Osteology: Definition and Applications

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Osteology is the science of bones, both of humans and animals. Osteologists work in careers ranging from sports medicine to forensics.

Key Takeaways: Osteology

  • Osteology is the science of bones, both of humans and animals.
  • It can be used in a variety of applications, including criminal investigations, engineering, and the study of human evolution.
  • Osteology should not be confused with osteopathy, which is a type of alternative medicine that emphasizes the healing of the “whole patient.”

Definition of Osteology

Osteology covers the study, identification, and analysis of bones, including their structures and functions. There are two main subdivisions of osteology: human and animal.

Human Osteology

In the human body, there are 206 bones, which can be classified according to their shape: long bones, short bones, flat bones, and irregular bones. Bones are also made of different types of tissues based on their texture—there is compact bone, which is found on the surface of bones and is dense and solid, and spongy bone, which is porous and is found on the inside of bones.

Bones have several functions, which include:

Animal Osteology

Animal bones can differ from human bones in things like their structure, density, and mineral content. Birds, for example, have hollow bones for air sacs that help the birds get enough oxygen to fly. The teeth of other animals can also be shaped differently depending on that animal’s diet. For example, herbivores like cows have wide, flat teeth to help them chew plant matter.

Applications of Osteology

Since bones can provide a lot of information about an individual, osteology is used in a variety of applications, which include:

  • Elucidating the diet and evolution of humans over time, as well as diseases they may have incurred
  • Identifying remains dug up at a historical site
  • Investigating a criminal scene
  • Showing the migration of humans across different places throughout history

Careers in Osteology

Forensic Osteologists

Forensic anthropologist Tracy Van Deest takes an inventory of skeletal bones at the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner on December 9, 2014 in Tucson, Arizona. Getty Images / Getty Images News / John Moore.

Forensic osteologists or anthropologists look at the remains of bodies to aid in investigations with unidentified remains. This study can be done in conjunction with medical examiners who may focus on any remaining soft tissues.

Forensic osteologists can look at a number of factors to help in the investigation:

  • Identifying whether the bone is human. The forensic osteologist can often use a process of elimination to determine whether the bones have the characteristic sizes, shapes, and densities of human bones. Osteologists can also identify whether the remains indicate an animal that walks on two legs, like humans do. If the bones are not big enough for identification, osteologists can look at them under the microscope.
  • Identifying how many individuals were at the scene. If there are too many of a certain type of bone, this may indicate that more than one person is present. They can also check whether certain bones fit correctly against each other.
  • Fitting a profile to the unknown remains. Based on factors such as tooth growth and the size and morphology of bones, forensic osteologists can figure out the age and sex of the humans.
  • Reconstructing events like the cause of death. For example, the bones may differ depending on whether the person was hit with a sharp or blunt object. The forensic osteologist may also figure out what may have happened to a body after death, such as if it had been rained on or damaged by plants.

Physical Anthropologists

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Physical (or biological) anthropologists study the diversity and evolution of humans. For example, if you’ve ever seen a picture of how humans evolved from monkeys, or how the jaws of humans evolved over time, those pictures were probably figured out by physical anthropologists.

To figure out exactly how humans evolved over time, physical anthropologists rely on osteology to piece apart the lives of individuals by looking at their skeletons. Analyzing their bones can help a physical anthropologist identify factors such as the diet, age, sex, and cause of death. Such anthropologists can also look at the bones of other primates to piece apart how humans may have evolved from a monkey ancestor. For example, human skulls can be distinguished from chimpanzee skulls in the size of their teeth and the shape of their skull.

Physical anthropologists aren’t limited to just primates, either. Scientists can also study how the bone structure of a human compares to other animals like giraffes.

Medicine and Engineering

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Osteology is also very important for medicine and engineering. For example, understanding how the bones work can help doctors fit prosthetic limbs to a patient, and help engineers design artificial limbs that can work with the human body. In sports medicine, bones can also help predict the success of an athlete, and help doctors prescribe treatments that will help bones mend correctly. Osteology is also important for astronauts, whose bone density may shift due to the lower gravity in outer space.

Osteology vs. Osteopathy

Although osteology sounds very similar to osteopathy, the two terms should not be confused with one another. Osteopathy is a type of alternative medicine that aims to treat the “whole patient” (in mind, body, and spirit) and emphasizes the role of the musculoskeletal system in human health.


  • Boyd, Donna. “Forensic Anthropology Best Practices for Law Enforcement.” Radford University Forensic Science Institute, Radford University, May 2013, www.radford.edu/content/csat/home/forensic-science/outreach.html.
  • Hubley, Mark. “7. Skeletal System: Bone Structure and Function.” Human Anatomy & Physiology I, Prince George's Community College, academic.pgcc.edu/~mhubley/a&p/a&p.htm.
  • Persons, B. “Week 8: Comparative Osteology.” UA Outreach: Anthropology Partnership, The University of Alabama, 21 Apr. 2014, anthropology.ua.edu/blogs/tmseanthro/2014/04/21/week-8-comparative-osteology/.
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Lim, Alane. "Osteology: Definition and Applications." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/osteology-definition-and-applications-4588264. Lim, Alane. (2020, August 28). Osteology: Definition and Applications. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/osteology-definition-and-applications-4588264 Lim, Alane. "Osteology: Definition and Applications." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/osteology-definition-and-applications-4588264 (accessed April 11, 2021).