Anthropology - Other

How Forensic Anthropology is used to Solve Crimes



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The dead speak.

They don't speak loudly, but they'll whisper their past to the forensic anthropologists who come across their remains, and quietly reveal who they were and how they died.

Anthropology is the study of humans and physical anthropology is a sub-field that specialises in human osteology, or the study of skeletons. When the adjective "forensic" is used, it means that the science employed by physical anthropologists is used in a legal setting or court of law. Forensic anthropologists are therefore often called in as expert witnesses in legal cases and during trials to help solve crimes.

When a coroner is unable to identify human remains because they are too decomposed, mutilated or burnt, he or she will call in a forensic anthropologist. The forensic anthropologist's first task is to determine whether or not the bones are human: without a skull, mammal bones of all sorts have been reported to the police by concerned citizens. If the remains are human, the forensic anthropologist will then use statistical variations in bones such as the femur, pelvis, skull to assign age at death, sex, race, and height to an unknown victim. That, combined with dental remains and possibly a facial reconstruction based on the proportions of the skull, can reveal the identity of an unknown individual.

Foul play often leaves traces on a skeleton that reveal the method of death, even though the flesh is long gone. Strangulation damages the hyoid bone located in the throat - colloquially known as an "Adam's apple." Gunshots leave circular wounds on bones, and can reveal the location of the shooter by looking at the edges of the trauma. For example, if a skull has an entry and exit wound, the exit wound can be identified by a beveled edge on the outside of the skull, whereas the entry wound would be beveled on the inside.

Forensic anthropologists can also separate individuals out of mass graves and help bring closure to grieving families in places such as Guatemala and in the Congo. They were called in to help identify individuals after the Twin Towers fell on September 11, 2001, in New York, and they worked to separate the remains of prostitutes from pigs on serial killer Robert Pickton's pig farm in Port Coquitlam, British Colombia.

Forensic anthropology has become one of the "sexier" subfields of anthropology since it started cropping up in mass media and pop culture in the last ten years or so. From the television series "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" to Dr. Kathy Reich's murder mystery series featuring forensic anthropologist Tempe Brennan and the accompanying spin-off series 'Bones', forensic anthropology has become one of the more popular graduate degrees within Anthropology, even though competition for jobs is fierce.

Unfortunately, though, as long as there is a body to find in the woods or charred remains discovered in a smoldering house, there will be a need for forensic anthropologists to listen to the dead and speak the names that criminals and murderers tried so hard to silence.

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