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Standard Dimensions and Definitions for the Human Palate.


Historically, the palate has been recognized as a reliable indicator of sex and ancestry, both metrically and morphoscopically (e.g., Burris & Harris 1998; Byers et al. 1997; Dalidjan et al. 1995; Gill 1971, 1986, 1995; Kamath et al. 2016; Knott 1970; Maier et al. 2015; Miyazaki et al. 1993; Olivier 1969; Rhine 1990; Williams & Rogers 2006). Palatal variation can be informative in clinical, bioarchaeological, and forensic settings; therefore, standard definitions are needed to ensure mutual intelligibility across disciplines and, in the case of forensic applications, adherence to rigorous standards of evidence. To the authors' knowledge, the relatively few standard definitions concerning the palate that exist are inconsistently followed, especially as concerns palatal description, if not measurement execution. This article will demonstrate the existing variation in terms used to describe the palate and the measurements taken from it and will propose a common lexicon from which researchers can draw.

Previous attempts to standardize anthropological research and practice have largely focused on technical skills and analytical techniques in a medicolegal context (e.g., B. Adams & Byrd 2002; Garvin & Passalacqua 2012; Smith & Boaks 2014; Wiersema et al. 2014). Few studies have examined the terminology itself. The comparatively small amount of attention paid to how scholars discuss their techniques has several consequences. Bunch (2014) highlights that these inconsistencies confuse practitioners regarding the application of methods and interpretation of results, and also present a problem as legal officials scrutinize the methods used in analysis. Therefore, it is important to establish a standard terminological basis for all identification methods. As researchers, we must be able to understand how research is conducted to accurately compare results and appreciate the human variation described.

Defining the Region

Although variation in defining palatal dimensions is a primary area of inconsistency among practitioners and across disciplines, differences exist with regard to the region being referenced when the term "palate" is used. Anatomically, the palate consists of the anterior hard palate, comprising the palatine processes of the maxillae and the horizontal plates of the palatine bones, and the posterior, muscular soft palate. In contrast, the dental arcade, or more specifically the maxillary dental arcade, comprises the maxillary dentition and the supporting alveolar processes of the maxillae. Physical anthropologists tend to use "palate" and "dental arcade" interchangeably (e.g., Burris & Harris 1998; Byers et al. 1997), but few, if any, are truly examining either region; that is, although the terms "palate" and "dental arcade" are being used, the region under examination is a conflation of the two. Therefore, the authors suggest the following terminology: "hard palate" will refer to the processes comprising the anatomical hard palate (palatine processes and horizontal plates; e.g., Kamath et al. 2016); "dental arcade" will refer to the dentition and supporting alveolar bone, and be further specified as "maxillary" or "mandibular" where appropriate; and "palatal vault" will encompass both the hard palate and the alveolar processes. Though this may seem a trivial distinction, clarity in the region being measured can be critical to correctly interpreting and comparing results. For example, when measuring height along a superior-inferior axis, as discussed below, understanding the distinction between the palatal vault and the dental arcade will determine if tooth crowns should contribute to the height measurement. Furthermore, Chapman (2017) refers to two measurements: tooth row arc length and inner alveolar arc length. The tooth row length as described in the study is an estimate of the curvature of the dental arcade, whereas the alveolar length encompasses the outer dimensions of the hard palate. As such, use of this standard terminology would clarify the exact dimensions and regions under investigation.

Measurement Definitions

Examination of the literature reveals far more variation in defining palatal dimensions, including variously defined measurements of breadth, width, length, depth, and height of the palate and/or dental arcade (Table 1). The authors acknowledge that many discrepancies in method implementation are resolved with clear definitions of the measurements being taken, especially when accompanied by illustrations; however, a standard terminology would alleviate some potential sources of confusion. A single dimensional term--for example, depth--can be variously implemented to indicate a measurement along the anterior-posterior axis (e.g., D. M. Adams 2015), a measurement on the superior-inferior axis (e.g., Maier et al. 2015), and a distance measure between teeth (e.g., Burris & Harris 1998). This is likely to cause misinterpretations; it is the authors' goal to clarify the measurements most frequently used in the analysis of the dental arcade-palate region, and to help future researchers avoid misunderstandings.


