An investigation into the accuracy and reliability of skull-photo superimposition in a South African sample

Forensic Sci Int. 2012 Mar 10;216(1-3):198.e1-6. doi: 10.1016/j.forsciint.2011.09.008. Epub 2011 Oct 22.


One of the aims of forensic science is to determine the identities of victims of crime. In some cases the investigators may have ideas as to the identities of the victims and in these situations, ante mortem photographs of the victims could be used in order to try and establish identity through skull-photo superimposition. The aim of this study was to evaluate the accuracy of a newly developed digital photographic superimposition technique on a South African sample of cadaver photographs and skulls. Forty facial photographs were selected and for each photo, 10 skulls (including the skull corresponding to the photo) were used for superimposition. The investigator did not know which of the 10 skulls corresponded to the photograph in question. The skulls were scanned 3-dimensionally, using a Cyberware™ Model 3030 Colour-3D Scanhead scanner. The photos were also scanned. Superimposition was done in 3D Studio Max and involved a morphological superimposition, whereby a skull is superimposed over the photo and assessed for a morphological match. Superimposition using selected anatomical landmarks was also performed to assess the match. A total of 400 skull-photo superimpositions were carried out using the morphological assessment and another 400 using the anatomical landmarks. In 85% of cases the correct skull was included in the possible matches for a particular photo using morphological assessment. However, in all of these cases, between zero and three other skulls out of 10 possibilities could also match a specific photo. In the landmark based assessment, the correct skull was included in 80% of cases. Once again, however, between one and seven other skulls out of 10 possibilities also matched the photo. This indicates that skull-photo superimposition has limited use in the identification of human skeletal remains, but may be useful as an initial screening tool. Corroborative techniques should also be used in the identification process.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Black People
  • Face / anatomy & histology*
  • Forensic Anthropology / methods
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted / methods*
  • Imaging, Three-Dimensional*
  • Male
  • Photography*
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Skull / anatomy & histology*
  • Software
  • South Africa
  • White People