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An Introduction to Forensic Anthropology

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A cyclist is taking a peaceful bike ride through the park when he spots something unusual in the bushy area. His curiosity gets the better of him and he turns around to get a better look. He dismounts and draws closer to the spot. He recoils for a second, but his curiosity forces him to take a second look. Upon closer examination he sees what looks like a decomposed hand. When he is able to collect himself he calls the police. And somewhere during the ensuing investigation either immediately or later, a Forensic Anthropologist enters the scene and takes charge.

Forensic Anthropology is, simply put, the study of human bones and skeletal remains. This is done by applying the principles of physical anthropology and osteology - the study of the the human skeleton. Forensic anthropology is able to determine the identity of someone who died and is mutilated, decomposed and when there is no way determining the identity of the person. The techniques used by this discipline, can determine sex, ancestry, age, size, type of injury and type of disease. Below are some of the uses of forensic anthropology.

Expert Witness

Even though a Forensic Anthropology cannot legally determine the cause of death, their opinion on that subject garnered from their knowledge and expertise, is used largely in criminal cases. Either side of a criminal case can employ a forensic anthropology as an expert witness.

Facial reconstruction

This requires the recreation of a persons face based upon their skeletal remains. To do so disciplines and techniques from anthropology, osteology, anatomy and forensic science are drawn upon. Facial Reconstruction is not only done to uncover the mystery behind an unrecognizable deceased person, it is also used extensively to gain answers to prehistoric remnants. While facial reconstruction is a controversial activity, advances in methods of facial reconstruction have given more credence to this activity today.


Forensic anthropology can be used to provide details about an unknown skeleton and bones. Techniques are used to figure out height, weight, stature and ancestry. This is very useful to a homicide investigator. By providing legal authorities with a biological profile, the identity of the person can be revealed and assist the law in pursuing other clues. The remains may turn out to be that of a person who may have disappeared many years ago. It is sometimes the only way many cases of disappearances or homicides can be resolved.

Trauma and disease

A thorough examination through forensic anthropology can determine how a person was murdered or met their death. The skull will hold clues as to whether blunt force trauma had occurred. The bones can reveal, remnants of gunshot wounds, lacerations or even the kind of weapon used in the case of a homicide. Was the death, accidental or it a result of suicide or natural causes? Was the victim poisoned? It is amazing the amount of data that can be gathered from a mere skeletal remains.

The field of forensic anthropology is not crowded by any means. It is reported that in the US and Canada, there are only about 100 persons identified as forensic anthropologists, and only half of those are actually practicing in the field. There are, however, several well renowned forensic anthropologist both today and in the past.

One Forensic Anthropologist was William Ross Maples, 1937-1997. He became famous for his work on many high profile criminal cases as well as for his investigations of historical figures, one of them being the Elephant Man, (Joseph Carrey Merrick). Another well renowned forensic pathologist today is Kathleen Reichs, who in addition to an impressive resume in forensic anthropology, is known for her testimony in Rwanda at the United Nations' Genocide Tribunal and for her work on the World Trade Center disaster.

The expertise of the forensic anthropologist is indeed much sought after by historians, the medical community and law enforcement. It is interesting to note that even cremated remains can be analyzed by forensic anthropologists to provide information on the deceased person. They are aided by the use of the Fordisc program which allows them to draw conclusions on racial and ethnic profile through the matching of certain identifiable characteristics. If you feel you would like to learn more about this interesting area or if you want to consider a career in forensic anthropology, contact the American Board of Forensic Anthropology for more information, or one of the schools in your area that offer degrees in the subject.

More about this author: Jaimela King

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