Forensic anthropologists have a bit of a media personality at the moment. TV portrayals of their skills and capabilities make their role in the catching and convicting of dangerous criminals seem like an exciting and gripping career.
In fact, it is often the people back in the laboratory who are effective at working out the information presented by human remains. In sorting out the difference between fact and fiction I found it is actually a lot more interesting than being a crime scene technologist.
Basically, anthropology is the study of mankind, human societies, and cultures. It is an understanding of what makes us human and it can include culture, language, scientific development and other aspects of what makes us not animals.
Where does the forensic bit come in?
As the science of anthropology developed, scientists developed methods to discover things about the person who was once wrapped around a skeleton. They could tell the sex, age at death, the person’s health at death and how tall they were.
This skill is obviously of great value to law enforcement agencies that need to identify human remains and have no other form of identification.
By nature, anthropologists are a methodical group of people. Theirs is a world of meticulous research, of painstaking attention to detail and intense examination of small clues to create a larger picture.
On the whole, the bones they get to deal with are clean. Probably years and years old and apart from the fact it is a human bone they are handling, it’s much the same as handling a piece of pottery or a hair comb.
The reality of fieldwork sends some of them back to the lab pretty quickly.
Working with trauma
But for those who remain, this sort of world size jigsaw puzzle presents a challenge of huge and fascinating proportions.
A forensic anthropologist is often able to drill down into things not immediately obvious to someone without their training. For example, an anthropologist can look at someone’s teeth marks and see if they had a childhood illness.
The forensic anthropologist will look at the whole picture and work out that although the person concerned did have cancer, they were killed by something else. You know the implications of this skill when assessing if a person died accidentally or not.
Where does a forensic anthropologist work?
Contrary to the TV hype most medical examiner departments don’t have the budget to have a team of forensic anthropologists on staff. More often than not, they are likely to be teachers and researchers at universities or colleges.
Often, they will be brought in as a specialist to a situation where law enforcement has a trouble identifying remains, or perhaps where it is important to work out how some remains ended up the way they are found.
It might not quite be the glamorous world of the TV forensic anthropologist, but it remains an essential and necessary skill and is yet another situation where science and intuition work hand in hand.