Quick Tips: How To Estimate The Biological Sex Of A Human Skeleton – The Basics.

Within anthropological and archaeological sciences, ‘sex’ refers to the biological sex of an individual, based on the chromosomal difference of XX being female, and XY being male. Whereas ‘gender’ refers to the socio-cultural differences placed on the biological differences. In recent times, the words ‘gender’ and sex’ have been used incorrectly as interchangeable words within this discipline.

Therefore, it is important to remember that the word ‘gender’ refers an aspect of a person’s social identity, whereas ‘sex’ refers to the person’s biological identity.

Sexual dimorphism as seen in the human skeleton is determined by the hormones that are produced by the body. There are numerous markers on a human skeleton which can provide archaeologists and anthropologists with an estimate sex of the deceased. The areas of the skeletal remains that are studied are the:

 If the skeletal marker listed above is a link, it means that I have already covered it in an individual blog post and can be found by following the link.

The two most commonly used skeletal markers that are observed by osteologists are the skull and pelvic bone, as these show the most extreme differences.

It is generally noted that female skeleton elements are characterized by being smaller in size and lighter in construction, whereas males have larger, robust elements. Due to normal individual variation, there will always be smaller, dainty males and larger, robust females. Therefore, it is always important to observe a variety of skeletal markers to come to an accurate determination.

It should be noted that it is a lot harder to reliably deduce a juvenile/sub-adult’s sex, as many of the differences in skeletal markers only become visible after maturation, when the skeletal changes occur due to puberty. Therefore, use of DNA has been widely used to sex sub-adult skeletal remains as DNA analysis can now detect and identify X and Y chromosome-specific sequences.


Buikstra, J.E., Ubelaker, D.H. 1994. Standards for Data Collection From Human Skeletal Remains. Fayetteville, Arkansas: Arkansas Archaeological Survey Report Number 44.

Ubelaker, D.H. 1989. Human Skeletal Remains: Excavation, Analysis, Interpretation (2nd Ed.). Washington, DC: Taraxacum.

White, T.D., Folkens, P.A. 2005. The Human Bone Manual. San Diego, CA: Academic Press. Pg 360-385.

This is the first of a Quick Tips series on sex determination of skeletal remains. The next post in this series will focus on the use of the skull to determine biological sex. To read more Quick Tips in the mean time, click here