For some time now – whether by using computers or clay – forensic scientists have been able to make three-dimensional reconstructions of the faces of the deceased, based on the contours of their skulls. More recently, however, software has been developed that can determine the sex and precise ancestral background of a person no longer with us, via a set of skull measurements.

Called 3D-ID, the software was created by North Carolina State University forensic anthropologist Ann Ross, and scientific computing researcher Dennis Slice of Florida State University.

Users start by obtaining measurements of 34 points on the skull using a digitizer – a sort of electronic pen that records locational coordinates. These numbers are then fed into a database that contains the coordinates for the skulls of 1,300 individuals, representing a wide range of ethnicities. By cross-referencing the submitted coordinates against those in the database, 3D-ID will deliver ancestral information as exact as “Hispanic of South American origin,” as opposed to “Hispanic of Mesoamerican origin” or “Hispanic of Caribbean origin.”

It will also indicate the gender of the skull.

The system may even still work on incomplete skulls, which don’t contain all 34 measurement points – it depends on which ones are still intact.