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The Bones Behind "Bones"

Courtney Malpass's picture
Ever watch your favorite TV show and wonder if Hollywood seriously takes into account the main subject on which the show is based? I was watching the TV show "Bones" the other night and an idea for a paper popped into my head; the show centers around the subject of forensic anthropology, its uses to the law and is based on a series of life-based novels written by forensic anthropologist, Kathy Reichs. But what I really want to know is whether or not Hollywood got its science right. I believe that the aspects of forensic anthropology, more specifically the subdivision of biological/physical anthropology, are not portrayed as they should be because the show chose to be focused on the drama between characters and their relationships. I decided that the best way to approach this paper was to just lay out my research and then try to draw from it whatever conclusions I possibly could.

The best place to start would be with the basic scientific subject of the show- forensic anthropology. Anthropology as a whole is comprised of three main sub-fields which are archaeology, cultural anthropology and physical anthropology (1). Forensic anthropology is a sub-discipline of the sub-field of physical anthropology and is primarily used by forensic anthropologists to better understand people around the world; the word forensic is simply referring to the application of this particular sub-field in a court of law (3). Forensic anthropologists often make huge contributions, as far as important research of the collections of human skeletal remains is concerned. The two main collection facilities in the US are the Hamann-Todd Collection located in the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and the Terry Collection located at the Smithsonian Institution down in Washington, D.C. (3). Most people who enter this field of work are usually professors, work with an allied forensic team or work in some type of museum setting as a consultant (3). The show "Bones" focuses mainly on the possibility of a crime-fighting job as being the most common for its forensic anthropologists, but neglects to mention that the other jobs of professorship and museum consultant are more likely to be had (1). This research lends its support to my hypothesis.

Now that the basics of forensic anthropology have been laid out, I can move on to the main focus of this paper- the sub-field of physical, or biological, anthropology. Physical anthropology is basically the study of the mechanisms of biological evolution, genetic inheritance, human adaptability and variation, primatology, primate morphology and the fossil record of human evolution (3). This particular concept was first developed in the 19th century, even before Darwin's theory of natural selection and Mendel's work with genetic research (1). All of the evidence and data in this field are of the physical nature, hence the name physical anthropology (3). As previously stated in this paper, some forensic anthropologists are consultants for the criminal justice system and work with homicide detectives, or in "Bones" an FBI agent, to help with the identification of any possible human remains that have been found at a crime scene. If a forensic anthropologist chooses this line of work they will only be needed to determine whether any kind of sharp or blunt force or gunshot occurred before, at the time of, or after the death of the victim (1). Although on "Bones" this topic is always a part of every episode, the show is representing the forensic anthropologist as the one who determines the cause of death and who committed the crime. While it is true that skeletal remains, when examined carefully, can tell the story of the person's life up until their time of death, they can not tell who exactly is responsible for the crime; besides that is not in a forensic anthropologist's job description (1). They can, however, testify in court for a case as an eyewitness for scientific purposes only (1). "Bones" does an excellent job at portraying courtroom testimonies from the different forensic anthropologists on the show; they keep it strictly scientific no matter what the case subject may be. So in this respect, Hollywood did its research thoroughly and has portrayed that aspect correctly, giving evidence that does not support my original hypothesis. However, since the show focuses on the relationship between the FBI agent and the main female forensic anthropologist, it leaves out the fact that the criminal justice system does not rely as much on the forensic anthropologist as it makes it out to be; I believe it does this on purpose so that the main characters have more interaction on screen. This research is supporting of my hypothesis.

I believe it is important to discuss the different processes that a forensic anthropologist might use in order to determine the identity of human remains. On the show, the main character's assistants/colleagues have different areas of specialties of skull reconstruction, DNA profiling and carbon dating, and entomology that when combined help unravel the mystery of the unidentified remains. Let us start with the area of entomology first since it is the easiest to explain. Entomology is the study/science of insects (4). With this part, we can see what happened to the remains after death; we can see this because different insects will inhabit different parts of the remains at different times (2). We also can tell how long since the time of death and where the remains have been if they were moved at any time between the time of death and the time of discovery by keeping in mind that different insects inhabit different parts of the country (1). The character on the show who specializes in this field is portrayed very well and the show does "get it right" when the topic of entomology comes into play. So therefore, this research does not support my hypothesis.

Next we shall try to explain the concept of skull reconstruction and how that helps with the identification of remains. Basically, skull reconstruction is exactly what it says- the reconstructing of the skull to determine identity. There are two ways to go about this; one way is to make a 3-D clay model based on the reconstruction or compile a 2-D picture using advanced computer technology, on which the show is focused (2). The method for rebuilding the skull is the same whether one uses a 2-D or 3-D approach. First, one assembles the skull as best they can, possibly spending days trying to fit together the tiny fragments of skull that have been found (2). Secondly, one puts in tissue depth markers in various points on the skull; this is to give an idea of the depth of flesh at various points on the skull (2). The markers are already made in the sense that they are averages of sex, race, height, weight, and so on; despite being very general they work very well as long as an educated guess has been made about the race, sex, height, weight, etc. of the owner of the remains (1). Then you would sculpt/program anatomical structures like eyes and muscles to give the face a shape, based on the observations made from the tissue depth markers (2). And the last step in this process would be adding the external features of ears, lips, eyelids, nose, hair and skin color (2). Once the procedure is complete we are left with a very real, life-like portrayal of the person who owned the bones before death; so essentially skull reconstruction is a combination of detailed forensic science, archaeological method and artistic imagination (2). On the show, the character who deals with this part usually uses the 2-D approach on a fancy hologram computer; sometimes the character draws the subject but has yet to use the 3-D approach. Once again, this research has proven my hypothesis to be false.

