Forensic Anthropology Theme: A forensic anthropologist examines the skeletal remains which makes significant contributions to an investigation. Forensic anthropology is the application of the science of physical anthropology to the legal process. The identification of skeletal, badly decomposed, or otherwise unidentified human remains is important for both legal and humanitarian reasons. Forensic anthropologists apply standard scientific techniques developed in physical anthropology to identify human remains, and to assist in the detection of crime.
The science of forensic anthropology includes archaeological 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. Forensic anthropologists work to suggest the age, sex, ancestry, stature, and unique features of a decedent from the skeleton.
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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. 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 weapons 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 tool marks 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. A forensic anthropologist makes significant contributions to an investigation. The greatest of these could well be the anthropologist’s intensive training and experience in distinguishing between human and nonhuman remains, determining age at death, racial affiliation, sex, stature, elapsed time since death, skeletal trauma, post-mortem damage and alteration of the skeleton, and establishing positive identification based on skeletal and dental evidence.
Such information can be obtained from complete bodies or those partially destroyed by burning, air crashes, intentional mutilation and dismemberment, explosions, or other mass disasters. In fact, a forensic anthropologist is now an integral member of most mass disaster teams. Through their anthropological training, most forensic anthropologists have knowledge of excavation techniques and mapping that are invaluable in recovering evidence. Consequently, the forensic anthropologist should participate in the investigation of the crime scene and, especially, in the recovery of human skeletal remains.
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 sub nasal 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. 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. ” 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. 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. 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, photo images may have been taken that would provide an excellent opportunity for positive identification.
Forensic anthropologists have much to contribute to law enforcement and would welcome the opportunity to assist in the successful resolution of an investigation. They work to suggest the age, sex, ancestry, stature, and unique features of a decedent from the skeleton. They are now an integral member of most mass disaster teams. Through their anthropological training, most forensic anthropologists have knowledge of excavation techniques and mapping that are invaluable in recovering evidence. Consequently, they should participate in the investigation of the crime scene and, especially, in the recovery of human skeletal remains.