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What is Forensic Anthropology?

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Forensic anthropology is the application of the science of biological anthropology to answer medicolegal questions. Forensic anthropologists assist in establishing the identity of human remains by looking at skeletal clues (whether or not soft tissue is present on the remains). Forensic anthropologists also use skeletal clues to determine the circumstances surrounding death, therefore it is often important to see the scene (particularly if it is an outdoor scene).

Forensic anthropologists are frequently called in to assist in the recovery of remains that are in a clandestine grave or remains that have been scattered (I am a member of NecroSearch, International, which is a volunteer, multidisciplinary team dedicated to assisting law enforcement in the search for clandestine graves and the recovery of evidence and remains from those scenes).

Why Use A Board Certified Forensic Anthropologist?

Diane France

A forensic anthropologist certified by the American Board of Forensic Anthropology has gone through rigorous examinations and is required to keep up with continuing education to stay current in the field. While there are talented (and some exceptional) people with a master's degree or Ph.D. who are not board certified, they have not been through the requirements of someone certified by the American Board of Forensic Anthropology, and therefore their education and experience have not been tested in the same way as those who are diplomates of the ABFA.

For a current list of board certified forensic anthropologists, go to the American Board of Forensic Anthropology website.

Human Identification

Assisting in the determination of the identity of unknown remains begins with aspects of the biological profile. The biological profile includes:

  • Age
  • Sex
  • Ancestry/Race
  • Stature
  • Idiosyncrasies

In addition to the biological profile, the forensic anthropologist looks at skeletal clues indicating past trauma, illness that affects bone, etc.

Determination of the Circumstances Surrounding Death

In most jurisdictions in the United States, the medical examiner or coroner determines the cause and manner of death. The forensic anthropologist can assist in this role by determining the circumstances surrounding death. The skeleton reacts to forces differently in blunt trauma, gunshot wounds, sharp injury, or a combination of these forces.

A few additional aspects of forensic anthropology

Any situation that uses the physical characteristics of humans to answer medico-legal questions are within the purview of forensic anthropology, but here are a few popular examples:

  • Comparison of skulls to antemortem photographs (photo superimposition)

    While sometimes helpful, it should not be used as a means of positive identification. Even in the best situations in which the skull is complete and multiple antemortem photographs are used, the error rate is too high to be used for a positive ID.

  • Comparison of photographs and videos of living individuals.

    Surveillance photographs and videos can be compared to photographs and videos of the suspect.

  • Facial reconstruction or Facial approximation

    Putting a three-dimensional clay face or a two-dimensional face on a skull should be the last resort in obtaining information for an identification. The facial approximation is broadcast to the public to solicit leads not shown on missing persons lists.