Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

An Overview of Forensic Anthropology

SerendipUpdate's picture

Biology 103
2001 First Web Report
On Serendip

An Overview of Forensic Anthropology

Jessica Kiefer

Years of reading mystery novels have left me curious about the tools of detectives. One such aspect that has held particular interest is forensic anthropology. I have always been amazed at the things that human bones can tell us, from how old the person was, where they came from in the world to even what job they may have had. Much of our daily life leaves subtle imprints on our bones. It is information like this that forensic anthropologists use to identify bodies and determined what happened to them. I wantedto find out what forensic anthropologists do and how they help others.

Forensic anthropology is a sub field of the forensic sciences. Forensic science is the application of scientific areas, such as chemistry, within the legal system. Forensic science uses scientific methods and analysis to solve criminal acts. Forensic science has been around for a long time, a book was written in China in 1248 which discussed methods of telling natural death from homicide.(1) Scientific experts have been present in courtrooms since the 18th century and crime laboratories have been a part of AmericaÕs police system since 1930. (1) Anthropology joined the forensic sciences in the late 1930Õs. In 1936 the FBI consulted the Smithsonian's head curator of physical anthropology on a case. Since then the Smithsonian has worked with the FBI on human remains, most recently with using techniques of superimposing photos over remains to determine identity. (2) The American Board of Forensic Anthropology was formed in 1977 to serve as a certifying institution thusly formalizing forensic anthropology. ((3)

The American Board of Forensic Anthropology defines Forensic Anthropology as: ÒForensic 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. Forensic anthropologists frequently work in conjunction with forensic pathologists, odontologists, and homicide investigators to identify a decedent, discover evidence of foul play, and/or the postmortem interval. In addition to assisting in locating and recovering suspicious remains, forensic anthropologists work to suggest the age, sex, ancestry, stature, and unique features of a decedent from the skeleton.Ó ((3)

Forensic anthropology primarily relies on the study of osteology, the study of bones, to make itÕs observations. ((4) By examining bones, a forensic anthropologist can detect information about the sex of an individual, their health, age, traumas received and other information ((4) Varying thickness, scratches and muscle attachment marks on bones can indicate things such as gender, age, race and size. By using this information gleaned from the bones, the forensic anthropologist can make a determination of the identity of the individual and their manner of death. ((4) Forensic anthropologists usually have a Ph.D. and extensive years of training in the field of physical anthropology. Most forensic anthropologists are college professors in addition to doing consultation on human remains.((4) Some work solely in criminal laboratories, in conjunction with coroners and in museums. href="#4">(4)

Forensic anthropology is an applied area of anthropology, most of anthropology is conducted within the realm of academia, forensic anthropology applies its knowledge to a practical problem. Identifying human remains presents many problems, and extensive knowledge and research is required. The University of Tennessee has a somewhat famous research center for forensic anthropology which is often referred to as Ôthe Body Farm.Ó This center comprises of 3 protected acres of land on which bodies are left in various places and states. They are carefully examined to determine rates of decay and other information that can aid forensic anthropologists in making their determinations. ((5)

The facility is officially known as the University of Tennessee Forensic Anthropology Facility and was founded in 1971 by anthropologist William Bass. ((5) People will their bodies to the facility. The anthropologists and students then place them in a variety of situations around the farm. ((5) They are primarily interested in using the evidence to determine time of death by using such indicators as rate of putrefaction and presence of difrent types of insects. Bodies putrefy at different rates in different environments, so the researchers try to create as many possible scenarios as possible, from bodies found in cars to bodies found in houses to burried bodies. ((5) By determining time of death, investigators can review alibis of suspects and determine if they were unaccounted for at the time the victim died. Bass started the facility because he could not find any information on such things as rate of decay. ((5) The Body Farm is visited by the FBI for information for cases and for yearly training operations in which the facility prepares bodies for them to investigate. ((5) Almost all information know about rates of decay is known because of the work at the Body Farm.

One of the newest directions forensic anthropology is moving in, is its involvement with issues of human rights and genocide. Forensic anthropologists are going into areas where genocide and other crimes against civilians have occurred. An organization that employs many forensic anthropologists is CILHI, the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii. This laboratory works to recover war casualties from the Korean and Vietnam wars and identify them. ((4) There are also many forensic anthropologists working with mass graves in Bosnia. ((4) Another such organization is the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Team. It was founded in 1991 to examine mass graves of civilians that were killed during the early 1980Õs.((6)v During this time the military took control of rural villages and killed many people to control and terrorize other rural citizens. ((6) The GFAT estimates that 100,000 were killed and 40,000 disappeared during the thirty years of violence. ((6)

The Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Team has posted several case synopses on their website. These synopses present a good look at how forensic anthropologists work and the types of information they can find. One of these cases took place in 1992 near the small village of Tunaja. ((7) At the village they found eight bodies. One victim was found partialy beruied under a collasped ravine wall near a creek bed. Some of the remains had washed away. With the remains they found, they were able to determine what happened to this man in the last moments of his life.

