Forensic Anthropology: Discovering and Examining the Dead

By Lundrigan, Nicole | Law & Order, November 2001 | Go to article overview

Forensic Anthropology: Discovering and Examining the Dead


Lundrigan, Nicole, Law & Order


A construction worker unearths several fragments of bone while digging the foundation for a new home. A missing child's body is discovered in the woods covered loosely with dried leaves and twigs. A small airplane crash leaves no survivors and there is a question of who was actually onboard when the plane went down. A dismembered human leg, slightly decomposed, washes up on the shores of a small lake. A drunken man brags to a bartender about killing and burying his brother in a nearby wooded area.

As diverse as these situations are, each case can benefit from the expertise of a forensic anthropologist. The study of forensics deals with extracting and analyzing evidence associated with a potential crime, and anthropology focuses on people and the cultural variations of the world.

Reconstructing Death

Forensic anthropology, a relatively new but rapidly expanding field of forensics, uses techniques that have been developed during decades of research by physical anthropologists and archaeologists- two subdivisions of anthropology. Physical anthropologists predominantly study human variation by examining skeletal remains, whether prehistoric or contemporary. Archaeologists are specialists at locating, unearthing and documenting information while cautiously establishing contextual relationships.

The same principles of excavation would apply to both a Neanderthal skull and a murder victim buried in a field. Combining skills from both subdivisions of anthropology, a forensic anthropologist can assist in the reconstruction of events that surrounded the death of an individual.

At the onset, forensic anthropologists worked predominantly in labs, and police officials would transport any suspicious material to those labs for analysis. However, a great deal of contextual information is lost when skeletal material is simply lifted from its resting place and brought to a lab. Potentially irreplaceable evidence from the crime scene could be permanently destroyed.,

Today, the value of having the forensic anthropologist in the field has been widely recognized. Forensic anthropologists are important team members who assist in many aspects of an investigation and prosecution, from locating the crime scene to testifying in court.

Most crime scenes that would be of interest to a forensic anthropologist are discovered by accident. Joggers running through a wooded trail occasionally discover human skeletal remains just off the beaten track. Long distance travelers, unable to wait for the next gas station restroom, pull off the highway only to come upon bone fragments from a body dumped over the embankment. But, there are times when a controlled search of a specified area is undertaken in order to identify or rule out the presence of a crime scene.

Search Team

There are various types of areas that are searched, and the nature of the area will define the search method. Methods can range widely from the use of scent dogs to employing aerial reconnaissance, observing a specified area from above in order to identify unusual ground features.

When dealing with a field or lightly wooded area, a pedestrian reconnaissance search is commonly employed. Members of the search team are likely volunteers who will traverse the area in question in a systematic fashion. All volunteers will maintain a uniform row so their visual fields overlap, and will attempt to identify any surface features, such as cloth fragments or bone fragments, that are out of place with the environment.

These volunteers will also be trained to identify soil features that indicate a possible underground disturbance. A depression in the soil suggests that the earth has been recently removed and is settling. Reduced vegetation could also indicate that the soil was disturbed, while significantly increased vegetation suggests a longer period between soil disturbances and also the possible presence of some additional organic decomposition- a shallow burial site. …

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