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Our demonstrators investigate: Identifying the sex of a skull

Katherine Linehan shows us how anatomy students learn how to find out basic information about a person using 'Skull kits'.
I’ll start off with probably the overall look of the skull. So, apparently the female ones tend to have more of a gracile shape overall of the skull. OK. And they’re more rounded, and they tend to be lighter. But by feeling the weight I can’t tell the difference that much. So, I guess we’ll have to find the other features. Discuss some more characteristics - So the female ones tend to have rounder foreheads, whereas the male one tends to have quite an angled and sloped forehead. And by feeling it, I can definitely feel that this one has a more rounded forehead than this one.
With the supraorbital ridges, I guess it’s better to feel it again, because the supraorbital ridges tend to be much more gracile and smooth for female ones, and comparing to the male ones which has more of like a rough and pointy supraorbital ridge. By feeling at it, this one seems to be a bit more smooth than this one. Yep.
What we could look at next is the eye sockets. And usually you can tell with a male skull the eye sockets are a lot more square than the female, which is a little bit more circular. But, having a good look at both of them, they’re kind of very similar. So what I’d be tempted to look at instead is actually having a feel of the eye margins. So if you feel the eye margins, the male eye margins are usually a lot more blunt and a lot more smooth than the female, which are quite sharp. Feeling both this in particular is very sharp. What’s also pretty obvious is the nasal bone.
So looking at both, you can see the nasal bone is actually protruding quite a lot more on this skull. Yeah absolutely. And that’s a pretty definitive male feature is how far the nasal bone protrudes. You can see there’s - actually if you look at them from this angle - that’s much, much bigger.
One of the next key characteristics to look at would be the shape and size of the jaw. So just having a look at these two skulls from a distance, you can sort of see that this skull has a bit of a point to it on this aspect of the jaw. And that’s generally a more female characteristic. Again, on this - on the male, there’s not really as much of a point. Or, judging by our observation so far, I’d say, this one is likely to be male. But we still need to finalise some observations. It’s very obviously more prominent - Yeah. - on this skull though. Absolutely yeah. Especially if you feel it, you can see the point.
I’d say also, we need to look at the angle of the jaw as well. So on the female, it’s likely to be more rounded. So if we were to say, for now, that this one was male, and this one was female, that would reinforce our general observation so far because you can see that this is slightly more rounded. And just as a concluding aspect, there’s more prominent muscular attachments on this jaw as well, which would be a bit more definitive of a male skull. Finally then, there’s one more feature I think that would be useful to note, which would be the occipital protuberance. Because generally, it’s more prominent on males.
So if we were to say, as a hypothesis, that this one was male, we’d expect the occipital protuberance to be more prominent. So if we check this out and see it’s a very prominent - Whereas this one is really very smooth - - very smooth there. - you can barely see any kind of protuberance there. Well it’s barely there on that skull - Absolutely. - compared to the other one. So generally, we’d say then, as a conclusion, would you guys agree that this one might be male and this one might be female? This one’s very likely to be a female.

Now that we know how to estimate the sex of the skull, let’s see those techniques in action.

As part of their Biomedical Science undergraduate degree, students here at Sheffield undertake a Forensic Anatomy module where they are given a box of ‘anatomical evidence’ relating to an unidentified person. This evidence includes a skull, long bones, dental information and a post mortem report.

Students apply forensic techniques to this evidence, including a facial reconstruction, to determine the identity and cause of death.

One of the first tasks they are faced with is to analyse the bones in order to determine age, sex, ethnicity and pathology.

Here, we’ll watch three recent graduates from the course undertake an initial investigation of two skulls as they try to determine their sex.

We have added a PDF download of the skulls featured in the video in the ‘downloads’ section in the bottom of this page, so if you want to play along and examine the skulls yourself as you watch the demonstrators, you can refer to the image on the PDF.

Pay close attention to the characteristics that distinguish the male and female skulls – in the next step, we’ll ask you to try out these techniques for yourself.

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