Forensic anthroplogy is anthropology/osteology, or study of the bones and teeth in relation to the law. The term “forensic” means law. Whenever there is crime, the results of the crime, the idea that a crime was committed and bones are involved, then the forensic pathologist may be called in to come up with information.
This field is not to be confused with forensic pathology which is a highly specialized area of medicine. Forensic pathologists are extensively specialized and trained medical doctors who focus on soft tissues and who can do autopsies, or examinations of the dead in order to determine cause of death, which is critical to the legal process.
The goal is usually to determine identity, age, ancestry, gender, race and other facts about the individual who has been reduced to a set of bones and has no identifying factors. There might be issues that come from any of the subfields of general anthropology and linguistics, so a good undergraduate education in anthropology and statistics is required.
Graduate work involves learning the bones with such thoroughness that the knowledge is unassailable. Then, the applied techniques and knowledge is learned, with a forensic anthropologist/mentor as an important factor in the postgraduate education. The PhD is the most common level of education, but masters degrees and bachelors degrees, along with years of experience and additional training might suffice.
In general, it takes much education and many years in order to qualify as a forensic anthropologist.
Forensic anthropologists can be called in to examine bones or bone fragments after a major disaster or act of terrorism, such as the 911 act of terrorism. They are asked to examine bones or bone fragments that are found under a variety of conditions, but which could be from any time in the past.
The National Park service or governments might hire forensic anthropologists to help in repatriating bones from mass graves, or in investigating malfeasance at cemetaries where bodies were not properly interred.
Museums might hire forensic anthropologists to study bones that have been in storage for centuries and in great masses, or to examine the contents of crypts or burial grounds that are discovered during archaeological expeditions.
Coroner/examiner departments of every county, state, regional and federal law enforcement agency will call upon forensic anthropologists to conduct specialized study of bones or bone fragments in relation to criminal investigations (or to determine whether criminal investigation should be done when older bones are found). The military calls upon forensic anthropologists when needed.
Universities with academic and research programs will hire the vast majority of the forensic anthropologists who then will teach, do research, and also be called upon for case by case consultations and examinations. The few independents will find careers in the military, law enforcement, coroner/examiners offices, and even the parks and museum services. In rare cases, there might be consulting for the arts or for film, where an osteologist is needed to advise on matters of the bones, including diseases and defects, creating the next scary monster or constructing the makeup for a convincingly deformed individual.
Famous forensic anthropologists:
Dr. Henry Lee has worked on some of the most famous cases of the past 30 years, including the OJ Simpson, DC Sniper, and Phil Spector cases.
Clea Koff has studied cases of advanced decomposition and has worked for the United Nations in Bosnia, Somalia, Serbia, Croatia and Kosovo. She founded the Missing Persons Identification Center, and continues to work in missing persons cases.
William Maples, a mid century forensic anthropologist, examined President Zachary Taylor, consulted on the “Elephant Man”, John Merrick, and the Romanav family. He has helped in unsolved cases.
Joseph Bell lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and is considered to be the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes and may well be the pioneer of technique in forensic Anthropology. His teaching in diagnostics and human behavior are studied today.
Edmond Locard founded the first police laboratory and was the brain behind the concept of “every contact leaves a trace” and the 12 points of fingerprint identification. Forensic science relates to police work because of his pioneering work.
William Bass is the mind and forensic anthropologist behind Patricia Cornwell’s “Body Farm”. He founded the “Body Farm” at the University of Tennessee.
Terrie Winson, “The Forensic Anthropologist”, Dec 2004
Top Ten Famous Forensic Experts in History.