Building Connections with Skulls

Updated: May 30, 2020

Photo Credit: John Verano, Ph.D., Professor of Anthropology, Tulane University

Contributed by Rebecca Ruehlman

Physical anthropologists study bones and skulls to understand people and connections between groups of people. Facial features can tell us which groups of people are genetically similar and which are different. The relationship between skull shape and face shape has been well established and is used in forensic facial reconstruction--e.g. bringing life to the neanderthal. Looking at the work of forensic anthropologists can shed light on the potential for Facetopo.

One goal of Facetopo is to catalog the rich and complex diversity of human faces. So we were particularly drawn to the studies of Dr. Ann Ross, Ph.D., a modern forensic anthropologist at North Carolina State University and her research team. They study the facial features of skulls in North America before European contact. The team of anthropologists, including researchers from the University of Oregon and Tulane University, took facial measurements from 507 skulls located in 7 different locations, aged between 1 A.D. and 1470 A.D. They found that the facial structure of pre-colonial Mexican samples was similar to that of Ecuador, but dissimilar to the Peruvian samples and the Cuban samples. Their research was published in the journal Human Biology and the “Hispanic” Populations Craniometric Database.

Photo: Indigenous people of Mexico

Their findings support the argument that different populations lived in the New World, not just one biological group as previously thought. Rather than one migration of peoples that came across a land bridge from Russia, perhaps there were multiple migrations to the Americas before European contact. There could be genetic connections that we previously did not know existed. We are curious to see if our 3D face maps might also reflect the diversity of the multiple waves of migration into the archaic New World.  

Consistent with Dr. Ross’ forensics work, recent genomics analysis of individuals from Mexico suggest a highly diverse mixing of different ancestries, both American and European. This study of diversity in Mexican genomes finds that two of the different indigenous populations, the Seri and the Lacandon are as genetically distinct as Europeans and Chinese.

Photos: Indigenous Mexican people. L-Seri woman. R-Lacondon girl.

The Facetopo project is developing an app for citizen scientists to generate and contribute their own 3D facial data securely via smartphone photo capture. The Facetopo App guides the User in capturing a sequence of selfies. Scientifically-derived facial landmarks are then mapped onto the User's photos and triangulated to create 3D facial data. If Facetopo can collect a large enough sample size (> 1000 sets) of facial data we’re curious to see how ancestral and genetic variation may sort in face topology.

This is where YOU come in: sign up now on the Facetopo website to be alerted when the Facetopo App is ready for testing. You can be a part of our global citizen science project to find connections between peoples around the world.


Facial reconstruction – anatomical art or artistic anatomy? Author: Caroline Wilkinson. Journal of Anatomy. 2010 Feb; 216(2): 235–250.

Craniometric Variation in the Americas Authors: Ross, Ann H., Ubelaker, Douglas H., Falsetti, Anthony B. Human Biology. Vol. 74, No. 6, December 2002, pp. 807-818.

The genetics of Mexico recapitulates Native American substructure and affects biomedical traits Authors: Andres Moreno-Estrada et al. Science. 13 June 2014: Vol. 344 no. 6189 pp. 1280-1285.

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