Biohistorical approaches to “race” in the United States: Biological distances among African Americans, European Americans, and their ancestors


  • Heather J.H. Edgar

    Corresponding author
    1. Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM
    2. Department of Anthropology, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM
    • Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, MSC01 1050, 1 University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM 87131, USA
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  • Author's: Note: This study explores the effects of cultural concepts of race on changes in subpopulations in the United States. While some aspects of biology may correlate with cultural constructions of race, use of the term “race” here does not imply its biological validity under any definition. When not otherwise indicated, the words “race” or “racial” are used in this article to describe social categories.


Folk taxonomies of race are the categorizations used by people in their everyday judgments concerning the persons around them. As cultural traditions, folk taxonomies may shape gene flow so that it is unequal among groups sharing geography. The history of the United States is one of disparate people being brought together from around the globe, and provides a natural experiment for exploring the relationship between culture and gene flow. The biohistories of African Americans and European Americans were compared to examine whether population histories are shaped by culture when geography and language are shared. Dental morphological data were used to indicate phenotypic similarity, allowing diachronic change through United States history to be considered. Samples represented contemporary and historic African Americans and European Americans and their West African and European ancestral populations (N = 1445). Modified Mahalanobis' D2 and Mean Measure of Divergence statistics examined how biological distances change through time among the samples. Results suggest the social acceptance for mating between descendents of Western Europeans and Eastern and Southern European migrants to the United States produced relatively rapid gene flow between the groups. Although African Americans have been in the United States much longer than most Eastern and Southern Europeans, social barriers have been historically stronger between them and European Americans. These results indicate that gene flow is in part shaped by cultural factors such as folk taxonomies of race, and have implications for understanding contemporary human variation, relationships among prehistoric populations, and forensic anthropology. Am J Phys Anthropol 2009. © 2009 Wiley-Liss, Inc.