What is a Forensic Anthropologist?

The television series, Bones, has popularized the role of the forensic anthropologist. While the field is hardly as sensational as many may believe, it provides crucial assistance to law enforcement and medical personnel. This sub-discipline of anthropology is mainly concerned with the physical remains of human beings, but unlike pure physical anthropology, it draws on other aspects of its parent discipline to provide a better understanding of those remains. In the article below, we’ll unpack what it means to pursue forensic anthropology as a career, according to the Forensic Anthropology Center.

Written in the Bone

Forensic anthropologists assist law enforcement in a variety of ways. First, they use their understanding of human anatomy as it is shaped by environment and life processes to provide clues about unidentified remains. These clues help investigators to tailor their inquiries, questioning appropriate communities in various locations.

For example, these anthropologists can analyze the carbon content of tooth enamel to pinpoint where the decedent spent their lives. Humans consume carbon in the form of food and water. Different types of carbon isotopes exist in varying saturation in various environments, and in turn break down at predictable rates, which can be measured. Similarly, bone mineralization can be measured, indicating general diet trends and deficiencies that are more or less common among different socioeconomic and cultural groups.

Skeletal morphology and the impacts of disease or environmental stressors are also indicators of both cultural affiliation and general locality during a person’s lifespan. We develop in well-known ways, which are used to identify age and physical sex. But these features are shaped by a variety of factors—disease and nutritional deficiency, presence or absence of atmospheric elements like heavy metals, and even the altitude at which we spend our lives before the age of 25. Forensic anthropologists study for years to read these signs written in our bones.

Location, Trauma, and Interpretation

These specialists also work with law enforcement to interpret violent trauma to the human form, especially that which occurs ante- and post-mortem. In places such as the Body Farm, forensic specialists conduct experiments to determine how many scenarios impact decedents. They offer the results of these tests to law enforcement to establish a timeline for discovered human remains and assist in determining how individuals met their ends.

They help locate and recover human remains properly, so they are uncompromised. While other specialists examine soft tissue, forensic anthropologists have developed methods to clean skeletal remains with as little invasive impact as possible. They then assess and analyze these hard tissue remnants, noting signs of trauma and helping to determine the cause of death. Additionally, they work with forensic dental specialists to identify decedents, and may even be called to testify about their findings in court as part of a legal case.

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The essential role of these forensic analysts cannot be overstated. In many cases, their knowledge base and expertise lead to successful identification of individuals who may have been missing for years. As fantastical as some elements of a popular television series can be, the fundamental role of anthropologists is just as critical to solving both violent crimes and sad accidents, whether recent or decades old. The forensic anthropologist is one part of a complex network of specialists working with and developing new ways to analyze human remains everyday.