The skeleton of the unknown warrior lay beneath the courtyard of a ninth-century Czech castle, one hand on the pommel of an iron sword.

Forensic Anthropology and Its Evolution Into the Study of Human Remains

Forensic analyst in full personal protective equipment, kneeling and examine wall closely at a crime scene
Credit: The Open University

Forensic Anthropology is a varying field that we regularly see in mainstream media. From news coverage to soap operas, we know these professionals as CSI – Crime Scene Investigation. So popular, there’s even a TV show entirely on the subject! But forensic anthropology didn’t begin in such a glamourous fashion. In fact, much of what we see today in the media is highly incorrect.

Let’s start by getting an understanding of what forensic anthropology is and where it came from.

 

History of the Field

Full skeleton half buried in sandy-earth
Credit: Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Beginning of the 20th century, out budded a little branch of “Physical Anthropology”. This came from the already existing branches of anthropology. Ethnology (the study of living humans and their culture) and Archaeology (the study of artifacts left by humans) were the primary subjects at the time.

Physical anthropology grew from the need to study human remains. Ethnologists focused on those still alive. Archaeologists focused on things made by humans, but not so much humans themselves. And linguistic anthropology was just getting started.

As time went on, scholars realized how important it was to study human remains up close. Physical anthropology uses a combination of methods from ethnology, biology, and archaeology. Combined, these studies are able to tell researchers more about who a person was and how they lived.

Physical anthropology later grew a branch of it’s own, dubbed “Forensic Anthropology” in the 1940’s. The term “forensic” specifically relates to the use of research and scientific knowledge for legal purposes. When law enforcement learned of it’s use, they were quick to implement CSI in all stations. And so we have our modern field of Forensic Anthropology.

 

What is Forensic Anthropology?

Up close image of atrial skeleton on black foam with “crime scene” tape draped across torso.
Credit: Journal of Young Investigators

Because much of forensic anthropology is helping law enforcement, it’s often classified under criminal justice careers. However, museum and research institutions also require their knowledge. Examining collections or finding new information can be the job of a forensic anthropologist.

Here, we are going to focus on the law enforcement side. Working with crime scenes, forensic anthropologists regularly have to examine human remains. This can be dry bone fragments or rotting flesh.

The University of Tennessee teachers their students through a “Body Farm”. Part of forensic anthropology is being able to examine a body at all stages of decomposition. To do this, people also have to study a body during the decomposition process. At the Body Farm, donated bodies are left to deteriorate naturally in a specific plot for research purposes.

Forensic anthropologists are able to determine a lot from a body. But there are multiple things that do not fall into this field. DNA testing, autopsies, and trace evidence analysis are not part of a forensic anthropologist’s job.

So what do forensic anthropologists do with a body? At the crime scenes, they help law enforcement from body recovery. General analysis is conducted where the body is found. Later, they clean the remains for further analysis and create a biological profile. Trauma can be interpreted to understand the injuries more clearly.

Often, forensic anthropologists will work closely with other professionals in body examination. Odontologists, coroners, and psychiatrists all work as a team with the forensic anthropologists and law enforcement. Court testimonies are frequent job requirements as well. In court, they explain the injuries that took place as a witness expert.

Forensic anthropology is a very detailed study and there is a lot to know about the body and law enforcement. Let’s look at some of the terminology used in the field.

 

Common Terminology

Text bubble of various words associated with ”forensic science”
Credit: DreamStrime

Each field of research in any career has their own terminology and classifications. Forensic anthropology is no different. Especially working with law enforcement, everything needs to be classified and categorized.

Here are some common terms used by forensic anthropologists:

  • Autopsy: A medical dissection of a body or remains to understand time and cause of death.
  • Biological Evidence: Biological matter left at a crime scene. This included blood, skin cells, tears, sweat, and saliva.
  • Biometrics: Physical features of individuals used for identification.
  • Blood Spatter: The way that blood flows from a wound, often used to identify cause of wound.
  • Chain of Evidence: A recording of all access and people in contact with evidence ensuring it is not tampered with.
  • CODIS: The “Combined DNA Index System” that allows DNA to be electronically saved and compared.
  • Cold Hit: When DNA finds no match within the system, or the match is deceased or in jail.
  • Criminal Profiling: The act of profiling, or labeling, based on surrounding evidence. Three types of profiling are:
    • Inductive Profiling: Creating an understanding of the crime scene from direct evidence. Based on previous crime scenes and criminals, general connections can be made for all scenes.
    • Deductive Profiling: Creating on understanding of one specific crime scene, victim, or criminal. Using only data and evidence relating to this scene, they can deduce what did or did not happen.
  • Facial Reconstruction: Reconstruction of a human’s face from remains. Often done with the help of clay and technology.
  • Fingerprint: A unique combination of ridges and patters on the pads of people’s fingers that can be used for identification.
  • Hair Microscopy: Collection and analysis of hair from a crime scene to validate whether a suspect was or was not present.
  • Laceration: Injury to soft tissue from blunt forces.
  • Misdemeanor: Committed crime that has little to no systematic punishment on the criminal.
  • PERK: “Physical Evidence Recovery Kit”, a portable kit that is used to gather crime scene evidence and data.
  • Touch Evidence: Analysis of DNA remains from light touches at crime scenes, such as finger prints.
  • Trace Evidence: Small elements of physical evidence that can give clues to who was at the crime scene and what occurred.
  • Toxicology: Study of toxins and how they interact with the human body.

