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An Introduction to Forensic Anthropology

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The television has fast become a window into the subject of forensics, sensationalizing the science involved when investigating a recently discovered corpse. This macabre subject was once left only to the police and scientists to examine and uncover the secrets behind the cover of closed doors, but now in this generation the camera's eye is firmly fixed upon this hidden world exposing it to us through the medium of reality television, or drama based shows like CSI and Bones.

What is Forensic Anthropology?

Forensic Anthropology is a scientific process of investigation that takes place on human remains that are either decomposed beyond recognition or devoid of any remaining DNA. Basically this role involves the investigation of skeletal remains. This form of investigation uses applied sciences from several areas to deduce possible cause of death, or physical characteristics, which may contribute to revealing the identity. With thorough investigative process we may reveal if a victim was hit with a sledgehammer, or if he was shot or stabbed, just by markings or impressions in our bones. Forensic anthropology is used to explore the remains to deduce this and many other things throughout the forensic investigation.

So what role does a Forensic Anthropologist play in both historical discovery, and modern day forensic investigation?

Archaeological Forensic Anthropology:

During the course of an archaeological discovery the dig site may uncover the decomposed remains of a human body. The Forensic Anthropologist will perform a series of investigative techniques to reveal the origin, race, gender, and other characteristics to better understand the people or culture that lived at this particular site. Sure, it sounds simple enough to make these assumptions, but they use a plethora of applied sciences to concretely uncover findings such as cause of death, genetic dispositions like disease or medical history.

Criminal Forensic Anthropology:

This modern day science is called upon during the course of an investigation in which the remains are in the form of skeletal, or have undergone decomposition or mutilation where only the bones remain. Forensic anthropology has two main roles to play over the course of an investigation; first we have the investigation itself, uncovering vital information to assist to solve whether a crime has occurred or not. The second role is found in the courtroom, where they may be called upon to give testimony as a specialist or Expert Witness, which reveals both technique implied, and expert opinions to support the investigation, either to benefit the defense, or the prosecution over the course of a trial. During the investigative process a forensic anthropologist performs a postmortem investigation (autopsy), to reveal characteristics to aid in identification, and possible cause of death if applicable.

Applied sciences used in conjunction with Forensic Anthropology include:

Physical Anthropology:

This science is the study of biological evolution, through transitional genetic traits, human adaptation, and primatology, and fossil record of human evolution. Most famed physical anthropologist included; Alfred Russel Wallace, Gregor Mendel, and Charles Darwin, famed for his work on his theory of natural selection. Like most forms of anthropology this subject occasionally implies other science, but its main focus is on the biological field of research.

Forensic Pathology:

This is basically the science behind the cause of death. A forensic pathologist uses physical postmortem investigation, and other evidence to uncover the true nature of the death of a victim being investigated. Using medical testing, and other tools they may reveal such things like, physical trauma, medical intervention, or natural occurring causes that led to the death.

Forensic Dentistry (Odontology):

Dental evidence can sometimes reveal many important pieces of information to help identify a body. Dental records are unique like fingerprints, and can be used to quickly identify a victim with the aid of dental impressions, which are compared to ante-mortem photographs or records.

Forensic Facial Reconstruction:

Although this form of evidence is usually dismissed for being inadmissible in a court of law, it still has had great success in the identification process. The simple description of this science is the recreation of the unidentified individual to determine the identity using only skeletal remains. There are three basic techniques used to perform a facial reconstruction.

* Two-dimensional, was the result of Karen T Taylor, which implies the use of hand-drawn facial images based on ante mortem photos, and the skull. This method can be used to match known missing victims to the recovered skull, but was a limited application until the use of computers and software programs.

* Three-dimensional reconstructions are commonly depicted on shows like CSI, and are much more compelling in nature. The three-dimensional impression or cast is created using modeling clay or other materials, which is applied to the cranial remains to form the shape or characteristics of the victim. Now with the aid of computer programs, this process can also make multiple images of characteristics like eye-color, hair type and color, along with other physical markers to assist in matching the victim.

* Superimposition is used along with other techniques of reconstruction. This is not the most common tool used during facial reconstruction, but by superimposing an image or photograph of a possible target of an identity linked to the unidentified skeletal remains, over-top of an X-ray image of the unidentified skull, this may prove a match based on specific anatomical features that will become aligned during the process.

When dealing with skeletal remains whether they are found on an archaeological dig, or during the course of an extensive murder investigation, discovering the identity becomes of the utmost importance. Homicide investigators and other Science departments rely upon the expertise of Forensic Anthropologists to uncover the unknown factors that may aid in revealing important things about the remains. Physical characteristics like age, gender, and race may rule out or reveal important details, while cause of death, medical history, and genetics, can filter out the possibility of an unnatural or natural death.

Although this evidence is usually subjected to the scrutiny of the legal system, in the world of science it is a reputable form of study, and has very few accredited specialists that harbor the coveted title. The American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) to date has nearly six thousand members that are part of ten separate divisions within the Forensic Studies, but barely a hundred or more are considered to be identifiable as forensic anthropologists.

In the science community there is a great deal of respect among their dedicated circles regarding forensic anthropology. These dedicated men and women devote their life work to unveiling the mystery that lies beneath our flesh and blood. They painstakingly use every available resource to uncover evidence to determine if an unidentified person's remains was only a life lived, or whether it was the victim to something more sinister. They also play a vital role in our own historical beginnings, using history and science to answer the questions that may otherwise remain unknown. As humans we have a great desire or curiosity to understand everything that lay before us, and with the aid of forensic anthropology we might just get closer to the answers!

More about this author: Douglas Black

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