Forensic anthropology
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FORENSIC ANTHROPOLOGY. ANTH-430. What will you get out of this course?. Knowledge of the Human Skeleton Understanding of the Process of Decomposition Understand the Processes of Taphonomy Knowledge of Proper retrieval methods

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Forensic anthropology



What will you get out of this course

What will you get out of this course?

  • Knowledge of the Human Skeleton

  • Understanding of the Process of Decomposition

  • Understand the Processes of Taphonomy

  • Knowledge of Proper retrieval methods

  • Understand the Role the Forensic Anthropologist plays in the Legal Process



Course evaluation is based on the following:

  • Osteological quiz 10%

  • Taphonomy Report10%

  • Crime Scene Report 10%

  • Trauma Assignment10%

  • Decay Assignment15%

  • “Journal of decay” 15%

  • Participation 5%

  • Final Examination25%

Osteological quiz

Osteological Quiz

  • This quiz will cover the entire human skeleton. The quiz will be set up as a ‘bell-ringer’ for students to identify and describe bones and bone fragments.

Taphonomy report

Taphonomy Report

  • We will make a tour of the Cayo district in order for students to identify different local environments and the taphonomic forces that could affect a body if deposited in one of these locales.

  • Students are to write this assignment from the view of a criminal.

  • If you had a body you wanted to get rid of where would you put it?

  • Students will describe each environment visited and discuss the taphonomic forces that could be at play on a body:

    • look at the implications for the recovery and identification of the remains, and the factors that could lead to dispersal and/or destruction prior to recovery.

  • Try to show how you could get away with ‘murder’.

Crime scene recovery

Crime Scene Recovery

  • A mock crime scene will be set up.

  • Students will be expected to ‘properly’ establish the crime scene and recover the human skeletal remains.

  • A Field Report based on the findings will then be completed

Decomposition assignment

Decomposition Assignment

  • From the assessment of our pig experiment you will discuss the rates of decomposition of a human body in a tropical country.

  • It is expected that you will need to refer to outside sources on discussions on rates of decomposition in the tropics.

  • This should be roughly 3-5 pages in length.

Journal of decay

“Journal of Decay”

  • A journal will be kept as an assessment of decay.

  • Assessments will made throughout the day – three to four times when possible

  • We will then ascertain how long it takes for a “body” to decompose in Belize.

  • Photos, drawings, and notes should be made of the observations seen each day.

What is forensic anthropology

What is Forensic Anthropology?

“anthropology” = the study of


“forensic” = argument to a court during a trial.

What is forensic anthrology

What is Forensic Anthrology?

  • Applied Anthropology – Biological Anthropology

  • Application of

    – Human Osteology

    - Archaeological Field Method

    to the LEGAL process

    These methods aid law

    enforcement in the collection

    & analysis of the human

    remains to establish the

    biological profile & cause or death

Detail from Albinus, 1747

Forensic anthropologists recover analyze human remains for the police coroners

Forensic anthropologists recover & analyzehuman remains for the police & coroners.

Forensic sciences


  • The fields of study in medicine & jurisprudence that deal with legal issues: criminal & civil

  • Specialists have evolved to focus on the specific aspects of their disciplines most useful to the courts

  • A Forensic Scientist comes from a scientific discipline, such as: Chemistry, Biology, Medicine, Anthropology

Why forensic anthropology

WHY Forensic Anthropology?

  • A Biological Anthropologist, usually specializing in Osteology/Bioarchaeology can be a Forensic Anthropologist when asked to assist in a legal investigation involving the decomposed or skeletonized human remains when the identity of the individual(s) is unknown or the cause/manner of death unknown.

Individual skeletal remains

Individual skeletal remains &…

When decomposition of the body inhibits an identification of the individual

when decomposition of the body inhibits an identification of the individual.

Jon Jefferson

Forensic anthropology

When the remains still have flesh, but it is difficult to determine age or trauma that may have impacted the skeleton

BBC In pictures: Burma aid effort

When the remains have been cremated

When the remains have been cremated

When there is a mass disaster 911 plane crash

When there is a mass disaster (911, plane crash)

Members of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command and local villagers work together excavating a crash site in Dong Hoi, Vietnam, July 16, 2006. A 15-member JPAC team including a forensic anthropologist, …. will be working in Vietnam for a month attempting to recover the remains of pilots that crashed in the area during the Vietnam War.