Measurement along the medial-lateral axis of the region is variously recorded as "width" or "breadth." The interchangeability of these terms is unsurprising, as "width" and "breadth" are synonymous. The authors advocate for the use of "breadth" in labeling measurements taken across the palate or the dental arcade in a medial-lateral direction (Fig. 1). This naming convention follows that of the major standardized sets of craniometric measurements (e.g., Buikstra & Ubelaker 1994; Howells 1973; Martin & Saller 1957; Moore-Jansen et al. 1994). The measurements codified in these works not only represent the appropriate measurements for this dimension but also share the naming convention of referring to this axis as "breadth." Other landmarks (e.g., cusp tips) may be used to record breadth measurements, but we advocate for the application of this naming convention to all measurements taken along the medial-lateral axis.


Measurements along the anterior-posterior axis of the dental arcade-palate region are less consistently described. Again following the established standards cited above, measurements along this axis are most appropriately termed "length" (Fig. 1). The present authors suggest that the measurement reported as "depth" by several researchers (e.g., D. M. Adams 2015; Burris & Harris 1998; Koyoumdjisky-Kaye et al. 1976; Lindsten et al. 2002; and others listed in Table 1) is more appropriately termed "length," as these measurements are capturing palatal dimensions along the anterior-posterior axis, the same axis along which other craniometric lengths (e.g., maximum cranial length) are also measured (e.g., Buikstra & Ubelaker 1994; Howells 1973; Martin & Saller 1957; Moore-Jansen et al. 1994).

The use of the term "depth" rather than "length" appears to roughly correspond to a difference between clinical and anthropological literature (Table 1). This seemingly field-based difference in terminology underscores the importance of standardization, especially in interdisciplinary and comparative research. One further, potentially confusing, instance of the use of the term "palate length" can be seen in the work of Lavelle (1973:413). In this case, both the "direct" and "chord" lengths proposed are not measuring the length of the hard palate, the dental arcade, or the palatal vault, but rather the curvature of the region. As such, the "length" measurements of Lavelle (1973) are more accurately termed "chords," as will be discussed further below. Similarly, the measurements of Chapman (2017:136) are described as dental arcade lengths. Those measurements are also recording arcade curvature directly, not through straight-line distances, and are most appropriately termed "arcs" or "arc lengths" rather than a more general dental arcade length. It is the opinion of the present authors that all measurements taken parallel to the anterior-posterior axis of the palate are most appropriately termed "lengths."


Measurements along the superior-inferior axis are the most inconsistently defined. Although descriptive terminology regarding that axis appears to be limited to "depth" or "height," that distinction does not appear to run along discipline boundaries, as was the case of measurements in the anterior-posterior axis. The authors advocate the use of "height" (e.g., Knott 1970) over other terms, such as "depth" (e.g., de Freitas et al. 2001), in describing this dimension (Fig. 1). In standard anatomical position, "height" more intuitively reflects this axis of measurement. Though infrequently used, recent studies (e.g., Andras & Klales 2017; Maier et al. 2015) suggest that palate height may be useful in assessing the sex and ancestry of unidentified individuals; therefore, establishing standard definitions of these measurements is critical to their recordation and comparisons between studies.

The greater degree of inconsistency with terminology for this axis may be related to its infrequent use, which in turn is likely related to some ambiguity surrounding measurement endpoints. At one end, this dimension terminates on the hard palate. However, the other terminal point of any measurement in the superior-inferior axis has not been clearly defined. Zajac et al. (2012) suggest the occlusal plane as a terminal point. However, the occlusal plane would include crown heights of the maxillary dentition, which are not included in the definition of the palatal vault above. The authors suggest the imaginary plane on which the maxillary alveolar processes rest in anatomical position as the inferior terminal point of all superior-inferior axis measurements. However, the most appropriate terminal points of measurement will depend on the region of interest. That is, the points suggested by the present authors would be most appropriate for measures of palatal vault height, while those of Zajac et al. (2012) would capture the combined height of the palatal vault and the dental arcade.

