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What is Forensic Anthropology?

What is Forensic Anthropology?
Forensic Anthropology comes from two words. One is Latin, and the other Greek. The forensic part comes from Latin and means as something pertains to the court, and criminal trials were held in the open forum in Rome. So forensic pertains to the court of Rome. The second word is Greek in origin and is split into two parts. The anthropos part means man, and the logia part means to study. So literally, forensic anthropology means the study of man for the purposes of the court.
Forensic pathology is concerned with establishing a cause or manner of death. Whereas, forensic anthropology is about establishing the identity of the deceased. Often, this involves skeletal remains. The forensic anthropologist may assist in single cases such as this where there’s a suspicious death, or a mass fatality event where there has been either a man made incident, for example the explosion in the Chinese chemical warehouse, an accident of nature, for example the Asian tsunami, or an act of terrorism such as the London bombings. Forensic anthropologists are often asked to examine remains that are washed up on the beach or perhaps found by people out walking in woodland or in parks.
Also, people frequently find bones when they start digging in their garden or when there is a building project ongoing such as creating a drive or building a conservatory. Forensic anthropologists at Dundee take over 450 such calls every single year from police forces across the entire length of the UK.
These pictures are real cases from real police forces. What do you think these images represent? Would you start a murder investigation based on either of these? This is in fact an image of a piece of driftwood, and this is a seal flipper. Forensic anthropologists will work with the police, forensic archaeologists, and other experts at the crime scene, or indeed, the burial or deposition site. Forensic anthropologists have a prominent role to play, especially if the remains are what are called surface scatter and are not buried. The bones maybe moved quite some distance because of animal scavenging activity and may be quite difficult to spot due to weathering of the bone through exposure to the elements.
The image on the left shows excavation of some identified graves in Kosovo, and the image on the right shows retrieval of bone fragments from the side of a motor way in Iraq.
Sometimes, in overseas operations, conditions are very challenging such as in the photograph on the left from the war crime investigations in Kosovo. The mortuary in this case is an outside area with no running water or electricity. Despite the conditions, the forensic anthropologist must always work to the highest standards possible. Their job is to provide evidence to the court when someone is to be prosecuted for a crime. The image on the right shows a hospital mortuary in Sierra Leone. The forensic anthropologists working abroad must be prepared to work in every kind of condition imaginable.
When a body is found that is fleshed that is not just a skeleton, it is likely that DNA samples or fingerprint samples will be submitted to databases in an attempt to reach a quick and reliable identification of the deceased. But with skeletal remains, fingerprints are gone and DNA may not be totally successful because of decomposition. But if the deceased’s DNA is not recorded on a database, then the job just got much more difficult. One of the hardest cases is the identity of the victim is not known. The investigative authorities do not know who to talk to, family, friends, colleagues. It is vital that the forensic anthropologist uncovers the identity of the deceased.
When a body is found and it is a skeleton, it is important that all parts are located and recovered. As part of their formal paperwork, a forensic anthropologist will fill in a skeletal recording form. This provides a pictorial representation of which parts of the body are present, and those which are absent. It may even be necessary to search for those parts which are not present, and this may mean following animal tracks and excavating in fox dens and badger setts.

This video introduces you to the role of a forensic anthropologist. As you can see, the role is very varied but fundamentally requires a comprehensive knowledge of the human skeleton.

Remember the images of the real cases? What did you think they were?

The next activity is going to teach you about the main bones in the human skeleton.

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Identifying the Dead: Forensic Science and Human Identification

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