Technical note: comparing von Luschan skin color tiles and modern spectrophotometry for measuring human skin pigmentation

Am J Phys Anthropol. 2013 Jun;151(2):325-30. doi: 10.1002/ajpa.22274. Epub 2013 Apr 30.


Prior to the introduction of reflectance spectrophotometry into anthropological field research during the 1950s, human skin color was most commonly classified by visual skin color matching using the von Luschan tiles, a set of 36 standardized, opaque glass tiles arranged in a chromatic scale. Our goal was to establish a conversion formula between the tile-based color matching method and modern reflectance spectrophotometry to make historical and contemporary data comparable. Skin pigmentation measurements were taken on the forehead, inner upper arms, and backs of the hands using both the tiles and a spectrophotometer on 246 participants showing a broad range of skin pigmentation. From these data, a second-order polynomial conversion formula was derived by jackknife analysis to estimate melanin index (M-index) based on tile values. This conversion formula provides a means for comparing modern data to von Luschan tile measurements recorded in historical reports. This is particularly important for populations now extinct, extirpated, or admixed for which tile-based measures of skin pigmentation are the only data available.

MeSH terms

  • Anthropology, Physical / methods*
  • Anthropology, Physical / standards
  • Arm / physiology
  • Cluster Analysis
  • Forehead / physiology
  • Hand / physiology
  • Humans
  • Observer Variation
  • Reference Standards
  • Skin / chemistry
  • Skin Pigmentation / physiology*
  • Spectrophotometry / methods*
  • Spectrophotometry / standards