Human Variations At Physical Anthropology

There is no such a thing as race. Race is not a biological reality. There is literally no scientific study that supports the hierarchy among different humans that inhabit this world. The only fact is colonialism and its perpetuation of population’s hierarchy and it has nothing to do with inhabitants of colonialized areas; it only has to do with the resources some nations want to exploit through the complete dominion of those places and their inhabitants.

It was used as a concept—a concept that physical anthropology has abandoned for good. There might be the geographic origin and even that way the concept is dangerous due to the fact that people with certain harmful ideologies might use this as automatic hierarchic classification of geographic origin/concept of race.

The human faces of Asia.

Although a shift in terminology has been underway in forensic anthropology, with ‘‘ancestry’’ used more often in place of ‘‘race,’’ in many case reports the classic physical anthropology terms such as ‘‘Caucasoid,’’ ‘‘Mongoloid,’’ or ‘‘Negroid’’ are still seen.
(Ousely, et al. 2009)

The concept of race was inherited from initial forensic anthropology and its classic evolutionist, eurocentric approach. It has been used in the wrong way, and only in forensic anthropology, it can get to have some exclusive use when professionals are in front of decomposed human remains that MUST BE IDENTIFIED. Some features might serve as guides; but even if the morphology of a skull has a number of features that belongs to a certain biological group, it is not determinant.

From whatever viewpoint one approaches the question of the applicability of the concept of race to mankind, the modalities of human variability appear so far from those required for a coherent classification that the concept must be considered as of very limited use.
(Sauer 1992)

El grito de los excluidos by Pavel Egüez

The real situation is that there has been a persistent classification according to skull features in regard to ethnicity: there have been 3 main classifications that in current days are named European, African and Asian; which in some point of regretful discipline development were named Negroid, Mongolian and Caucasian.

One of the difficulties to achieving a healthy concept of distinctive features especially in the school is the inequality of traits to EACH PERSON SOCIALLY. That’s a society feature that we are all responsible for. Another reason for this to happen is that physical anthropology was conceived and built during times that eurocentrism and slavery were not even in question, as much as it takes hard work to materialize questions in regard to colonialism even nowadays. Basically, many authors (mostly, if not all, men) for many years kept reproducing this fake concept of race mixed with the scientifically inaccurate idea of European supremacy. Genetically, the human variation happens on a scale of 0.01%, that is the whole percentage of genetic difference among humans. The DNA analysis related to human variation relies there, on that minimal part.

Five skulls from humans in different geographical locations

How to embrace it then? To understand it, Alice Brues in 1993 proposed the idea of the Newtonian physics applied to human variation: Gravity law is very accurate to understand the functioning of the known reality in this planet, on these days. But it has nothing to do with the scale of the universe and celestial bodies, rotations, and so on.

So, human variation might be relevant only when IT IS REQUIRED to reduce the number of possible individuals who are missing and might match the biological profile that is been investigated. In the forensic anthropologist’s laboratory, it is important to give a perspective (ancestry) around the individual. Basically, yes, it is true that there are some differentiated features in phenotypical expression among humans. But also no, these differences have no consequences in different human behavior, capacities, and disseverment of respect. To show what these features rely on, the current classifications can be taken into consideration just to show how it is about the shape, but also to identify that there are no scientific chances to establish a hierarchy among them.

According to Alan H. Goodman and George Armelagos (1997), forensic anthropologists have a moral and professional responsibility as scientists, civil servants, and teachers to use models that reflect the impossibility of assigning individuals to races based on type specimens and typical features.
Smay, D., & Armelagos, G. (2000)

So, in ideal conditions, there is no need to use a concept as fake as race, and ethnic features should not be mentioned. At least, there is work to be done by giving an identity to human remains.

Painting showing human variation

One good example of human variation, people’s racism, and social irresponsibility in the construction of the “otherness” is very well exposed by M’charek et al. (2020) by contrasting the forensic evidence and social reaction to the terrible case of Marianne Vaatstra in The Netherlands, a woman who was raped and murdered near of an immigrant asylum. Due to the location, the finding of the body raised a lot of controversial opinions among the population. During those days, media and the general population blamed it on people near the place of the finding, which led to even arrest a man that was back in Istanbul.

In a brief version of the story, the analysis of the pubic hair found on the scene and the sperm found on the scene were related to European origin features. And once the murderer was identified for a DNA match, it turned out to be a local citizen. Then the media, as much as the general population, totally changed their speech about the murderer’s motivations and circumstances, pointing out that the man was mentally disturbed, and always was a good citizen—a"family man" and "church member." People even mentioned “how smart” the perpetrator was to commit a way of murder that—according to the media—emulated foreign practices. Basically, forensic research can help and science can lead to clues, but the final judgment, the way things are going to remain, and the way it is going to be told, are made by society, the common citizen, and nothing but education can help on that subject.

But there is no reason to give differentiated traits to people who are alive: that is precisely why it is a very delicate task to talk about human variation in forensic anthropology. The culturally differentiated traits among humans is what takes the healthiness around human variation. Somehow, humankind has also managed to use this fake hierarchy among other species, such as horses and dogs. A human variation would be a healthy practice if it wasn’t for the current traits established, giving it a social and cultural hierarchy. There is nothing wrong with geographically related dominant appearance features, they can lead to a positive identification of a missing person, but what society makes out of those features is the real problem, if those social categories did not exist, it would not be an "issue" for identification practices.


  • Konigsberg, L. W., Algee-Hewitt, B. F. B., & Steadman, D. W. (2009). Estimation and evidence in forensic anthropology: Sex and race. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 139(1), 77–90.

  • M’charek, A., Toom, V., & Jong, L. (2020). The Trouble with Race in Forensic Identification. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 45(5), 804–828.

  • Ousley, S., Jantz, R., & Freid, D. (2009). Understanding race and human variation: Why forensic anthropologists are good at identifying race. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 139(1), 68–76.

  • Sauer, N. J. (1992). Forensic anthropology and the concept of race: If races don’t exist, why are forensic anthropologists so good at identifying them? Social Science & Medicine, 34(2), 107–111.

  • Smay, D., & Armelagos, G. (2000). Galileo Wept: A Critical Assessment of the Use of Race in Forensic Anthropology. Transforming Anthropology, 9(2), 19–29.

  • Tattersall, I. (2004). Race: Scientific nonproblem, cultural quagmire. The Anatomical Record, 278B(1), 23–26.

Image Sources

  • Craniology History | Morton Crania Collection—Penn Museum. (n.d.). Retrieved 30 November 2021, from

  • Opinion: Classification of humans into races ‘the biggest mistake in the history of science’. (n.d.). Retrieved 30 November 2021, from

  • Pavel Egüez—NODAL. (n.d.). Retrieved 30 November 2021, from

  • WKU Anth 450 Modern Human Biological Variation Home Page. (n.d.). Retrieved 30 November 2021, from

Author Photo

Melisa Silva

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