Forensic Anthropology Definition and History

Forensic Anthropologist Assists with 2017 Wildfires in Santa Rosa, California
Volunteer forensic anthropologist Alexis Boutinn from Sonoma State University, investigates bones found by California National Guardsmen among fire-devastated homes on October 15, 2017 in Santa Rosa, California.

 Getty Images / Getty Images News / David McNew

Forensic anthropology is the scientific study of human skeletal remains in the context of crime, or medico-legal contexts. It is a fairly new and growing discipline that is made up of several branches of academic disciplines brought together to assist in legal cases involving the death and/or identification of individual people. 

Key Takeaways: Forensic Anthropology

  • Forensic anthropology is the scientific study of human skeletal remains in the context of crime or natural disaster. 
  • Forensic anthropologists participate in many different tasks during such investigations, from mapping the crime scene to positively identifying the individual from the skeleton. 
  • Forensic anthropology relies on comparative data housed in donated repositories and digital data banks of information.

The primary focus of the profession today is determining the identity of a dead person and the cause and manner of that person's death. That focus can include extracting information about the individual's life and condition at death, as well as identifying characteristics revealed within the skeletal remains. When there is soft body tissue still intact, a specialist known as a forensic pathologist is required.  

History of the Profession

The profession of the forensic anthropologist is a relatively recent outgrowth from the broader field of forensic sciences in general. Forensic science is a field which has its roots at the end of the 19th century, but it didn't become a widely practiced professional endeavor until the 1950s. Early anthropologically-minded practitioners such as Wilton Marion Krogman, T.D. Steward, J. Lawrence Angel, and A.M. Brues were pioneers in the field. Sections of the field dedicated to anthropology—the study of human skeletal remains—began in the United States in the 1970s, with the efforts of pioneer forensic anthropologist Clyde Snow.  

Forensic anthropology began with scientists dedicated to determining the "big four" of any one set of skeletal remains: age at death, sex, ancestry or ethnicity, and stature. Forensic anthropology is an outgrowth of physical anthropology because the first people who attempted to determine the big four from skeletal remains were primarily interested in the growth, nutrition, and demography of past civilizations.

Since those days, and largely due to an enormous number and variety of scientific advances, forensic anthropology now includes the study of both the living and the dead. In addition, scholars strive to collect information in the form of databases and human remains repositories, that allow continuing research in the scientific repeatability of forensic anthropological studies. 

Major Focus

Forensic anthropologists study human remains, with particular respect to the identification of the individual person from those remains. Studies include everything from single homicide cases to mass death scenarios created by terrorist activities such as the World Trade Center of 9/11; mass transit crashes of planes, buses, and trains; and natural disasters such as wildfires, hurricanes, and tsunamis. 

Today, forensic anthropologists are involved in a wide range of aspects of crimes and disasters involving human deaths. 

  • scene of the crime mapping—sometimes known as forensic archaeology, because it involves using archaeological techniques to recover information at crime scenes
  • search and recovery of remains—fragmented human remains are difficult for non-specialists to identify in the field
  • species identification—mass events often include other life forms
  • postmortem interval—determining how long ago the death occurred
  • taphonomy—what kinds of weathering events have affected the remains since the death
  • trauma analysis—identifying the cause and manner of death
  • craniofacial reconstructions or, more properly, facial approximations
  • pathologies of the deceased—what kinds of things did the living person suffered from
  • positive identification of human remains 
  • acting as expert witnesses in court cases

Forensic anthropologists also study the living, identifying individual perpetrators from surveillance tapes, determining the age of individuals to define their culpability for their crimes, and determining the age of subadults in confiscated child pornography. 

Tools 

Forensic anthropologists use a wide range of tools in their business, including forensic botany and zoology, chemical and elemental trace analysis, and genetic studies with DNA. For example, determining the age of death can be a matter of synthesizing the results of what an individual's teeth look like—are they fully erupted, how much are they worn—combined with other metrics considering things like the progression of epiphyseal closure, and the centers of ossification—human bones become harder as a person ages. Scientific measurements of bones may be achieved in part by radiography (photo-imaging of the bone), or histology (cutting cross-sections of the bones).  

These measurements are then compared against databases of previous studies of humans of every age, size, and ethnicity. Human remains repositories such as those at the Smithsonian Institution and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History were assembled by scientists in the 19th and early 20th centuries largely without the consent of the culture being collected. They were incredibly important to the early growth of the field. 

However, beginning in the 1970s, shifts in political and cultural power in western societies have resulted in the reburial of many of these remains. The older repositories have largely been supplanted by collections of donated remains such as those at the William M. Bass Donated Skeletal Collection, and digital repositories such as the Forensic Anthropology Data Bank, both of which are housed at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. 

Significant Studies 

The most publicly visible aspect of forensic anthropology, outside of the wildly popular CSI series of television shows, is the identification of historically important persons. Forensic anthropologists have identified or attempted to identify people such as the 16th-century Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro, the 18th-century Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the 15th-century English king Richard III, and the 20th-century U.S. president John F. Kennedy. Early mass projects included identifying the victims of the 1979 DC10 crash in Chicago; and the ongoing investigations into Los Desaparecidos, thousands of missing Argentine dissidents murdered during the Dirty War.

Forensic science is not infallible, however. Positive identification of an individual is limited to dental charts, congenital abnormalities, unique features such as previous pathology or trauma, or, best of all, DNA sequencing if the likely identity of the person is known and there are living relatives who are willing to help. 

Recent changes in legal issues resulted in the Daubert standard, a rule of evidence for expert witness testimony agreed upon by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993 (Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharms., Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 584-587). This decision affects forensic anthropologists because the theory or techniques that they use to testify in court cases must be generally accepted by the scientific community. In addition, the results must be testable, replicable, reliable, and created by scientifically valid methods developed outside of the current court case. 

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