The Forensic Antropologist

The forensic anthropologist’s examination confirms the medical examiner’s findings that the individual is a middle-aged male. However, questions remain that the forensic anthropologist must answer, such as:

  • What is the individual’s racial affiliation?
  • What is the individual’s age and stature?
  • How long has the individual been dead?
  • Is there any evidence of trauma or foul play at or near the time of death?
  • Are there any distinguishing skeletal traits that may aid in establishing the identity?
  • Is there any indication of post-mortem treatment or alteration of the remains?

Racial Affiliation
The question of racial affiliation is difficult to answer because, although racial classification has some biological components, it is based primarily on social affiliation. Nevertheless, some anatomical details, especially in the face, often suggest the individual’s race. In particular, white individuals have narrower faces with high noses and prominent chins. Black individuals have wider nasal openings and subnasal grooves. American Indians and Asians have forward-projecting cheekbones and specialized dental features.

Examination of this skeleton reveals traits consistent with white racial affiliation. Further examination of the skull produces a few strands of straight blonde hair. Microscopic examination shows the hair to be consistent with that of a white person.

Age and Stature
Usually, examination of the pubic bone, sacroiliac joint, amount of dental wear, cranium, arthritic changes in the spine, and microscopic studies of bones and teeth narrows the age estimate given by the anthropologist. After examining the skeleton, these indicators suggest that the man was between 35 and 45 years of age at the time of death.

Estimation of stature can be narrowed by measuring one or more complete long bones, preferably a femur or tibia. If stature estimates are based on incomplete long bones, less confidence can be placed in them. This measurement of the maximum length of the bone can then be plugged into a formula based on race and sex to produce an estimate. In this case the individual’s stature was estimated at 5’7” to 5’9” with a mean stature of 5’8.”

Time Interval Since Death
Estimating the time interval since death can be extremely difficult. For the most part, such an estimate is based on the amount and condition of soft tissue, such as muscle, skin, and ligaments present, the preservation of the bones, extent of associated plant root growth, odor, and any carnivore and insect activity. However, many other variables must also be considered, including the temperature at the time of death, penetrating wounds, humidity/aridity, soil acidity, and water retention. The longer the time since death, the more difficult it is to determine the time interval since death. In this hypothetical example, the anthropologist determined that the individual died 6 to 9 months previously, based largely on the condition of the soft tissue and the amount of root growth in the individual’s clothing.

Evidence of Trauma
After the dirt and forest debris were removed from the bones using water and a soft brush, a number of faint cuts became visible in the left ribs and the mid-back. The number of discrete cuts in three ribs and in one vertebra suggest that this male was stabbed a minimum of three times. No additional evidence of trauma was noted.

Distinguishing Skeletal Traits
Further examination revealed that the male sustained a fracture above his right eye and upper jaw bone at least several years before death. The individual also had a severely deviated nasal septum and presented evidence of a severe chronic nasal infection. This observation is noteworthy because if he sought medical help for the fractures or sinus condition, photoimages may have been taken that would provide an excellent opportunity for positive identification.

Post-Examination Procedures

After the forensic anthropologist completes the examination, the medical examiner provides all information obtained from the skeleton to the law enforcement officials investigating the case. The information is then entered in the National Crime Information Center (NCIC).