, 2018) This is because it would increase diversity within the Latino references, resulting in more overlap between Latino and non-Latino samples.

It is important to note that Hughes’ publication focuses on Latinos rather than Hispanics in general. This would exclude individuals from Spain or who just speak Spanish. This may raise difficulties in comparing Hughes’ publication to the other discussed within this literary review, because the terminology is inconsistent. This is yet another reason why the term “Hispanic” has its faults when being used in a scientific field.

Not only is there a lack of diversity and size in the sample, the data that is in Fordisc may not be as reliable for identifying Hispanics and other ancestral backgrounds. PCMO noticed that data from Hispanic remains inputted into Fordisc was often being misclassified as Asian, specifically Japanese (Dudzik & Jantz, 2016). To investigate this further, an analysis comparing Fordisc’s current sample of Asians against Hispanics and a sample with the addition of Asians not currently in Fordisc against Hispanics was performed. The Fordisc sample of Asians contained Vietnamese males, Chinese males, and Japanese males and females. The new sample also contained the addition of Korean, Thai, and more Japanese males and females, all of which were born in the late 19th and early 20th century. Within the new sample, 111 out of the 163 total Japanese individuals were Ainu (of indigenous origin) (Dudzik & Jantz, 2016).

The analysis showed that Fordisc incorrectly identified Hispanic, Chinese, and Japanese males more than it correctly identified them. Only 24.9% of the Hispanic male sample was classified as Hispanic using Fordisc. The group most accurately categorized by Fordisc was White Males, with 81.9% of the outputs being correct (Dudzik & Jantz, 2016). With over three times more accuracy in the group of White males than the group of Hispanics, it is clear there is a large degree of accuracy that Fordisc provides.

When the new sample of Asian males was included, Fordisc had nearly the same percentage of success in identifying male Hispanic individuals (25%) (Dudzik & Jantz, 2016). This evidence contradicts the hypothesis that adding more samples of Asians would cause Fordisc to improve its ability to differentiate Asians from Hispanics.

The Mahalanobis distance matrix shows that Hispanic and Japanese are the closest to each other, which may give insight as to why Hispanics are often sorted into the Japanese category (Dudzik & Jantz, 2016). There is much overlap among characteristics of Hispanic samples and non-Hispanic samples. Hughes’ journal states that the craniometric variation of non-Latinos has a large overlap with Latinos that have measurements in Fordisc. Fordisc is more accurate at assessing ancestry when the degree of variation present in the reference groups is larger (Hughes et al., 2018). Hughes found Fordisc to only accurately identify 25% of Latino males in a sample. This 25% sample correctness is the same percentage as the Dudzik journal had when a sample of Hispanic males was tested using Fordisc (Dudzik & Jantz, 2016). Both journals obtaining the same very low degree of accuracy reinforces that Fordisc has a tendency to misclassify Hispanic (and/or Latino) populations.

While Fordisc can be of assistance in the ancestral classification of remains, it does not have a high degree of accuracy for Hispanic populations. Examining morphoscopic traits of remains is a different way to attempt to identify the ancestry. Both Hurst and Hefner used morphoscopic trait expression to explore ancestry. Hefner determined there were no significant variations in these traits due to sex and therefore one could combine the data from both sexes into one ancestral category (Hefner et al., 2015).

There were 26 cranial morphoscopic traits evaluated using the SVM method by Hurst to classify Southwest Hispanic ancestry and differentiate that group from European Americans and African Americans (Hurst, 2012). Overall, it was determined that the most helpful traits to examine were incisor shoveling, anterior malar projection, nasal sill, oval window visualization, enamel extensions, anterior nasal spine, nasal aperture width, and prognathism. These eight morphoscopic traits were able to differentiate between the three groups with a 91.9% success rate (Hurst, 2012). This is extremely high accuracy, especially when compared to the success rate of Fordisc from Dudzick’s publication. In addition to this, when Hefner examined these same eight morphoscopic traits but added in the data from Guatemalan individuals as well, the results showed that six of the traits showed statistically significant differences between the Southwest Hispanic samples and the Guatemalan samples in addition to the non-Hispanic samples (Hefner et al., 2015). Therefore, morphoscopic trait expression proved itself to be effective in differentiating these ancestral groups from each other.

All of the journals supported the idea that more research is needed to be able to more accurately classify Hispanic remains. The term “Hispanic” was widely criticized as being too vague and not based on biological basis and rather on language and culture.

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Forensic Anthropology and the Determination of Ancestry. (2022, Apr 22). Retrieved from

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