People are fascinated by the use of forensic science to solve crimes. Any science can be forensic when used in the criminal and civil justice system – biology, genetics and chemistry have been applied in this way. Now something rather special is happening: the scientific skill sets developed while investigating crime scenes, homicides and mass fatalities are being put to use outside the courtroom. Forensic anthropology is one field where this is happening.
Loosely defined, forensic anthropology is the analysis of human remains for the purpose of establishing identity in both living and dead individuals. In the case of the dead this often focuses on analyses of the skeleton. But any and all parts of the physical body can be analysed. The forensic anthropologist is an expert at assessing biological sex, age at death, living height and ancestral affinity from the skeleton.
Our newest research has extended forensic science’s reach from the present into prehistory. In the study, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, we applied common forensic anthropology techniques to investigate the biological sex of artists who lived long before the invention of the written word.
We specifically focused on those who produced a type of art known as a hand stencil. We applied forensic biometrics to produce statistically robust results which, we hope, will offset some of the problems archaeological researchers have encountered in dealing with this ancient art form.
Sexing rock art
Ancient hand stencils were made by blowing, spitting or stippling pigment onto a hand while it was held against a rock surface. This left a negative impression on the rock in the shape of the hand.
Jason Hall, University of Liverpool
These stencils are frequently found alongside pictorial cave art created during a period known as the Upper Palaeolithic, which started roughly 40 000 years ago.
Archaeologists have long been interested in such art. The presence of a human hand creates a direct, physical connection with an artist who lived millennia ago. Archaeologists have often focused on who made the art – not the individual’s identity, but whether the artist was male or female.
Until now, researchers have focused on studying hand size and finger length to address the artist’s sex. The size and shape of the hand is influenced by biological sex as sex hormones determine the relative length of fingers during development, known as 2D:4D ratios.
But many ratio-based studies applied to rock art have generally been difficult to replicate. They’ve often produced conflicting results. The problem with focusing on hand size and finger length is that two differently shaped hands can have identical linear dimensions and ratios.
To overcome this we adopted an approach based on forensic biometric principles. This promises to be both more statistically robust and more open to replication between researchers in different parts of the world.