By looking at marks on his skull, the team ascertained that he had been struck by a machete. ((7) Difrent instruments leave difrent marks on bone. They recovered his left femur which still had a bullet lodged in it. By examining how the bullet was lodged in the bone, the team was able to reconstruct the path of the bullet and determined that the man had been hit from behind and was probably running when hit. ((7) They believe the last injury the man suffered was a broken tibia. They feel that the man was struck with a machete, then started to run away from his attackers. They shot him. He then jumped down into the ravine where his body was found, in jumping he broke his leg and possibly his neck. After he fell, part of the ravine wall was purposefully collapsed around him, to hide evidence of his death. ((7) His family was only able to properly mourn him after the team proved what had happened to him. To acknowledge his death beforehand could have put them at risk to follow his fate. ((7) The team notes that because of their investigations, they have been able to prove many of the atrocities of the civil war in Guatemala and are further working to uncover more evidence.

Forensic anthropologists also work at sites of mass disaster. In recent news, forensic anthropologists may prove useful at the site of the World Trade Center. Most remains will be fragmentary at best. Other forensic scientists will work with soft remains, but bone pieces will be sent to forensic anthropologists. ((8) The forensic anthropologists should be able to use markers on the bone fragments to determine age or gender, which will help narrow down the victims identity. Final determination will have to be done primarily with DNA samples. ((8)

Forensic anthropology is a varied field dedicated to uncovering the truth about human remains. By applying knowledge of physical anthropology to criminal investigations, forensic anthropology is able to help solve crimes against individuals and against human rights.


WWW Sources

1) Standardization News

2) History of Smithsonian - FBI Collaboration in Foresnic Anthropology

3) American Board of Forensic Anthropology

4) Website of A. Midori Albert, Ph.D. forensic anthropologist

5) CNN report on William Bass

6) Website of GFAT

7) GFAT website on Tunaja investigation

8) CNN report



Comments made prior to 2007

Hi my name is Katrina Woodland, and I was wondering if you could send me some information on forensic science. I am doing an essay for my school. I am in 7th grade. Us students have to write an essay on what we want to be when we grow up. I would like to be a forensic scientist and work for the CSI. If you could please send me some information, like, how long forensic science has been around, what towns in the U.S. get the most CSI calls, or any thing else that you can think of. I will appriciate it o so much ... Katrina Woodland, 21 April 2006


Emma's picture

Freshmen Honors English Class

Hello, My name is Emma. I am a Freshmen in highschool and I have to write a research paper about a career I want to pursue when I graduate. Immediately I knew that I was going to write it about Forensics Anthropology. I was wondering if you could possible give me an interview for my paper and/or send me the hours you put in at work? If you could do that, that would be greatly appreciated.

~ An Aspiring Forensics Anthropologist

GleekOut!BONES's picture

thank you

Hello , thank you for giving information for my I-Search paper.

Anonymous's picture

Pros & Cons

I am doing a project for my law class. And I am doing my subject on Forensic Anthropology. I was wondering if i could get an input of the pro's and con's of this career? If you can help me please respond a.s.a.p.

Thank you,

- Anjuman

Anonymous's picture

Help Please again!

Hello its help please?! again sorry i did not finish off my question=T
OK so my assignment is due in like 2 days and i really need some professional info!
1. wages in USA or UK
2. the employment rates and how many people are currently in the forensic anthropology career in USA and UK
3. i know this will sound random but how the Anthropologists dress
4. what is the brief overview of the job

thank-you again could it please be professional information!

Anonymous's picture

Help please?!

I have an assignment on forensic anthropology and I need a few questions anwered, can any one help me??? much is the average wage for anthropologists
and like all the stuff on buisness details?
i have to go so i will check back later please could someone help me.
if u dont mind can i please have proper and reliable infomation

Kayla Padilla's picture

I wanted to ask you a few quetions

I am doing a project on forensic anthropology for my forensic science class and I was wondering if you could answer a few quetions for me.

1. What type of education do you need to become a forensic anthropologist?
2. How many hours do forensic anthropologist normally work a week?
3. What type of techniques are used by forensic anthropologist?
4. When a student gets out of college to become a forensic anthropologist how much money do they normally make a year?

Thank you so much for your time and helping me when my project.

Anonymous's picture

What type of hours does a

What type of hours does a forensic anthropologist generally work? Also approx. how much per year will they make?

Anonymous's picture

FA job info

I took several FA classes at the Univ of Memphis a few years ago from some of the top instructors in the field: tool mark expert Dr. Steve Symes, former Memphis Medical Examiner Dr. O.C. Smith, FA Director for Harris Co. SC Dr. Jennifer Love, to name a few. Dr. Love and Dr. Symes both studied under Dr. Bill Bass at UT Knoxville. Dr. Symes (now at Mercyhurst College) was fond of pointing out that FAs are always on call, but in FA, there are no emergencies - therefore, the hours on a scene are often long once you get started, but you don't necessarily have to roll out of bed at 2 a.m. for a scene, either. When there's no active scene, lab hours are what you make them, within reason. As far as the pay, it depends on your degree and experience and of course who's paying you, but Dr. Symes would only mystically tell us that it's not bad, but we would never get rich doing FA. Hope this helps!


Yes, I was actually looking

Yes, I was actually looking for that as well online when I stumbled upon this. If there is any way you could also send me the hours a forensic anthropologist usually works for (or what they're supposed to work for) that would be awesome!

Thank you!

Courtney Baker's picture

i was wondering if you could

i was wondering if you could send me any information on hour many hours a week a forensic anthropologist works for a report im doing on what i want to be when i get out of school