The Growing Field of Forensic Anthropology

Forensic anthropology basically refers to the application of physical anthropology and human osteology in a legal setting, most often where the body is in an advanced state of decomposition, or is unrecognizable for some reason.

If you ask me, forensic anthropology sounds like an awfully complicated term; so let’s split it in smaller pieces so we can better understand this (the method works with 99% of scientific terms). The word ‘anthropology’ comes from the Greek word ‘anthropos’, which means man and ‘logos’, which means knowledge, while ‘forensics’ is a term applied to a broad spectrum of sciences to answer questions of interest to a legal system.

Even though you may have never heard of forensic anthropologists before, you’ve probably heard about their work. They are the ones who perform facial reconstruction, and estimate age, sex, stature, ancestry, and analyze trauma and disease the victim was suffering. They are a very important part of investigations, and often work side by sde with doctors, policemen, crime scene investigators, or even in the court of law. Mark Hauser

In practice, forensic anthropology has a lot to do with osteology – the study of human bones; why is this? Because unlike skin or other soft tissues, bones are much more resistant and can provide valuable information even if the body is in an advanced state of decomposition. The identification of skeletal, badly decomposed, or otherwise unidentified human remains is important for both legal and humanitarian reasons; identifying the victim is extremely important, and it is one of the top priorities for CSIs. They are able to do this because working with the human remains, forensic anthropologists are able to assess the age, sex, ancestry, stature, and unique features of a decedent from the skeleton.

Forensic anthropology is without a doubt a growing field, but even so, most people don’t work solely in this field, but they rather teach or act as consultants, or are paid witnesses on trial, or just working as anthropologists. The competition is fierce, as there are many people highly qualified to do this job, which is only available after you get your masters degree – as a matter of fact, it is recommended you start it only after you get your PhD.

The work done is pretty straightforward generally speaking: When skeletalized remains are discovered, one needs to establish first if the bones are human. If so, the sex, race, age, stature, weight, and any pathology of the newly acquired skeleton must be established in order to make an identification of the remains, determine manner and cause of death and, if homicide, identify the murderer. It is the job of the Forensic Anthropologist to pursue thesematters, make a report and possibly testify in court. However, most of the times, this is much easier said than done.


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