What a forensic anthropologist would examine when attempting to identify human remains


Anthropology is the study of humankind, culturally and physically, in all times and places. Forensic Anthropology is the application of anthropological knowledge and techniques in a legal context (Hunter, 1996b). This involves detailed knowledge of osteology, anatomy, and to a lesser degree pathology, to aid in the identification and cause of death of skeletal and severely decomposed human remains. The application of forensic anthropology is specifically useful when human remains are extremely difficult for the medico-legal team to identify, and these remains are often a result of decomposition, dismemberment, severe burning and charring, and submersion in water for prolonged periods (Haglund and Sorg, 1996 and 2001).

It is a fallacy to believe that forensic anthropology applies solely to skeletal remains. In many instances, particularly in the United Kingdom, a forensic anthropologist is required to analyse remains with partial soft tissue. The geographical magnitude of the United States usually dictates that the American forensic anthropologist will encounter more skeletonised remains than those still possessing soft tissue (Uberlaker and Scammell, 2000), however, the opportunities for cadavers to decompose to a fully skeletonised state are severely reduced in the UK. Similarly, there are specific instances where remains can be uncovered in varying states of entirety, including mass disasters, such as train and aircraft accidents, and instances involving human rights infringements (Cox, 2003). However, in the United Kingdom, forensic anthropology is yet to be nationally accepted or acknowledged as a credible and valuable addition to the forensic science armoury, and until recently, the number of cases involving forensic anthropologists has been limited. Although the trained and accredited forensic anthropologist has the capability to undertake a wide range of analyses, and has the potential to add greatly to the field of forensic science, this essay will briefly outline the predominant methodologies employed by the forensic anthropologist in the identification of human remains.

Age and sex estimation

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The uses of forensic anthropology in cases where human remains are not easily identifiable centre around five basic questions which the discipline is uniquely empowered to answer: Whether the remains are human; the number of individuals represented; the interval of times since death; the identification of the individual; and the cause and manner of death (Menez, 2005). Part of that identification is the determination of the age at death and sex of the individual. The topic is immense, however, superficially the process of age determination involves three foci of analysis: tooth eruption and erosion; epiphyseal closure; and the length of the long bones (Hunter et al., 2001; Byers, 2004).
Similarly, determination of sex is possible via the analysis of the pelvis, the cranial and mandible characteristics, and the diameter of the femoral and humeral head. As a general rule of thumb, males usually present a more prominent brow ridge, nuchal crest, glabella and gonal angle. Women have a wider pelvis, a wider sciatic and less pronounced cranial characteristics.

Stature and race evaluation

Forensic anthropologists can use formulae to determine height based on the length of long bones. The longest bone, the femur, is most applicable for analysis, however estimations are also possible from the metacarpals in the hand. Anthropologists are able to establish the individual’s weight by the wear on the bones at certain characteristic points. They can also verify an individual’s general physique from the ridges created via muscle attachments. From muscle attachment characteristics, it is possible to determine whether the individual was right- or left-handed as there will usually be more muscle attachment evidence exhibited on the bones on the dominant side. An intact corpse can be measured, but a disarticulated or incomplete skeleton has to be pieced together. One generic rule of thumb is that height is about five times the length of the humerus, however there are formulas for height based on other major bones as well, including the spine, tibia, and femur (Black, 2003).

Through the application of forensic anthropology it is possible to identify the racial group to which an individual belongs by examining the anthropometric landmarks of the cranial vault. One of three races can be determined from variations in the facial structure, especially the nose and eye sockets. Facial or head hair, when presented on the human remains, can also help determine race.

Evaluation of pathologies

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It is possible via forensic anthropology to determine if a victim was ever injured or experienced trauma. Predominantly, this involves trauma exhibited on the hard tissue, however, in cases of partial decomposition, soft tissue trauma may also be evaluated and established (Pickering and Bachman, 1996). In the case of a suspected victim, detected bone trauma can be compared with an individual’s medical X-rays to confirm identity, and the same identification methodology may be applied with regard to dentition and odontological evidence.

It is often also possible to determine the cause of death in a victim, particularly in cases of extreme violence. This is determined by analysing indications of trauma, including stab marks, depressions and blunt weapon trauma usually to the skull, fracture patterns, saw marks in cases of dismemberment, and bullets or pellets in or near the body. If the person was strangled, for example, frequently the hyoid bone in the throat is fractured (Nafte, 2000; Rutty, 2001). It is also possible, through toxicology, for the forensic anthropologist to analysis evidence of poison recovered from hard tissue samples. Determination of cause of death can be of particular relevant in cases of human rights abuse. This is an area which appears to be prevalent globally, and forensic anthropologists are currently in operation in Argentina, the Eastern Block, Iraq and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. These analyses are proving highly successful and are assisting in the case-building and prosecution of former dictators and rebel forces alike (Cox, 2003).

Post-mortem interval

The determination of post-mortem interval (PMI), although relying heavily on the entomological community, the techniques for PMI estimation were developed by prominent forensic anthropologist, William M. Bass (Gilbert and Bass, 1967). Forensic anthropologists are able to approximate the date of death and, the amount of soft tissue that is still present is often the key to determining PMI, although weathering cracks on bones during excessively cold weather or animal and rodent bites may also be used. Generally, females lose one pound of tissue per day during average decomposition; males, in comparison, lose three pounds per day. Acidic soil has a tendency to accelerate decomposition, however, alkaline soil retards it, and the pedology around the body is frequently analysed by both forensic anthropologists and pedologists.

Although most frequently the forensic entomologist is required to estimate the post-mortem interval based on insect activity, this is actually an estimate of the period of insect activity, not the specific post-mortem interval. The two are often relatively similar, as the insects arrive and begin their activity shortly following death, however, in some instances there may be factors that serve to delay the onset of insect activity, and these must be considered (Schultz et al., 2005). Determining if the body has been moved following death is essential for this consideration, and the trained anthropologist is competent in this analysis. It is also crucial for the pathologist and anthropologist to assess wounds in terms of pre-, peri- and post-mortem to accurately determine PMI.


Forensic 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 (Hunter, 1996a). While forensic pathologists are trained to analyze soft tissue and organs, their experience with hard tissue is often limited (Hunter and Cox, 2005). In a relatively recent case for forensic anthropologist Charlotte Roberts, a pathologist had been uncertain whether a canine skeleton was actually human or not, illustrating the value of anthropology to the criminal investigation process (Roberts, 1996). The methodology of the forensic anthropologist was eventually adopted during the eventually across Saddleworth Moor during the Moors Murders re-investigation of 1986-88, and proved partially successful (Hunter, 1996c). The forensic anthropologist specializes in hard tissue morphology, structure and variability, and much of what occurs in forensic anthropology originates from the area of osteology, although some forensic anthropologists may also specialize in body decomposition and entomology. A plethora of further evidence is obtainable and within the capabilities of the forensic anthropologist for analysis, such as entomology, taphonomy, location of clandestine remains (Hunter, 1996c) and so on, however, the methodology of these forensic specialists is exhaustive.

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