What does a Forensic Anthropologist do?

In a legal setting, a forensic anthropologist applies his or her physical anthropology knowledge. In most cases, forensic anthropology is used in the legal system to help identify deceased people from heavily damaged or decayed remains. A forensic anthropologist can use his or her knowledge to figure out things like the deceased’s gender, age, height, and ancestry. He or she may also be able to provide information about any trauma or disease that has affected the remains.

A forensic anthropologist does not spend all of his or her time working with law enforcement; instead, he or she is called in to assist with cases as needed. Most forensic anthropologists work in academic settings for the majority of their careers. An anthropologist must have a doctorate degree, which requires at least five years of graduate study, in order to work in the field of law. A physical anthropologist must also gain knowledge of the subfield of osteology, which is the study of human skeletal material. Other branches of physical anthropology are better suited to domains like disease research in living patients, human evolution, and brain research.

Law enforcement techniques benefit from the work of physical anthropologists in the past and their research collections of human skeletal remains, in addition to the help of contemporary physical anthropologists. The Hamann-Todd Collection, the Terry Collection, and the William M. Bass Donated Skeletal Collection are three of the most important in the United States. The statistical analysis of such collections assists in the legal analysis of remains. Typically, forensic anthropologists collaborate with homicide investigators, forensic dentists, and forensic pathologists as part of a team.

For determining age, sex, height, and ancestry based on human remains, a forensic anthropologist’s expertise is legally sufficient. In the United States, the forensic anthropologist’s legal authority does not extend beyond this point. Although a forensic anthropologist may assist in determining the cause of death, only the coroner or medical examiner has the authority to make an official statement. More experimental methods, such as facial reconstruction, are occasionally used forensic anthropologists, but the results of such procedures are usually inadmissible as evidence in a court of law. As an expert witness, a forensic anthropologist may testify in court.