An Introduction to Forensic Anthropology

Forensic anthropology is a subfield of physical anthropology and is used by law enforcement agencies for identification of remains or in identification of traumatic injuries or disease where the identification is known. More often, the forensic anthropologist works with skeletal remains.

The investigative work and results of examination by forensic anthropologists are used to detect crime and forensic anthropologists serve as expert witnesses in a court of law. In effect, the physical anthropological knowledge is applied to a legal application. Forensic means legal.

The evidence presented in a court of law is central and may result in an acquittal or a conviction; therefore the investigation must be performed in accordance with highest scientific standards. Forensic anthropologists use the latest methods and technology in their investigation and their academic training includes methods and techniques developed by physical anthropologists.

Physical anthropology is concerned with the study of primates, including humans. It covers a wide range of subfields that include the specialized study of bones (osteology) and it’s from this specialized area that forensic anthropology evolved. The forensic anthropologist applies his knowledge in helping solve crimes.

In working with skeletal remains, the forensic anthropologists examine and document their findings then construct a profile of the individual. In establishing a profile, a forensic anthropologist seeks to determine the age, sex, ethnicity/ancestry, height, and features of the decedent. They also attempt to determine age of the bones and estimate the length of time the individual has been deceased.

In general, the skeletal investigation can give clues to the state of health, disease or types of trauma that existed prior to death.

Quite often, forensic anthropologists work in teams with other forensic scientists to uncover evidence. They work with forensic pathologists and odontologists (dentists) in their identification and they sometimes will enlist the help of clay artists to establish a likeness to go with the profile.

In addition, they determine the manner of death by examination of the remains and determine if foul play was involved in the death. Homicide detectives work closely with them to unearth evidence when a crime is suspected. Much of their work occurs in a laboratory but they may also assist with locating and recovery of suspicious remains.

Early identification techniques:

The first known method used that bore a semblance to forensic anthropology was constructed by Franz Josef Gall in 1796. He believed the lumps on people’s heads revealed something of those person’s unique characteristics such as memory and ability. He called his theory the science of phrenology.

Bertillon measurements were used in the early 1800s where police took measurements of a convicts height standing and sitting along with measurements of the fingers, arm length, and breadth. These Bertillon measurements were used to keep files on criminals so they could identify repeat criminals. It worked fairly well until they came upon identical twins. In that day, police work in identifying criminals was difficult and frustrating.

Many reliable identification systems are in place today for criminals, and deceased victims. Working only with skeletal remains, forensic anthropologists are able to establish a profile and a likeness for the remains. Law enforcement officers and forensic anthropologists together can now solve crimes that were unsolvable a few short years ago.