The distances between certain teeth represent a third application of the term "depth" in the dental arcade-palate region. Burris and Harris (1998:959) examined the distance between the lingual surfaces of canines and molars on the same side of the palate and referred to the measurement as "arch depth." Alternatively, Byers et al. (1997:4) used similar measurements and referred to them as "chords." It is suggested by the present authors that "chord" is a more applicable term for the measurement performed by Burris and Harris (1998), as it does not measure the region along a major directional axis, but measures straight-line distance between teeth to quantify the curvature of the palate. Similarly, the "arch length" measurements of Lavelle (1973:413) seem to be a measure of curvature and are more accurately termed "chords," as Lavelle himself notes. The same term, "chord," is used in measuring the cranium (e.g., frontal chord measured from nasion to bregma), so it is already a familiar term to many who would be measuring the palate region. This third application of the term "depth" to describe yet another type of measurement highlights the confusion surrounding this terminology and illustrates the need for standardization and clarity.

Issues of Interpretation

The lexical inconsistency surrounding the description and measurement of the dental arcade-palate region makes inaccurate interpretations and reproductions of research not only possible but likely. Consider as an example the term "depth" as described above. Within the literature cited here, "depth" refers to two different linear dimensions of the region (anterior-posterior and superior-inferior) and measurements intended to quantify curvature. Although careful reading of the source material makes it clear that the term is being used differently by each, it is likely that this common name has caused confusion, especially in cross-study comparisons. Furthermore, in the early stages of research, conference proceedings may be one of the only available sources of information, and abstracts frequently do not include measurement definitions, which precludes accurate comparisons between projects. The lack of standard definitions, coupled with the limited information available in abstracts, led to erroneous comparisons drawn between the two authors and was the impetus for this article.

While it is ultimately the responsibility of the individual researcher to ensure the comparability of measurements from different studies with his or her own measurements, a common lexicon would mitigate the occurrence of miscommunications like that described above. Additionally, studies may not expressly define the measurements analyzed, instead assuming prior knowledge on the part of the reader. Carter and McNamara (1998), for instance, examined images from 128 patients, capturing the changes in arch depth, width, and perimeter over the course of their development. These measurements, however, are not expressly defined by the authors, nor are figures provided for visual reference. It may be inferred that if "width" is one of the measurements, "depth" is likely to be synonymous with "length" in this study; however, this inference introduces uncertainty into methodological replication. "Perimeter," without any identified landmarks or assisting images, is more difficult to define and replicate. There should be no need to infer what data collection involved if studies are to be replicable. As such, utilization of a standard terminological base will help to eliminate these issues.


Standardization of definitions and the axes referred to by dimensional terms such as "breadth," "length," and "height" aids in the generation of consistent and comparable data; but terminological standardization does not alleviate every problem, and these problems are not unique to the palate. Variation in terminology and definitions leads to incorrect comparisons between studies, improper implementation of methods, and, consequently, invalid results. Most authors take pains to clearly articulate what a measurement entails, but this may not be clear in every implementation of a measurement. Standardized terminology would prevent many misinterpretations. The authors acknowledge that adoption of these standardized terms, and the evaluation of existing literature for conflicts in usage, will be a difficult task, but if we are to be secure in our comprehension and replication of studies, it is an undertaking for which we, the practitioners, are responsible.

To date, the palate is not as extensively measured or described as other skeletal elements, especially when compared to the cranium as a whole. Therefore, concern with the terminology in this region may seem inconsequential. However, the palate is relatively resilient to damage experienced by other regions of the cranium (Burris & Harris 1998) and is useful in the estimation of sex and ancestry (e.g., Burris & Harris 1998; Byers et al. 1997; Dalidjan et al. 1995; Gill 1971, 1986, 1995; Kamath et al. 2016; Knott 1970; Maier et al. 2015; Miyazaki et al. 1993; Olivier 1969; Rhine 1990; Williams & Rogers 2006). As the utility of the dental arcade and palatal vault in estimating aspects of the biological profile is further explored and better understood, it is increasingly important that measurements and definitions are clear and that methods are replicable. With refinement of traditional metric techniques and geometric morphometric technologies, researchers must have a standard terminological base from which to draw and must assess replicability of these dimensions.


