Forensic anthropology

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Forensic anthropology is the application of the science of anthropology and its several subfields, including Biological Anthropology(Physical) and Cultural Anthropology (Ethnology, Archeology, Linguistics),[1] in a legal setting. The adjective "forensic" refers to the application of this sub-field of science in judicial settings both criminal and civil.

The most frequent applications of anthropology are physical anthropology and human biology used in criminal cases (FBI, CIA and military) where the victim's remains are in the advanced stages of decomposition. A forensic physical anthropologist can assist in the identification of deceased individuals whose remains are decomposed, burned, mutilated or otherwise unrecognizable.

Forensic Cultural Anthropology is exemplified as follows:

  • area experts explain the cultural context of criminal behavior [2]
  • as ethnographic interpretation[3]
  • as "cultural defense":[4]


Forensic anthropologists can help identify skeletal human remains, such as these found lying in scrub in Western Australia, c. 1900–1910.

Forensic anthropological techniques can be used in the recovery and analysis of human remains. A forensic anthropological analysis assesses the age, sex, stature, ancestry, and evidence for an estimate of the predominant geographical ancestry of the individual, as well as determine if the individual was affected by accidental or violent trauma or disease prior to or at the time of death. Forensic anthropologists frequently work in conjunction with forensic pathologists, odontologists, and homicide investigators to identify a decedent, discover evidence of trauma, and determine the postmortem interval. Though they typically lack the legal authority to declare the official cause of death, which is the job of forensic pathologists, their opinions are taken into consideration by the medical examiner. They may also testify in court as expert witnesses. Data from some infrequently used techniques, such as forensic facial reconstruction, are inadmissible as forensic evidence in the United States.[5]

In the United States[edit]

Physical anthropology is one of the divisions of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.

Two of the most important research collections of human skeletal remains in the U.S. are the Hamann-Todd Collection, housed in the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and the Terry Collection, housed in the Smithsonian Institution. These collections are an important historic basis for the statistical analysis necessary to make estimates and predictions from found remains. More modern collections include the William M. Bass Donated Skeletal Collection at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

Forensic Anthropology Lab at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.


There are some people who identify themselves as forensic anthropologists, and in the United States and Canada, there are fewer than 100 anthropologists certified as diplomats of the American Board of Forensic Anthropology (DABFA).[6] Most diplomats work in the academic field and consult on casework as it arises.


Forensic anthropology, a sub-field of applied anthropology and physical anthropology, uses a cross-disciplinary approach to determine an individual’s identity, time since death, cause of death, and the manner of death. The discipline has achieved wide recognition in North America and, like other disciplines, it has its own code of ethics for practices among others outlined in the field of anthropology.[7] Forensic anthropology progressed from a peripheral activity to a formally recognized discipline in the early 1970s. Both Canada and the United States have many dedicated professionals in each state, province and territory who work in the field of forensic anthropology; this includes the chief coroner or the chief medical examiner. As part of identifying the individual’s identity the following may be analyzed: age, stature, ancestry, and sex. To evaluate the time since death and the cause of death, many people from the various professional areas in the forensic field may step in; these fields include: pathology, toxicology, chemistry, biology, odontology, entomology, and psychiatry among others.[8] All the professionals in each forensic field are a crucial part of the process of identifying the individuals’ identities.

Even though the discipline of forensic anthropology officially began in the early 1970s, the first forensic paper to be recognized was written by Thomas Dwight. The prize-winning essay titled "The Identification of the Human Skeleton: A Medicolegal Study" was a success in 1878. This successful paper was followed by a successful court case using forensic studies in 1897. Adolph Luetgert was a prosperous sausage manufacturer whose business was beginning to fail. Luetgert claimed that his wife had run off with another man, but a search of his factory led to a foul smell at the bottom of a large vat. There, two of his wife’s rings, a corset stay, and several small bones were found; thus Luetgert was accused of killing his wife. George Dorsey was the first expert forensic analyst to receive a doctoral degree in anthropology by Harvard. He was assigned to the Luetgert case and revealed his findings to the court. Among the bones, rings, and corset stay were other pieces of evidence that made the case a win for Dorsey. This case acquired national recognition and for months, the sale of sausages had fallen as it was rumored that pieces of Luetgert’s wife was mixed in with the product.[9]

Canada has ten provinces and three territories where there are professional death investigators who often have police experience. Most of these provinces and territories have a coroner system where coroners need not be medically trained, except in Ontario. In Alberta, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland, a Medical Examiner system requiring medically qualified investigators to practice as forensic pathologists is employed. Mark Skinner of Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia has provided forensic anthropology service to the Office of the Chief Coroner, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and municipal police in the Fraser Region since 1976. Skinner states that the charges for court testimony is usually paid at legal rates by the representative counsel. As a result, services provided by forensic anthropologists in British Columbia, at the least, are not yet representative of the governmental agencies such as the Office of the Chief Coroner.[10]

Forensic anthropology is still a growing field in Canada and still lacks uniformity in practice. In 1989, a review found that forensic anthropology as a profession was marginalized since scholars in the field were university based without any connections to the police or coroners/medical examiners. Graduate thesis research with a forensic focus began to emerge in the late 1980s and gradually became a more acceptable specialization within biological anthropology.[11] The review article "Taking the Pulse of Forensic Anthropology in Canada" states that “By 2006, it was clear that forensic anthropology and its specializations had grown a great deal in terms of training and practice; however, forensic anthropology remained university-based with few anthropologically trained individuals placed in death investigative agencies or in hospital settings. The lack of standardized training across Canada remained clearly evident”.[12]


