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There are many ways of identifying an individual: in physical and forensic anthropology the most important concern biological and personal identity. Biological identity pertains to those features that allow an individual to be classified in relation to features present in other individuals e.g. sex, age, race and stature, whereas personal identity establishes criteria that are characteristic and discriminatory for a particular individual e.g. DNA, fingerprints and dental information. The skull is a useful source of information for the establishment of both biological and personal identity. It is probably the most studied aspect of the skeleton. The foundation of this obsession has many historical roots, but fundamentally it has arisen from the importance that humans place in the concept that the skull is the repository of ‘self’, and that it is the means by which interpersonal communication is effected. Our face is our primary means of recognition and communication and therefore it plays a pivotal role in establishing and reconstructing the identity of an individual.


The determination of sex from a juvenile skull is notoriously unreliable. While sexual differences have been detected in measurements of the mandible, orbits, tooth size and pattern of dental eruption, they do not reach a level of discrimination that will allow accurate and reliable assessment. It is equally difficult to assign sex to the face of a child because the faces of prepubertal boys and girls are comparable: perceivable sexual dimorphism is not manifest until secondary sexual changes are completed. Growth in the female face ceases in advance of the male, and consequently female sex-related characteristics are more paedomorphic. The defining characteristics of sex in an adult skull are therefore male in orientation and reflect the effects of the increased mass of the muscles of mastication, which attach to the mandible, and the muscles associated with maintaining the erect head. It is reported that using the skull alone, sex can be predicted with over 80% accuracy in the adult. This is extremely encouraging because research has shown that the correct sex can usually be predicted from the adult living face with around 96% accuracy.

Generally speaking, the male skull is more robust and the female more gracile, although there are obvious genetic, and therefore racial, variations which must be considered when attempting to assign sex from a skull. The female forehead is generally higher, more vertical and more rounded than the male, and there is a clear retention of the frontal eminences in the female. The male mandible is more robust and larger than that of the female: it generally displays a greater height in the region of the symphysis menti, the chin is more square, the condyles are larger, the muscle attachments are more pronounced and the gonial angle is generally less than 125°. A male skull has thicker and more rounded orbital margins, pronounced supra-orbital ridges, and often a well-defined glabella that occupies the midline above the root of the nose. The temporal lines are more pronounced in the male and the supramastoid crest generally extends posterior to the external auditory meatus.

Other sites of muscle attachment on the skull reflect the biomechanical requirement to keep the more robust male head erect. They include the mastoid process for sternocleidomastoid, which is generally more robust in the male and more gracile in the female, and the nuchal lines, especially the external occipital protuberance for the attachment of the ligamentum nuchae. The cranial base in the male is generally more robust and the bone is thicker, which means that this area of the skull survives inhumation particularly well and is therefore of great value in sex identification from fragmentary remains.

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