To learn more about forensic terminology, check out this article!

Specialities in the Field

Three forensic analysts recording a crime scene; two in personal protective equipment, one in a suit.
Credit: BestColleges

General forensic anthropologists understand these terms above and apply them to a crime scene. Evidence tells them about the victim, the criminal, and the events that occurred. Analysis of the entire crime scene works to paints a whole picture. But researchers can specialize in each form of analysis.

Blood Pattern Analyst

Graph describing how blood spatter helps determine place of origin of weapon.
Credit: Physics World

These specialists analyze the ways in which blood is found in a crime scene. Examining the shape, stains, and pools of blood will inform the analysts how and where a person bled. Part of their analysis includes photographic evidence, recording observations, and writing reports. Other elements of their work includes reconstructing the crime scenes and using computer software to analyze potential situations.

Depending on the crime scene, these analysis could be working with large pools or a single drop of blood. At times, they could even be working with blood that is no longer there. With the help of special lightning and technology, they can analyze elements no longer visible to the naked eye. Referred to as trace elements, this can be remnants of blood that was nautically cleaned up, or extremely small droplets.

Firearms Examiner

Two firearms examiners in full protective equipment photographic a gun.
Credit: The Balance Careers

These professionals are experts in firearms, ballistics, and tool marks. Some of their job duties include testing weapons, reviewing crime scene reports, and photographing firearm related evidence.

Chemical etching is done when they need to find a serial number of a firearm. Tracing serial numbers can also be done through electrolytic etching and magnetic processing. Along with firearms, these analysts also work with foot and tire tracking, tool mark analysis, and crime scene residue analysis.

Most of the time, their work is carried out in a forensic lab. But there are instances in which they work at the crime scene as well. Firearm examiners are most frequently on a crime scene when they need to figure out bullet trajectory. Similar to the blood spatter experts, these examiners will also serve as expert witnesses in court.

While certification from the Association of Firearm and Tookmark Examiners (AFTE) us highly suggested, it is not required. However, each professional does need a degree in a related field, such as forensic science, criminalistics, or industrial technology.

 

Digital Forensic Investigator

Side view of woman working on digital tracking and analysis.
Credit: Forbes

One of the more modern branches of forensics is focusing on our digital footprints. These professionals focus on computer-related crimes. Hacking, stolen identities, and information leaks are some of their specialties.

From tracking to information retrieval, these experts are all online. Despite their attachment to the screen, they often help “real world” cases. Corroborating stories or providing evidence as ways that they can help investigators with in-person crimes.

A lot of the time, these experts will work with detectives and other forensic specialists to find digital evidence. Documenting and saving such evidence is crucial to the success of a case. CD’s, cameras, and cell phones are all within their reach to get as much evidence as possible. And just as out other professionals, they are also regularly sharing their evidence with the jury.

 

Forensic Pathologist

View of autopsy room with pathologists in personal protective equipment examine something on table; table is blocked by center pathologist.
Credit: New York Times

Pathologists are experts who study bodily tissues and fluids. A Forensic Pathologist focuses on bodies that have dies suddenly or unexpectedly.

In their day to day, they learn a lot about the person’s cause of death. From many different tests, they can decipher both how the person dies and what caused their death. That may sound one in the same, but they are actually very different. How a person dies is the actual thing that killed them. Such as a bullet wound or heart attack. What caused their death refers to how that injury came to be. Was the bullet wound from an attacker or from themselves?

Along with the body, forensic pathologists will often consider the person’s medical history, crime scene evidence, and autopsy reports. This position requires a lot of knowledge to be effective. Anatomy and biology are a must when dealing with the human body. But these experts also have basic knowledge about toxicology, ballistics and DNA technology. Anything beyond their knowledge, they consult with the individual experts to gain a better understanding.

 

Forensic Toxicologist

Three scientists with lab gear examining a pink vile of liquid.
Credit: National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

As a forensic toxicologist, these professionals focus on the ways chemicals interact with bodily fluids and tissues. Primarily working in the lab, they study test samples to identify any possible chemicals. Using complex test equipment, they can test for even trace amounts of chemicals.

Working in the forensic unit, they test the body for any unnatural substances. Alcohol, poison, or gases in a person’s system will be identified by the toxicologist. This information is used along with the team’s findings to paint a full picture of the person’s death.

As highly trained scientists, these experts document every single step of their work. As the body is part of evidence, their findings are too. Following the chain of command that all evidence does, toxicologists have to be very careful with their data.