Within forensic anthropology are many disciplines of specialists; one of which is osteology. For basic identification purposes in forensic anthropology, osteological analysis of age, stature, ancestry, and sex of the skeletal remains are first determined.[13] The investigator may find evidence regarding cause and manner of death; however, when flesh is still found on the bone, the stage of decomposition is noted and time since death may be more effectively narrowed.[14] When identifying age and stature, a range is given, rather than a finite number. Because an individual's nutrition can affect bone structure, a physiological age is estimated based on the state of the bones. Since lifestyle plays a large role in the growth and decay of bones, it is not possible in many cases to unequivocally determine bone age. Therefore, the age is noted as a probable range.[15] A range is also applied to stature based on the length of long bones, applied to a specific mathematical equation. Different equations have been developed for the sexes and for several geographic populations based on common phenotypic features or metric trends.[16] Estimated stature is given in a range of centimeters.

Osteological traits on the pelvis and the cranium can provide clues as to ancestry and sex. Features such as the shape of the supraorbital ridge, incisors, mental protuberance, mastoid process, among other cranial features are fundamental to the identification of ancestry and gender for the skeletal remains.[17] The pelvis may play a role in the differentiation between male and female. Features such as the pubic symphysis or the ishchio-pubic index can help to identify sex. Theoretically, it is cranial traits that help most with identifying the ancestry of the individual; however, the identification of ancestry is not limited to the cranium.[18] Analysis of age, stature, and sex are not limited to these procedures as forensic anthropologists use a multi-factorial approach to provide these results.


All the procedures for identifying human remains come with a code of ethics both in Canada and the United States. A guide to the code of ethics in anthropological studies, including the fields of biological and forensic anthropology, is provided by the American Anthropological Association (AAA) where ethics in all areas of anthropology are included.[19] When the forensic anthropologist is accused of questionable behavior regarding how a set of human remains are handled, the consequences may be extreme. The forensic anthropologist may be committing a legal offense in which he or she may face criminal charges.[20]

Generally, the application of forensic anthropology in Canada and the United States are identical. However, unlike other disciplines where professionals may be guided on how to instruct students in their field, forensic anthropologists rarely provide formal training.[21] Although professionals in the field of forensic anthropology usually do not have any formal training in teaching the field, there are many dedicated professionals who pass on their knowledge in post-secondary institutions.

Notable forensic anthropologists[edit]

Cultural references[edit]

Temperance "Bones" Brennan is a fictional forensic anthropologist in the television series Bones.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Turner, Allen C. 1992 Prolegomenon to a Forensic Cultural Anthropology. 16:2 American Journal of Trial Advocacy 391. (use of expert anthropological testimony in civil and criminal litigation).
  2. ^ Dang Vang v.Vang Xiong X. Toyed, 944 F.2d 476 (9th Cir 1991); Kwai Fai Mak v. Blodgett, 754 F. Supp. 1490 (W.D.Wash 1991), aff'd, 970 F.2d 614 (9th Cir. 1992).
  3. ^ Kuli Haapi Kaho v. Ilchert, 765 F.2d 877 (9th Cir. 1985); Jordan v. Gardner, 953 F.2d 1137(9th Cir. r'hg granted 968 F.2d 984 (9th Cr. 1992); Schaill v. Tippicanoe County School Corp. 679 F.Supp. 833 (N.D. Ind.) aff'd. 864 F.2d 1309 (7th Cir. 1988),
  4. ^ ; Rentelin,Alison Dundes, The Use and Abuse of the Cultural Defense, Canadian Journal of Law and Society 20.1 (2005) 47-67; Kroslak, Daniel, Honor Killings and Cultural Defense (with a Special Focus on Germany) (June 19, 2009). Míľniky Práva v Stredoeurópskom Priestore, 2009 ; Islamic Law and Law of the Muslim World Paper No. 09-71. Available at SSRN:; see also: IBJ Criminal Defense Wiki at
  5. ^ "ABFA – American Board of Forensic Anthropology". What is the Practice of Forensic Anthropology?. AFBA, Inc. Retrieved August 14, 2011. 
  6. ^ "American Board of Forensic Anthropology". American Board of Forensic Anthropology, Inc. Retrieved March 1, 2008. 
  7. ^ Snow: 101.
  8. ^ Nafte: 3–6.
  9. ^ Snow: 99–100.
  10. ^ Skinner: 192-8.
  11. ^ Skinner: 195.
  12. ^ Skinner: 193.
  13. ^ Nafte: 33.
  14. ^ Byers: 4.
  15. ^ Nafte: 101
  16. ^ Nafte: 122.
  17. ^ Nafte: 115.
  18. ^ Nafte: 118.
  19. ^ Ethical Code of the AAA
  20. ^ Rogers: 1.
  21. ^ Higgins: 318.


  • Byers, S. N. (2008). Forensic Anthropology. Boston: Pearson Education LTD.
  • Higgins, P. J. (1985). Teaching Undergraduate Anthropology. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 318–331.
  • Nafte, M. (2009). Flesh and Bone. Durham: Carolina Academic Press.
  • Rogers, T. L. (2004). Crime Scene Ethics: Souvenirs, Teaching Material, and Artifacts. Forensic Sciences, 1–4.
  • Skinner, M. (2010). Taking the Pulse of Forensic Anthropology in Canada. Canadian Society of Forensic Science, 191–203.
  • Snow, C. C. (1982). Forensic Anthropology. Annual Review of Anthropology, 97–131.
  • A Companion to Forensic Anthropology. Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. ISBN 978-1-4051-9123-4

External links[edit]