Moving on to the last process of DNA profiling and radiocarbon dating, the show does not really portray this aspect at all despite it being a huge part of forensic anthropology. DNA profiling is most often used within the criminal justice system and is useful in determining criminals and victims as well as identifying remains found at archaeological excavations. The profiling is a very complicated process. First enzymes are used to cut the strands of DNA into pieces of varying lengths and then separating them by an electric current (2). They are then labeled with a radioactive substance that will show up in X-rays (2). Finally, and X-ray of the fragments is taken and when the results show up they look like a simple bar code but are really someone's genetic make-up (2). Most of the time DNA from the mitochondria is used because it is more stable than DNA from the nucleus and easier to read on the X-ray results; however, it is harder to test and it can only indicate relationships/identity through the maternal line (2). As for radiocarbon dating, forensic anthropologists do not use the technique/process unless they are working with something many, many years old; radiocarbon dating is simply measuring the amount of Carbon 14 that is left in the remains in order to determine when the person died (4). Not much of this is mentioned on the show because there are not many "cases" that deal with thousands-of-years-old remains; it is more of a contemporary/dramatic show and more concerned with what is going on in the lives of its characters. Even though my research showed that radiocarbon dating and DNA profiling are extremely important to forensic anthropology and the show hardly puts a focus on them, it also showed support for my hypothesis.

In conclusion, my research was about half and half although out of the five smaller conclusions I could draw from my research on the separate subjects under forensic anthropology three were in support of my hypothesis and two were against it. Concerning the TV show "Bones" as far as correct and accurate information is concerned, my research proved that Hollywood did do their own research and tried to fit into the show as much as they could while still maintaining a drama-focused prime-time television show. I believe that "Bones" retained a lot of its scientific appeal because an actual forensic anthropologist wrote the novels on which the show is based; I am also more than certain that she had a lot of input in the making of the show. I am glad to say that I have learned a lot from my research; I am a classical culture and society major so I know later on I will most likely be working with a forensic anthropologist in my field of study. I am not upset that I did not definitely prove my hypothesis right or wrong because that's what it's all about- getting it less wrong, not completely right.



Serendip Visitor's picture


I love bones! A lot! It's not Hollywood for the science terminology, it's Kathy Reichs, the show is based off of her books;). She is also a producer of Bones and has a great deal of say in the script, like you said. There are other ways to tell the time of death, like insect activity, decay ect. I found this helpful, but I recommend a little more research (watch more of the show) because the episodes vary and in the techniques they use. In multiple you watch Angela put in markers on a facial reconstruction, or Dr. B recomstructing a skull. They don't just use the computers, mainly for running the face through the system. Nice work overall!

Marran's picture


Nice paper, allthough you chose the wrong show if you wanted to prove your hypothesis: as far as I know, Bones is the most accurate forensic show. Kathy Reich, who wrote the books and is a forensic anthropologist herself, is also a producer of the show and makes sure that the science is accurate. So in this case, "Hollywood" didn't have much to do with it. Try the subject on another show and I'm sure you'll get another result :)

And for the record, I am sure I've seen Angela make 3-D clay models too...


scott's picture

Radio Carbon and DNA

Hi Courtney,

thanks for your article. Well said. My wife watches Bones quite often, and I am exposed 'second hand.' I found your paper because I was searching to find others who were just as outraged by the ridiculous reference to carbon dating in a recent show. Ostensibly, they were going to use carbon dating to determine if a corpse was 40 or 80 years old at the time of death, as there was a disagreement between two specialists for plot enhancement. I would like to add to your analysis the argument that carbon dating only works for items that have been done respiring for thousands of years, not because of the inaccuracies of the analysis, per se, but because of the statistical uncertainty in the local quantities of 14C where the dead bugger was respiring.
Also, about the DNA profiling: for fresh DNA, the process is much simpler, involving no radioactivity and the polymerase chain reaction to amplify the amount of DNA including regions that vary in length from person to person, so called microsatellites. Enough amplified DNA is obtained, in several hours or less, to see with your naked eyes when fluorescently stained and properly illuminated.
You seem to be interested in reality, so I must point out that when you say "... X-ray of the fragments is taken ..." this gives one the impression that X-rays are passed through the sample, and an image results. Actually, radioactive decay from the labeled sample itself exposes the film. Minor misunderstandings kill people all the time, funny as it seems.

Bones's picture

Scientific Accuracy of TV Shows

It makes sense that many fans of a TV series with a scientific premise would be drawn to the show because of their interest in that particular field. Such fans would almost certainly refuse to watch such a series full of errors and fans who aren't knowledgeable in that field are unlikely to care one way or the other. It amazes me just how many shows don't seem to realize this and incorporate sloppy science into their scripts.

courtney lee's picture

courtney malpass's blog

Hello , I was looking on the internet for information on women, forensic anthropology and this paper of yours popped up. I must say it was great. I have never seen the tv show Bones but my 11 year old daughter Emily decided she wants to be a forensic anthopologist like on the show but was very dissapointed when the show took a more relationship based turn. I really liked how informative and understandable your paper was and will be sharing it with Emily. If you have any information that may help me in my search of I would love to hear from you Thank you for how you approached your paper and broke it down so beautifully. Courtney Lee, Hawaii