Facial reconstruction in archeology

Inspired by Bosda’s Neanderthal Girl thread…

How accurate are these reconstructions? Discovery Channel and the like show them extensively, but are they really valid as a scientific research instrument?

I guess what I’m asking is, if I gave one of these reconstructors a skull of somebody I had a picture of, how close would they get to reconstructing that persons facial structure? Has anybody checked them against a control in this manner?

Well, you see it all the time on those cold case forensics shows - they have the skull, reconstruct the face, and find the person, so you can see a photograph next to the reconstruction - but I guess you have to have an eye for it, because it never looks much like them (or anybody else) to me. Neither do sketches, though, so there you go. (Unfortunately, the Magic Sparkly Hologram Machine they have in Bones is fictional.)

When used in forensic investigations, facial reconstruction is actually a last resort, specifically because of the limitations inherent in the technique.

Skeletal remains provide only hard tissue. From there, the forensic artist has to determine specific anatomy landmarks where muscles attach and work from a limited pool of data regarding how deep the tissue is in those spots according to gender, age, and race.

That opens a fairly wide range of possibilities right there. Then it’s up to the artist to determine skin tone, eye color, and hair color. Other areas completely open to speculation include wrinkles, birth marks, skin folds, how much fat tissue was present, the size and shape of the ears, and whether the earlobe was attached or free.

There’s also no telling what kind of hair style the person had, if they wore make up or glasses, had a facial tattoo or if there was some other noteworthy, ephemeral characteristic that a witness would see, but no record remained of in the hard tissue.

I have a book (I think it’s titled Body of Evidence. I’ll check tonight) that shows one of the earliest uses of comparing skeletal remains with a photograph of the deceased to confirm identity. It’s not the same as facial reconstruction, but it could be where they got the idea.

In the 1930s, a Scottish woman and her friend disappeared, and several weeks later, skeletal remains of two women were found. The first woman had a very pronounced “horse” face and teeth. The detective in the case found a picture of her taken only a little while previous to her disappearance, posed the skull at the same angle, photographed it, and then had the photograph printed at the same scale as the picture of the woman.

When he superimposed them, they were a direct, stunning match, especially when you looked at the teeth.

Even though it was a brand new technique at the time, the courts accepted it without a quibble. Her husband was later indicted, tried, and convicted of murdering her and her friend.

In principle, couldn’t one extract the various pigmentation genes from DNA in the remains, and thereby determine what the eye, hair, and skin color would have been? One might also find genetic proclivities to greater or lesser weight, but those are probably more complicated.

In forensics, if you have such good DNA sample, you don’t need face reconstruction. In paleontology, you don’t have such good DNA.

But in theory, if you had enough dollars to spend on detailed DNA analysis, yes, you could upgrade accuracy of reconstruction considerably.

I respectfully disagree. While we have some idea of the genetic code of a few people, we are a long way off from submitting DNA of an individual and getting their specific code.

Even if we did that, we still don’t know which sections of DNA code for hair or eye color.

Even if we did know the regions, we still wouldn’t know what arrangement codes for a given hue.

So I’m of the opinion that currently, we would not upgrade accuracy considerably

But evidently we know there were red-haired Neanderthals because of some gene marker, don’t we?

You might. Suppose you have a person who went missing, and a skull found in the woods. You have folks who knew the missing person by sight, but you don’t have any tissue samples known to be from the missing person. If you can accurately reconstruct the living appearance from the skull, then you can show a picture to people and ask “Was this So-and-so?”.

Are you sure? It seems like that would be fairly straightforward.

I never said we can determine exactly what hue of eye color somebody had just by looking at DNA sample. But if you can enough money to do research, you can, for example, find mutations in OCA2 gene and thus increase accuracy of your guesses. “Probably blue eyes” is better than “we have no idea”.

Wouldn’t it be easier and cheaper just to match dental records in a case like that?

If dental records exist. But what if it’s “Oh, yeah, that’s Old Grifter Pete, he used to hang out down by the railyard. Family? No, he never mentioned. Don’t think he had any. Don’t think he ever went to a doctor, either.”?