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What Fingerprints Can Reveal About Ancestry

Clues as to whether people have European or African lineage may show up in the fine details of their fingers

(Chad Miller/Flickr.com - CC-BY-2.0)
smithsonian.com

The unique pattern of ridges and dips on fingertips is a well known identifier for individuals, albiet a contested one. But researchers have found that fingerprints can reveal more than just an individual's identity, they can provide clues to a person’s ancestral background, reports Michael Casey for CBS News (via Science).

Researchers at North Carolina State and Washington State universities cracked this code by analyzing the right index finger prints from 243 people who were either African American or European American. 

The differences between men and women weren’t significant, but the differences in ancestry were. But only when the researchers took into account the details. Experts can assess fingerprints at three levels. Level 1 includes the pattern (such as a whorl, loop or arch) and number of ridges. Level 2 includes finer detail such as bifurcations, or where a ridge splits (this is the level used in criminal justice). Level 3 peers all the way down to the pores. 

It was that second level that revealed some differences. Bifurcations were the most significant difference between European Americans and African Americans, the researchers report in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology

"This is the first study to look at this issue at this level of detail, and the findings are extremely promising," says co-author Ann Ross, a professor of anthropology at North Carolina State University, according to Casey. "But more work needs to be done. We need to look at a much larger sample size and evaluate individuals from more diverse ancestral backgrounds."

The National Research Council issued a call in 2009 for more rigor and science-backed methods in forensics. They signaled out fingerprint analysis as one of the areas that need work, so Ross says that this research could help. However, she also suspects the work would interest other experts. "[T]here's a level of variation in fingerprints that is of interest to anthropologists, particularly in the area of global population structures - we just need to start looking at the Level 2 fingerprint details," she says. 

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