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Forensic Anthropology

What is Forensic Anthropology?

Generally speaking forensic anthropology is the examination of human skeletal remains for law enforcement agencies to determine the identity of unidentified bones.

Further definition of the term is necessary to understand the scope and basis of forensic anthropology. Anthropology alone is the study of man. Anthropologists are interested in culture (cultural anthropologists), language (linguistic anthropologists), the physical remains or artifacts left behind by human occupation (archaeologists), and human remains or bones and teeth (physical anthropologists).

Forensic anthropologists are commonly portrayed in the media as forensic scientists and/or crime scene technicians, but this is not accurate.

Over the past century physical anthropologists (those who study human remains) have developed methods to evaluate bones to figure out things about people who lived in the past. These techniques help them to answer questions about the remains they are studying.

The questions that might be looked into include: Was this individual male or female? How old were they when they died? How tall were they? Were the people studied in good or poor general health?

Forensic anthropology involves the application of these same methods to modern cases of unidentified human remains. Through the established methods, a forensic anthropologist can aid law enforcement in establishing a profile on the unidentified remains. The profile includes sex, age, ethnicity, height, length of time since death, and sometimes the evaluation of trauma seen on bones.

In many cases after identity of an individual is made, the forensic anthropologist is called to testify in court regarding the identity of the remains and/or the trauma or wounds present on the remains.

What do forensic anthropologists do?

Forensic anthropologists are commonly portrayed in the media as forensic scientists and/or crime scene technicians, but this is not accurate. Forensic anthropologists deal strictly with the human remains. While some people trained in forensic anthropology are also trained in evidence collection techniques, most forensic anthropologists only specialize in techniques related to analysis of the remains or bones only.

Generally, forensic anthropologists DO NOT do any of the following:

  • Collect trace evidence (hair, fibers)
  • Run DNA tests
  • Analyze ballistics or weapon evidence
  • Analyze blood spatter
  • Conduct autopsies

What a forensic anthropologist DOES do to aid in a case:

  • Goes to a crime scene to assist in the collection of human remains
  • Cleans up the bones so that they may be looked at
  • Analyzes skeletal remains to establish the profile of the individual
  • Looks at trauma evident on the bones to establish the pathway of a bullet or the number of stab wounds
  • Works with a forensic odontologist (dentist) to match dental records
  • Testifies in court about the identity of the individual and/or the injuries that might be evident in the skeleton

What training do forensic anthropologists need?

Current minimum requirements necessary to become a forensic anthropologist include a Bachelor's degree in anthropology or a closely related field, a Master's degree in anthropology, and usually a PhD in physical anthropology.

Additionally, during their education the student must seek out opportunities to gain experience by assisting an established forensic anthropologist with casework.

After the PhD, there is still additional training to complete. Though not a requirement, the American Board of Forensic Anthropology recognizes established forensic anthropologists as diplomates after the required educational requirements are met and the candidate successfully completes written and practical exams.

Where do forensic anthropologists work?

Forensic anthropologists are employed primarily at universities and forensic facilities around the country. Most forensic anthropologists teach and perform research in other areas of anthropology in addition to their casework. Some forensic anthropologists have found jobs in forensic facilities where they work closely with medical examiners or forensic pathologists.

What are examples of cases forensic anthropologists work on?

Here are two case scenarios where the assistance of a forensic anthropologist would be necessary:

Case 1: A hunter is in the woods and comes across what he thinks is a human skull. He marks the area and goes to get police to bring them back to the area. A forensic anthropologist might be called to assist in determining first of all if the remains are in fact human. If the remains are human then the anthropologist can assist law enforcement with the collection of the remains at the scene. Typically the anthropologist would photograph the remains prior to removal and also make a pictorial view or site map of the area so that if need be the scene could be recreated later. During the scene work the anthropologist would work with other crime scene specialists who might be interested in other evidence that cold be found at the scene such as weapons, blood, DNA, etc. Forensic anthropologists can then look at the bones to establish a profile of the remains including the age, sex, ethnicity, height, time since death, and trauma. If the police have a missing person in mind, the forensic anthropologist can then work with the medical examiner and forensic odontologist to determine if the identity is a match.

Case 2: A forensic pathologist is presented with partially decomposed remains of an individual and the identity has already been established. However, there is evidence of multiple traumatic injuries (example: gun shot wounds and/or knife wounds) that occurred close to the time of death and the state of the remains prevents the pathologist from being able to fully understand the extent of the trauma to the remains. The forensic anthropologist aids the pathologist by cleaning the bones and looking closely at them to determine the number and type of traumatic episodes. Through their analyses the forensic anthropologist is able to identify multiple types of traumatic injury, potentially an important factor in the trial.

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Contact Information

Forensic Anthropology Center
Department of Anthropology

250 South Stadium Hall
Knoxville, TN USA

Phone: 865-974-4408

Fax: 865-974-2686