This study assesses the current state of adult skeletal age-at-death estimation in biological anthropology through analysis of data published in recent research articles from three major anthropological and archaeological journals (2004–2009). The most commonly used adult ageing methods, age of ‘adulthood’, age ranges and the maximum age reported for ‘mature’ adults were compared. The results showed a wide range of variability in the age at which individuals were determined to be adult (from 14 to 25 years), uneven age ranges, a lack of standardisation in the use of descriptive age categories and the inappropriate application of some ageing methods for the sample being examined. Such discrepancies make comparisons between skeletal samples difficult, while the inappropriate use of some techniques make the resultant age estimations unreliable. At a time when national and even global comparisons of past health are becoming prominent, standardisation in the terminology and age categories used to define adults within each sample is fundamental. It is hoped that this research will prompt discussions in the osteological community (both nationally and internationally) about what defines an ‘adult’, how to standardise the age ranges that we use and how individuals should be assigned to each age category. Skeletal markers have been proposed to help physically identify ‘adult’ individuals. Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.