(U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Derrick C. Goode)

Or when there are international human rights cases east timor guatemala argentina rwanda

Or when there are International Human Rights Cases (East Timor, Guatemala, Argentina, Rwanda……)

El Salvador, 1992.An Argentine forensic anthropology team worker helps excavate the site of the El Mozote massacre, where a Salvadoran army battalion killed about 800 villagers, almost half of them children. Credit: Daniel Muzio

Historic cases

Historic Cases

  • Francisco Pizarro

  • The Romanov’s

  • The “Ice Man”

Fa generally cannot do


  • autopsies

  • make the final determination of cause or manner of death (this is the job of the pathologist,coroner, or medical examiner);

  • make final positive identifications on the basis of dental or medical x-rays (a forensic odontologist or radiologist is best trained to do this).



  • Are the remains human?Depending on the level of decomposition, animal remains are often mistaken for human remains. Common techniques employed are skeletal morphology, radiography, and histology.

  • When did the individual die?

    Pinpointing time of death is critical evidence for crime scene investigators. Methods vary depending on whether the remains are prehistoric, historic, or recent. For recent remains, techniques vary based on the condition of the remains: fresh, decomposed, mummified, or skeletalized. Procedures include analysis using chemical tests, entomology, and investigation of context / associated artifacts.

  • Who is the individual?

    Remains are often delivered with no idea as to their identity. Discovery of sex, age, ancestry, height, and individuating characteristics are used to help determine identity. 

  • What was the manner of death?

    Detailed investigation as to the exact cause of death often answers many other questions. For decomposed remains, more common methods involve the analysis of skeletal trauma and bone fracture. 

  • What happened to the individual after death?

    Remains can be altered by humans attempting to destroy evidence, animals, insects and many other factors.

The dead can talk


  • The identification of the dead is most important. 

  • The first step in a homicide investigation is to identify the victim. 

  • This concerns relatives of the deceased & judicial authorities who need to know about someone’s death to process wills, estate settlements, and so forth. 

Detail from Cheselden, 1741

Who are the unidentified

Who are the Unidentified?

  • Any unidentified body/remains as a result of:

    • Homicide

    • Accident in remote area

    • Suicide

    • Genocide

    • Mass disaster

    • MIA – war dead

Why is identification important

Why is Identification Important?

  • Locate a missing person

  • Identify the cause & manner of death

  • Identify the perpetrator, if a homicide

  • Prosecute the murderer in a court of law

Not just for legal matters

Not Just For Legal Matters

  • Those who have ‘disappeared’ leave behind loved ones wondering what happened: Still alive? Dead? Where? Why?

  • There is a sense of relief & closure for families when the bodies of loved ones are found

  • As well as empowerment through the process of funeral rights

The unidentified

The Unidentified

A poster encourages relatives of Srebrenica massacre victims to give a blood sample at the International Commission on Missing Persons' (ICMP) Podrinje Identification Project Center 2005, in Bosnia Herzegovina.

(Photo by Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images)

Unidentified remains of 7 Georgian soldiers killed in the S. Ossetian conflict zone. Tbilisi, 2008.

History of f a


  • Forensic Anthropology did not start out as a discipline, but rather the application of Anthropological theory & methods to the legal process.

  • It is not a discipline that one can graduate from, however, there has been much research in developing techniques and acquiring information to make the tasks more precise, informative and efficient

Father of forensic anthropology

Father of Forensic Anthropology

  • Thomas Dwight (Harvard)-

    • Wrote articles & essays (from 1878) of the subject of identification from the human skeleton

    • Also gave lectures on the subject

    • He researched methods for:

      • determining age , height & sex from the sternum

      • Estimating stature without the long bones

      • Determining age at death from the suture closures

      • & estimating sex from the long bone joints

Formative period early 1800s 1938

Formative Period: Early 1800s-1938

In the Beginnings:

  • First date for the use of skeletal information in a court of law:

    • 1850 Webster/Parkman Trial

      • A Harvard Chemistry Professor was charged with killing Dr. Parkman, a missing physician

      • 2 Harvard anatomists, Oliver Holmes & Jeffries Wyman, were called in to examine the remains believed to be those of Dr. Parkman found in Webster’s residence

      • The 2 testified the remains were indeed those of Dr. Parkman and Webster was hanged

Leutgert case of 1897 chicago

Leutgert Case of 1897 - Chicago

  • Adolph Leutgert was accused of killing his wife, then placing her body in a vat of potash in his sausage factory

  • The body dissolved leaving behind a greasy jelly, four small pieces of bone and Mrs. Leutgert’s rings in the sausage-rendering vat

  • Anthropologist George Dorsey was called upon to identify the bones.