While the evidence present in toxicology is very important, part of their job is formulating their own conclusions. Because of this, forensic toxicologists need to be able to prove their point through their data. They cannot allow the data to speak for itself in court.

 

Forensics in the Media

Crime Scene Investigators and Forensic Anthropologists are seen a lot in media. Televisions shows, reality shows, and murder mysteries all center around their ability to solve a crime. But despite such summon place examples, their representation is far from accurate.

Forensic Anthropology

Behind the scenes of television show Bones with two main characters walking in through door.
Credit: GiveMeMyRemote

Many criminology shows involve forensic anthropology, but the most popular television show revolving around it is “Bones.” Kathy Reichs, the producer of Bones, is a forensic anthropologist herself.

Because of her knowledge on the subject, many of the television shows facts are correct. But they’re correct with conditions. For example, all of the technology used does exist in real life. However, it is very rare that all that technology would be ones at one lab because it is so expensive.

Another incorrect area of if the television show is with the processing of information. These story lines make it seem so simple and easy. In reality, everything takes a lot longer. Both the tests and the case can take weeks, if not years, to solve.

From these made-up stories, crime scenes are often seen as being efficient, orderly and consistent. Reality shows that it is much more messy. Investigators get emotional and can’t handle the scene. Evidence isn’t always processed appropriately. But television shows romanticize this laborious work.

General Forensics

Behind the scenes of Naval Criminal Investigative Services TV show, with the main character, Gibbs, checking someone’s pulse.
Credit: CBS

Such misinformation also applies to other crime-related television shows. CSI, NCIS, and Criminal Minds are just a few examples. In these portrayals, a lot of information is incorrect. Crime scene investigators aren’t even called “CSI”. They’re often referred to as CSA – Crime Scene Analysts.

Television also shows the forensic department in charge of the investigation. Reality has the detectives making all of the decisions. Similar to Bones, media portrays other criminal investigation labs with advanced technology. However, this isn’t an accurate representation of labs. Especially small towns and big cities, as they’re often understaffed and overworked.

A common forensic method that is shown as beneficial on screen but not so in reality is dental identification. Both the teeth themselves and the bite mark analysis are used as ways to catch criminals.

Dental records will often be used to identify a person or gather further information. Especially when a body can’t be identified in other ways, dental records can be a great help. However, it is only helpful when the person has their teeth on record before they die.

Bite mark analysis on the other hand is not so reliable. While dental records are useful, they are scientific recordings of a person’s mouth. Because people do not usually bite with scientific method, they are not as organized. Many scholars and doctors have argued against the use of bite marks in court. But they are still consistently presented to the jury as evidence.

Fingerprinting used to be a thing of the future. Identifying a person based on the pads of their fingers was remarkable. From minimal research at the time, people believed that each person had entirely unique prints. These theories lead many criminals to be convicted.

While helpful in some cases, television paints them entirely wrong. Again, portrayed as quick and simple, finger printing is much more complex. Often times, the prints at a crime scene are incomplete or messy. If prints aren’t exact, they’re not easy to match. And when prints aren’t full, they could match multiple people.

To make things even more confusing, scientists found that monkeys and koalas also have finger prints. Without very, very, very close analysis they can’t be separated from human prints. While police aren’t worried about koalas or monkeys committing crimes, it does make it harder to rely on finger prints as evidence.

More than CSI

As we see from the many examples above, forensic anthropology is much more than media presents it as. Both in details as well as depth, forensics is a widely varying field. While simple and thrilling on the screen, reality shows us a different picture.

From Physical Anthropology to high tech devices, this study has advanced in many ways. We see that as it has advanced, it has also grown in expertise. Many specialties work together to create the best analysis possible. Anthropology enhances the field in allowing people and criminals to be more understood.

To learn more about anthropology and more fascinating topics, check out our other blogs at Yoair.

Sources

“A Look at the History of Forensic Anthropology: Tracing My Academic Genealogy.” Journal of Contemporary Anthropology.

“Bones in Forensic Anthropology.” Vassar College.

“CSI Careers: How Real is TV?” Colorado Christian University.

“Dental Evidence in Forensic Identification.” US National Library of Medicine.

“Forensic Anthropologist: Career Guide.” Criminal Justice Degree Schools.

“Forensic Pathologist.” Explore Health Careers.

“Glossary of Forensic Terms.”

“How Accurate are Crime Shows on TV? Debunking 7 Common Myths.” Rasmussen University.

“Koalas have Fingerprints Just like Humans.” Office for Science and Society.

“The Myth of Fingerprints.” Smithsonian Magazine.

“Toxicology; Overview.” American Chemical Society.

“What Does a Bloodstain Pattern Analyst Do?” The Balance Careers.

“What Does a Digital Forensics Investigator Do in an Investigation?” EC-Council.

“What is Forensic Anthropology?” Forensic Anthropology Center.

“What is a Forensic Firearms and Toolmark Examiner?” Crime Scene Investigator.

Leave a Reply