When you find a skeleton in the closet,
when your dog digs up bones in your back yard, and they look human,
when a bulldozer unearths a skeleton, and you don't know if it's from a homicide or an ancient aboriginal burial ground,
who are you going to call?
Your friendly neighborhood forensic anthropologist, of course.
Forensic anthropology is a scientific discipline using the methods of both physical anthropology and archeology to collect and analyze human hard tissues (bones, teeth, and cartilage) as legal evidence. The primary work of forensic anthropologist is the identification and description of skeletonized human remains, although sometimes s/he may be asked to examine a body that is decomposed or burned. The anthropologist needs training in archeology in order to direct or assist in the search for and excavation of skeletal material without compromising the evidence.
First, the anthropologist identifies whether or not the bones are human. If they are, s/he develops a biological profile consisting of the person's gender, ancestry, stature, age at time of death, as well as any trauma that may give clues to the identity of the person, or the cause or manner of death. This information, combined with the work of other forensic scientists, may help solve the case.
Forensic anthropologists usually hold a PhD in Physical and Biological Anthropology. Their course work includes human osteology, anthropology, archeology, chemistry, anatomy, biology, statistics, and criminology. Their primary interest may be in anthropological issues, or in forensic science. Even with all this education, they may have trouble finding a full-time job in their specialty.
Most forensic anthropologists are university professors doing casework as it comes to their university. Some work for the government as medical examiners or in government labs. Others work in museums such as the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa. They may be called on to identify bones and bone fragments that have been sitting in boxes in universities and museums for hundreds of years.
Many are involved in the field of human rights, helping distraught families recover the remains of their loved ones. After the attacks on September 11, 2001, forensic anthropologists were deployed to Delaware to identify bone fragments and teeth of the victims.
Unearthing the secrets of bones is not as glamorous as the TV dramas suggest. Forensic anthropology requires a great deal of meticulous work, and probably will never make you rich. However, for those who are in love with the field, it provides an opportunity both to learn about human beings and to serve them.
Forensic anthropology FAQs
Identifying the skeleton "Earl".