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Christopher A. Maier, PhD (a*) * Donovan M. Adams, MS (b)

(a) Collegium of Comparative Cultures, Eckerd College, St. Petersburg, FL, USA

(b) Department of Anthropology, University of Nevada, Reno, Reno, NV, USA

(*) Correspondence to: Christopher A. Maier, Collegium of Comparative Cultures, Eckerd College, 4200 54th Ave. S., St. Petersburg, FL 33711, USA


Received 18 February 2018; Revised 28 March 2018; Accepted 3 April 2018

DOI: 10.5744/fa.2018.0023
TABLE 1--Varying Uses of Measurement Descriptors Compiled from the

Source                Anterior-Posterior     Medial-Lateral Axis

D. M. Adams 2015      Arch depth (AD)        Arch width (AW)
Brown et al. 1983     AD                     Arch breadth (AB)
Brown et al. 1987     AD                     AB
Buikstra & Ubelaker   Maxillo-alveolar       Maxillo-alveolar breadth
1994                  length
Burris & Harris 1998  AD*                    AW (*)
Byers et al. 1997     Palatal length         Palatal width (PW)
                      (PL; mathematically
Carter & McNamara     Maxillary arch         Maxillary arch width (*)
1998                  depth (*)
Chapman 2017
de Freitas et al.                            IM distance, IC distance
DeKock 1972           AD                     AW
Deshmukh & Devershi   PL                     Palatal breadth (PB)
Haas 1970             External PL            External PB
Harris 1997                                  Tooth-specific widths (*)
Hassanali & Odhiambo  PL
Howells 1973                                 PB, External
Knott 1970            PD                     Width of the palate (PW)
Koyoumdjisky-Kaye et  AD                     AW (*)
al. 1976
Lavelle 1973          AL (*,**)              AW (*)
Lavelle 1977          AL (*)                 AW (*)
Lindsten et al. 2002  AD                     AW (*)
Lukacs & Badam                               External PB, Internal PB
Lundstrom 1948        AL (*)                 AW (*)
Lundstrom & Lysell    AL (*)                 AW (*)
Maier et al. 2015
Martin & Saller 1957  PL                     External PB, Internal PB
Menezes et al. 1974   AD, AL (*)             AW (*)
Miyazaki et al. 1986  Length of suture       PB (*), Palatal AL (**)
                      palatina mediana (**)
Miyazaki et al. 1989  Length of suture       PB (*),
                      palatina mediana (**)  Palatal AL (**)
Miyazaki et al. 1993  AL (*), Palatal arch   AB (*)
                      length (*,**)
Moore-Jansen et al.   Maxillo-alveolar       Maxillo-alveolar breadth
1994                  length
Moorrees 1959         AL                     AB
Pietrusewsky 1994     PL                     PB
Shaw 1876             PD                     PW
Song et al. 1992      PL                     PB
Taylor 1962a, 1962b   PL                     PW

Source                Superior-Inferior      Curvature (Chords or
                      Axis                   Arc Lengths)

D. M. Adams 2015
Brown et al. 1983
Brown et al. 1987
Buikstra & Ubelaker
Burris & Harris 1998
Byers et al. 1997                            Yes (IC, IP2, IM2)

Carter & McNamara
Chapman 2017                                 Tooth row arc, inner
                                             alveolar arc
de Freitas et al.     Palate depth (PD)
DeKock 1972
Deshmukh & Devershi
Haas 1970
Harris 1997                                  Arch chords,
                                             Tooth-specific lengths
Hassanali & Odhiambo  PD
Howells 1973
Knott 1970            Height of the palate
Koyoumdjisky-Kaye et
al. 1976
Lavelle 1973                                 AL (chords)
Lavelle 1977                                 AL (chords)
Lindsten et al. 2002                         IM angle
Lukacs & Badam        PD at M2
Lundstrom 1948        Height of the palatal
Lundstrom & Lysell
Maier et al. 2015     PD
Martin & Saller 1957  PD at M2
Menezes et al. 1974                          AL (chords)
Miyazaki et al. 1986  PH (*)

Miyazaki et al. 1989  PH (*)

Miyazaki et al. 1993  PH (*)

Moore-Jansen et al.
Moorrees 1959
Pietrusewsky 1994
Shaw 1876             PH
Song et al. 1992      PH
Taylor 1962a, 1962b   PH

(*) Denotes measurements taken from tooth surfaces, not bone.
(**) Denotes measures of arc length, not straight-line distance.
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Title Annotation:TECHNICAL NOTE
Author:Maier, Christopher A.; Adams, Donovan M.
Publication:Forensic Anthropology
Article Type:Report
Date:Sep 22, 2018
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