Mike Billinger
PhD Student
Department of Anthropology
University of Alberta, Canada


While in the process of conducting research concerning the evaluation of forensic methods of racial determination, I approached the topic by using two so-called racial groups in my study in order to compare and contrast the usefulness of various traits in exploring population biology. As I measured and mulled over a number of skulls of both European and Amerindian descent, my main concern was with the concept of "race" itself, which continues to be one of the major concepts used in physical and forensic anthropology, though numerous historical, philosophical and biological arguments have shown that race no longer has any real biological meaning. What I was (or thought I was) investigating was the nature of human variation, in order to discuss how populations actually fit together and can be studied systematically, but outside of a racial framework. I assessed numerous skulls and their various attributes, but when I reached into the collection and brought out this skull, something very important became apparent. There was a massive pathological lesion on the frontal bone - something that I had not seen before. While I had been dealing with numbers and averages, the ancestral affinity only became important in terms of context, but was no longer the focus of my analysis of this specimen. This all came together when I attended a conference talk shortly after by a physical anthropologist who spoke about "osteobiography," a term coined by physical anthropologist Frank Saul. Saul had become wary of common terminology such as "sexing," "aging" and "racing," and from his interest in developing a larger contextual picture, he coined the term in order to stimulate anthropologists and archaeologists to think of skeletons as life histories recorded in bone. Population-level data exists only as an aggregate of individual data, and this person had an affliction that must have seriously determined his (the specimen was determined to be male) life history. This experience certainly brought my own research into a larger contextual picture, and I of course wanted to capture this fascinating specimen on film. Due to a lack of time and photographic expertise, this photo was taken hastily with a 35mm automatic Pentax camera, on a background of a dark green crushed velvet remnant, July 2000.