  • Dorsey was able to determine that the fragments were indeed human (and not pig) and were fragments of a hand, foot & rib

  • This evidence was added to other evidence the prosecution had and resulted in a murder conviction of Leutgert

Human identification

Human Identification

  • Wilder & Wentworth published a book (1932) on the aspect of human identification looking at dermatoglyphics & the reproduction of the face from the skull

    • This method is still used by forensic anthropologists today

  • Paul Stevenson wrote articles (1920-50) on human skeletal identification,

    • One on determining age from the epiphyseal union of the long bones

    • Another on the stature of Chinese from long bone measurements

    • The underlying theory of these methods is still used today

Forensic anthropology

  • Several anthropologists worked on forensic cases involving human skeletal identification, however nothing was ever published (1920-40s)

    • Include:

      • Alex Hrdlicka of the Smithsonian

      • Earnest Hooton, Anthropology Professor at Harvard

T wingate todd

T. Wingate Todd

  • Cleveland Physician Todd started what has become known as the Hamann-Todd collection of human skeletal remains (as well as non-human primate skeletons)

  • Todd acquired about 2600 persons from 1912-1938

  • What is so important of this collection is that the demographics of most of the individuals is know allowing for the development of standards for determining ancestry, sex, age & stature

Robert terry mildred trotter

Robert Terry & Mildred Trotter

  • In St. Louis, between 1914-1965 Terry & Trotter (Terry’s successor) collected 1636 human skeletons from dissecting cadavers

  • For most of these cadavers the ancestry, age, sex & stature was known

  • The ‘Terry Collection’ is housed in the Smithsonian and is still used for human skeletal research

End of the formative period

End of the Formative Period

  • Ruxton murder case, Great Britian, 1930’s

    • Murder of 2 women: Isabella Van Ess & Mary Rogerson, Mrs. Van Ess’s personal maid

    • Mrs. Van Ess’s husband was physician Buck Ruston

    • The two women disappeared the same time foul odors were described coming from the Ruxton residence

    • The decomposed, dismembered, mutilated bodies of 2 persons were found from a gully in Scotland

    • The 2 principal investigators, Glaister & Brash (not anthropologists), reassembled the body parts & placed them in positions similar to those of photographs of the 2 women when alive.

    • The comparison of the antemortem & postmortem images showed the similarity between the bodies & the photographs of the 2 women.

    • This was added to other evidence and Dr. Ruxton was found guilty of the 2 murders. He was hanged in 1936

Consolidation period 1939 1971

Consolidation Period: 1939-1971

  • Wilton M. Krogman published, in 1939:

    • Guide to Identification of Human Skeletal Material

    • Was written fro the FBI & summarized all that was known about the human skeleton

    • In 1962 he expanded this work into:

      • The Human Skeleton in Forensic Medicine (2nd ed in 1986 with co-author M.Y. Iscan)

      • This was the 1st work to be devoted to the applicatin of the study of human bone to forensics

Us war dead during 1940s 50s

US War Dead During 1940s & 50s

  • WW II – CILHI – Central Identification Lab, Hawaii was created in order to deal with the bodies of killed servicemen in the Pacific

  • Charles E. Snow was the 1st Director, then Mildred Trotter took over

  • Trotter worked on improving ways of determining stature from long bone length using the servicemen skeletons & records of their heights

  • She established formulas that are still used today for determining stature

Korean war 1950s

Korean War, 1950s

  • U.S. Army established an identification lab in Japan in efforts to identify killed servicemen.

