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Identifying the ethnicity of a skull

Features inherited from generation to generation are expressed in the morphology (shape) of the human skull. Many of these characteristics have evolved in response to environmental factors and analysis of the features of the skull can thus give an indication of the ancestry of an individual.

Forensic anthropologists examine the morphology of the skull in great detail and take measurements of multiple individual facets. Comparing this data with data from the worldwide population allows anthropologists to conclude where in the world an individual’s family has originated from.

Determining the ethnicity of an individual from their skull often proves to be key to identifying who they were in life and has significant influence on other aspects of the forensic investigation such as facial reconstruction.

Individuals of European descent tend to have long narrow faces with fairly flat facial profiles and sharply angled nasal bones. Those of Asian ancestry have wider and shorter faces with prominent cheekbones whilst individuals of African descent have a wide nasal cavity and a prominent mouth region when viewed in profile.


A European skull showing circular eye sockets with squared margins and a high nasal aperture
European skulls have circular eye sockets with squared margins often referred to as ‘aviator sunglasses’. The nasal aperture is narrow and lies high up on the face. The nasal bridge is pronounced and sharply angled. Teeth tend to be small and are set closely together.


An Asian skull skull showing 'heart-shaped' nasal aperture Asian skulls have circular orbits and a ‘heart shaped’ nasal aperture. The nasal bridge is less pronounced than in European skulls. Asian skulls often have distinctive shovel-shaped upper incisors.


An African skull skull showing rectangular shaped orbits and wide nasal aperture African skulls have more rectangular shaped orbits when compared to European and Asian skulls. The nasal aperture is wide and the nasal bridge is very flat. The jaw protrudes significantly from the rest of the face, a condition known as prognathism. The teeth are large with wider spacing between them than in other races.


  European Asian African
Eye sockets Circular with squared margins ‘aviator sunglasses’ Circular Rectangular
Nose Narrow, high nasal aperture and pronounced nasal bridge ‘Heart shaped’ nasal aperture and less pronounced nasal bridge Wide nasal aperture and flat nasal bridge.
Jaw Small teeth set closely together ‘Shovel-shaped’ upper incisors Large teeth with wider spacing than other races. The jaw protrudes from the maxilla-prognathism

In the next step, we’ll ask demonstrators at The University of Sheffield to put this information into practice to determine the ethnicity of a skull.

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This article is from the free online course:

Forensic Facial Reconstruction: Finding Mr. X

The University of Sheffield