Uncloaking a Lost Cause: Decolonizing ancestry estimation in the United States

Posted in Anthropology, Articles, Health/Medicine/Genetics, Media Archive, United States on 2021-11-21 02:27Z by Steven

Uncloaking a Lost Cause: Decolonizing ancestry estimation in the United States

American Journal of Biological Anthropology
Volume 175, Issue 2, June 2021 (Special Issue: Race reconciled II: Interpreting and communicating biological variation and race in 2021)
pages 422-436
DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.24212

Elizabeth A. DiGangi, Associate Professor of Anthropology
Binghamton University, State University of New York, Binghamton, New York

Jonathan D. Bethard, Associate Professor of Anthropology
University of South Florida, Tampa, Florida

Since the professionalization of US-based forensic anthropology in the 1970s, ancestry estimation has been included as a standard part of the biological profile, because practitioners have assumed it necessary to achieve identifications in medicolegal contexts. Simultaneously, forensic anthropologists have not fully considered the racist context of the criminal justice system in the United States related to the treatment of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color; nor have we considered that ancestry estimation might actually hinder identification efforts because of entrenched racial biases. Despite ongoing criticisms from mainstream biological anthropology that ancestry estimation perpetuates race science, forensic anthropologists have continued the practice. Recent years have seen the prolific development of retooled typological approaches with 21st century statistical prowess to include methods for estimating ancestry from cranial morphoscopic traits, despite no evidence that these traits reflect microevolutionary processes or are suitable genetic proxies for population structure; and such approaches have failed to critically evaluate the societal consequences for perpetuating the biological race concept. Around the country, these methods are enculturated in every aspect of the discipline ranging from university classrooms, to the board-certification examination marking the culmination of training, to standard operating procedures adopted by forensic anthropology laboratories. Here, we use critical race theory to interrogate the approaches utilized to estimate ancestry to include a critique of the continued use of morphoscopic traits, and we assert that the practice of ancestry estimation contributes to white supremacy. Based on the lack of scientific support that these traits reflect evolutionary history, and the inability to disentangle skeletal-based ancestry estimates from supporting the biological validity of race, we urge all forensic anthropologists to abolish the practice of ancestry estimation.

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