  • T. Dale Stewart was the director

  • Under Stewart, McKern undertook a study of determining age from aspects of the servicemen skeletons

  • They published, 1957:

    • Skeletal Age Changes in Young American Males

      • This is still used today

T dale stewart

T. Dale Stewart

  • Worked at the Smithsonian Institute

  • In 1970 he edited:

    • Personal Identification in Mass Disasters

      In 1979 he wrote:

    • Essentials of Forensic Anthropology

      He also contributed to the development of the discipline by organizing seminars on skeletal identification

      In 1971 William Bass wrote:

      Human Osteology: A Laboratory & Field Manual

William m bass

William M. Bass

  • In 1971 wrote:

    • Human Osteology: A Laboratory & Field Manual

Modern period 1972 present

Modern Period: 1972 - Present

  • This period began when Physical Anthropologist in the American Academy of Forensic Science (AAFS) met for the first time in 1972

  • This was organized by E.R. Kerley & Cyde C. Snow

  • In 1977 the American Board of Forensic Anthropology (ABFA) was created

  • It was to ensure the competence of persons who practice forensic anthropology in the U.S. & Canada

  • The ABFA currently there are 62 Diplomates (board certified forensic anthropologists)

  • The Physical Anthropology section of the AAFS has about 300 members

Forensic anthropology data bank

Forensic Anthropology Data Bank

  • Located at University of Tennessee, Knoxville

  • Started in 1986 & continues today collecting info on documented forensic cases so that new standard for determining demographic & other characteristics from the human skeleton can be continuously updated

  • Why?

    • Because it was realized that contemporary people were deviating from the norms established by the Terry & Todd collections, as well as the WWII & Korean War dead.

Also at ut knoxville

Also at UT Knoxville

  • “The Body Farm” at the Anthropology Research Facility was established by Bill Bass in 1981

  • People donate their bodies to the farm (thus the demographics of the individuals are known)

  • Decomposition is studied

  • After the skeletons are removed and added to the University’s skeletal collection

    • There are at least 2 other ‘body farms’ in the US: Texas State University, San Marcos & Western Carolina University, Cullowhee, N. Carolina

Objectives of f a


  • Are the remains human?

    • Important to be able to tell the difference between human and non-human skeletal remains

  • Are the remains recent or historical/archaeological?

    • Important if the recovery scene is to be deemed a crime scene

  • Location & recovery of the buried or surface remains

    • Important to be familiar with archaeological field methods

  • When did the person die; is the location primary or secondary; reburial?

    • Important to be familiar with rates of decomposition; taphonomic processes; are there any skeletal parts missing to indicate a secondary burial?

Objectives continued

Objectives Continued

  • Is it a single individual or several?

    • Need to get an MNI (important to be at the recovery scene)

  • Biological Profile: ancestry, age, sex, stature, physique & handedness

    • Important in trying to find the identification of the individual(s)

  • Identification – is it possible from the skeletal traits/anomalies to get a positive ID?

    • Look for signs of old disease & injuries or surgeries, dental work, etc

  • If signs of trauma are present, may be able to find cause & manner of death?

    • Manner: natural; accidental; suicidal; homicidal; undetermined

    • Cause: disease or heart attack; drowning; hanging; gunshot wound

      • Look for signs of a struggle (broken bones) or gunshot wounds

Discussion questions


  • A body is found that is only partially skeletonized. Under what circumstances would it be appropriate to call in a forensic anthropologist, and why?

Forensic anthropology

  • Suppose that a forensic pathologist, in attendance when the body in above question is brought in, says that she could not perform an autopsy. Would it be appropriate now to call in a forensic anthropologist?

Forensic anthropology

  • The skeleton of Jesse James has been examined on several occasions in the past to determine the aspects surrounding his death. Since little or no soft tissue ws left, a forensic anthropologist (Michael Finnegan) has done much of this analysis. Why do you suppose a forensic anthropologist, who is normally interested in bodies of medicolegal significance would get involved in such work?

Forensic anthropology

  • In an attempt to determine whether they were victims of cannibalism, the skeletons of the companions of explorer Alferd Packer, the “Colorado cannibal”, were examined by a team of forensic anthropologists. Why was it more appropriate for this work to be done by these specialist as opposed to a forensic pathologist?

Forensic anthropology

  • Detail from a copperplate engraving with etching byGovard Bidloo (anatomist), and Gérard de Lairesse (artist), Amsterdam, 1690. National Library of Medicine

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