The Forensic Antropologist

Robert W. Mann, M.A.
Douglas H. Ubelaker, Ph.D.
Physical Anthropologists Department of Anthropology Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

This Article Originally Appeared in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, July 1990.

In recent years, just as the investigation of a crime scene has become more complex and sophisticated, so has the task of the forensic anthropologist. Forensic anthropologists assist medical and legal specialists to identify known or suspected human remains.

The science of forensic anthropology includes archeological excavation; examination of hair, insects, plant materials and footprints; determination of elapsed time since death; facial reproduction; photographic superimposition; detection of anatomical variants; and analysis of past injury and medical treatment. However, in practice, forensic anthropologists primarily help to identify a decedent based on the available evidence.

For example, when a skeleton found in a wooded area is brought to a morgue or an anthropologist’s laboratory for examination, the first step is to determine whether the remains are human, animal, or inorganic material. If human, an anthropologist then attempts to estimate age at death, racial affiliation, sex, and stature of the decedent.

If the skeleton shows evidence of prolonged burial or is accompanied by coffin nails or arrow points, it usually represents an historic or prehistoric burial rather than a recent death. Construction crews frequently unearth such skeletons during road or housing excavations. After combining all of the evidence, the anthropologist determines the skeleton’s possible significance to medical and legal authorities.

Although the primary task of anthropologists is to establish the identity of a decedent, increasingly they provide expert opinion on the type and size of weapon(s) used and the number of blows sustained by victims of violent crime. It should be noted, however, that forensic pathologists or related experts in forensic medicine determine the cause or manner of death, not the forensic anthropologist.

Most anthropologists have advanced degrees in anthropology and have examined hundreds of remains. They are also thoroughly familiar with human anatomy and how it varies in different populations. Some anthropologists may also have experience in police science or medicine, as well as in serology, toxicology, firearms and toolmarks identification, crime scene investigation, handling of evidence, and photography. A limited number of anthropologists deal with footprint analysis and species identification of carrion insects in relation to estimating time elapsed since death.

Perhaps the anthropologist’s most valuable skill is familiarity with subtle variations in the human skeleton. Although most adult skeletons have the same number of bones (206), no two skeletons are identical. Therefore, observations of patterns or unique skeletal traits frequently lead to positive identifications. The most frequently used method for identification is to compare before- and after-death dental photoimages. If such photoimages do not exist, or if they are unavailable, then old skeletal injuries or anatomical skeletal variants revealed in other photoimages may provide the comparative evidence necessary to establish a positive identification.

Hypothetical Example

Suppose hunters find a partially clothed skeleton lying on the ground in a heavily wooded area with much of its clothing torn and scattered by carnivores. Law enforcement officers are called to the scene, as is the medical examiner or nonphysician coroner. The scene is photographed in detail, and the skeleton is examined and photographed before being removed to the city morgue.

At the morgue, the medical examiner examines the remains for evidence of trauma, such as stab marks in the shirt, blunt trauma to the skull and mandible, and broken bones. Photoimages and photographs of the body show that no bullets or pellets having been noted. Also, examination of the clothing reveals no wallet or other personal identification.

The medical examiner determines through measurement of the pubic area that the remains are those of a middle-aged adult male. There is no evidence of facial or head hair to aid in determining racial affiliation. From measurements taken at the scene, the examiner roughly estimates the stature. Also, a forensic odontologist is called in to take dental photoimages. Although the decedent has a number of large dental cavities, he shows no restorations or evidence of having seen a dentist. At this point, the medical examiner requests assistance from a forensic anthropologist, who conducts further study of the remains in the laboratory.