“Gentlemen, you are about to enter the most important and fascinating sphere of police work: the world of forensic medicine, where untold victims of many homicides will reach back from the grave and point back a finger accusingly at their assailant.” Quincy M.E.
In the U.S. in the mid-seventies, a television show called Quincy M.E. gave us a clue about the work involved in forensic medicine and solving crimes, but what is forensic anthropology? Anthropology is the study of humans and within anthropology there exist a wide array of specialization subfields. One such subfield deals with skeletal remains.
The term forensic means legal and the combination of these two disciplines becomes forensic anthropology. These scientists may also study human remains and partial human remains that are unidentifiable in the current state, but more often a pathologist deals with human remains.
Identification, clues to the condition of the individual prior to death, heritage, gender and age are part of a profile a forensic anthropologist establishes for the unidentified decedent. Where a crime or foul play is suspected, bones can offer clues as they retain stab wounds, bullet wounds and other signs of trauma.
While most cases fall under homicide, the remains may also be used to determine harmful environments. In addition to working on individual crimes, they help identify individuals who died in other situations such as mass disasters, wars, suicide, or accidental death. Missing persons cases are often solved in these situations.
A forensic anthropologist spends most of his time working in a laboratory. He will clean the bones, examine and document the findings working closely with others in his team. He will often be called to a scene where skeletal are found and assist with the proper procedures for collection of human remains. Strict protocol and methods must be maintained to insure the integrity of the evidence.
The forensic anthropologist works with a team of other medical forensics and together they document the evidence found on the human remains. Homicide Detectives work with all other evidence found at the crime scene and together they create a profile of the human and a profile of the suspected crime and the probable actions carried out in the crime.
DNA analysis has become a significant factor in identifying rapists. Men imprisoned for many years have been released on evidence presented with DNA analysis that proved their innocence. This analysis should always be an option for prisoners where evidence is available for testing, but that option has been denied in some states.
Identification, physical examination of evidence and establishing a profile is the forensic anthropologists main objective. Unlike the Dr. Quincy TV series, forensic anthropologists don’t become involved in all aspects of the crime nor do they perform the field and legwork that catches the perpetrator of the crime.
One very intriguing aspect of this work is that clay artists are used to recreate and render a remarkable likeness to the deceased using the profile and the skull remains. This helps law enforcement officers seek and find relatives and possible suspects known to the decedent. One clue can lead to another based on the identification of the human remains.
Forensic anthropologists use the same modern methods and processes as physical anthropologists in their attempts to determine certain things about people who lived in the past.
Finally, the forensic anthropologist is called upon to give testimony in court cases. He is an expert witness in court giving evidence that can imprison or free an accused. When the evidence is ironclad or convincingly real, a conviction results from the testimony.
Modern science has come a long way in providing new technology and methods for forensic anthropologists in their job of solving crimes. It’s a fascinating field to study and observe.