|Anthropology lab at the Smithsonian|
First, a quick summary description: forensic anthropologists work with human remains in a medico-legal context. They typically work with remains with no soft tissue or where the soft tissue is so decomposed that features of the flesh are no longer recognizable. In other words, forensic anthropologists look at bones, teeth, and the other hard tissues of the human body in the context of a criminal investigation. Primarily, they assist in the identification of remains and with details of injury, pathology, and sometimes the circumstances surrounding the death of the individual.
So, with that in mind...
The Top Ten Things You Never Knew About Forensic Anthropology
- One of the most common duties of people who work in forensic anthropology is often simply to assist the police in collecting skeletal remains from crime scenes. Police are often not trained in the recognition of human hones, nor in the best practices for handling those remains.
- Before bones can be examined or analyzed, the remains must almost always be macerated or boiled to remove flesh and connective tissue that clings to the bones and obscures important features. Yes, it smells as bad as you probably think it does.
- Forensic anthropologists officially gives ranges and likelihoods. Remains are consistent with those of a white male in this thirties, probably about 6'1". Even when they do a facial reconstruction, it's not for the purposes of positive identification.
- Looking at just the bones, you can often tell a lot of detail about an injury -- the entrance and exit of a bullet, the first place that someone was struck by an object, whether damage to a bone was an antemortem (before death) injury or the result of postmortem (after death) activity.
- The closest forensic anthropologists get to positive identification is in comparing recent injuries to x-rays or (far, far, far more common) in comparing the teeth of the deceased to dental x-rays or records.
- There are a lot of circumstances that can naturally mummify a corpse. One of the most tedious tasks facing a forensic anthropologist can be the removal of dried, leathery flesh in order to see the features of the underlying bone.
- It is very possible to look at a skull and tell with a high degree of certainty whether the person was male or female, get a good approximation of age, and often to suggest the ancestral population ("race") of a person.
- Maggots are bad. Cheese skippers are the worst. Don't Google it if you don't want to know.
- No guns, no badges, no police cars. Just labs, calipers, and a twisted sense of humor.
- Forensic anthropologists do not and may not attest to the cause of death. They may describe injuries that that occur perimortem (roughly around the time of death) but only a coroner can conclude as to the actual, legal cause of death.
I'd like to continue to introduce you all to this, one of my most dearly beloved fields of study. If there's anything specific you'd like to hear more about in future posts, please let me know. I hope this top ten ten list was enough to get your mind going!