Most forensic anthropologists routinely work on individual cases presented to them by law enforcement, forensic pathologists, or other parties. The military employs a group of anthropologists to assist with the recovery and identification effort of decedents associated with military operations, especially those in southeast Asia. Anthropologists also have become increasingly involved in the investigations of mass disasters and suspected international human rights violations.

In 1996 Diplomates of the American Board of Forensic Anthropology reported that they had worked on 1,439 individual cases that year. Of these, 81% had been presented to them by such agencies as local law enforcement, state police, military, coroners, medical examiners, or sheriffs' departments. The remaining 19% represented civil cases; the majority of these were requested by the plaintiff. Of the agency submissions, most originated from medical examiners' or coroners' offices with the military representing an additional major contributor. Also in that year, Diplomates most commonly reported on skeletons, but also on decomposed and relatively fresh remains (Ubelaker, 2000f).


Forensic anthropologists work closely with law enforcement, legal specialists, and a variety of scientific disciplines. Within forensic science the interface is strongest with forensic pathology and forensic odontology. Forensic pathologists conduct autopsies on relatively complete remains and usually are responsible for the overall interpretation relative to cause and manner and death. Forensic anthropologists contribute to that effort and frequently directly interact with the pathologists and related specialists at autopsy or other examination.

Information provided by the forensic anthropologist can be integrated into the overall report issued by the forensic pathologist.

Forensic anthropologists also have expert knowledge about the anatomy, development, and variation of teeth and thus interface with forensic odontologists. Although there is some overlap of interest in regard to dental anatomical issues, forensic anthropologists usually defer to odontologists on issues of treatment of disease, especially restorations and related therapeutic efforts.

Particular issues in individual cases can lead anthropologists to interact with radiologists, surgeons, entomologists, botanists, geologists, zoologists, and many other experts. The nature of this interaction is dictated by the problem under investigation and the experience of those involved.

The following fictitious example illustrates applications of forensic anthropology.

Carl and Myrtle Brown were resting on the front porch of their rural home when they noticed their family hound coming into the yard with something in his mouth. They were used to this, since Fido usually came home with a bone or something similar to gnaw on beneath the porch. However, this was different, the bone looked like part of a human skull. After taking the bone inside and examining it, they decided to call the sheriff's office. A sheriff's deputy responded, took custody of the bone, and called the local medical examiner's office.

When the report came in that a suspected human bone had been found, officials at the medical examiners' office called their consulting forensic anthropologist, a professor certified by the American Board of Forensic Anthropology who taught at a nearby university. Examination by the forensic anthropologist revealed that it was in fact of human origin, of adult age, and likely of relatively recent origin since some odor and traces of soft tissue were still present.

Armed with this information, the anthropologist and the other investigators returned to the scene to try to find additional remains. The owners had no idea where the dog had been that day and a preliminary search of the premises was unsuccessful. A decision was then made to bring in a "cadaver dog," a dog specially trained to detect the odor of decomposing human tissue. After making several circles around the house, the dog indicated to his trainer that he detected the appropriate odor in some brush 200 yards from the house. Investigation revealed that most of the remainder of the skeleton was there on the ground surface, along with some clothing. Careful recovery documented the location of the remains and all seemingly important factors.

Back in the laboratory, the authorities carefully separated the remains from the clothing and other materials. The anthropologists cleaned the remains and began the analysis. A careful inventory revealed that most of the bones were present, except for a few small bones that likely had been carried away by the dog to another location. Some additional bones were found that did not appear to the anthropologist to be human. Consultation with a zooarcheologist at the university suggested they represented small rodent and were not related directly to the human remains.

Examination of the pelvis revealed a wide sciatic notch, broad sub-pubic angle, and many other features suggesting female sex. The bones also were small and gracile as occurs in many females.

The bones were of adult size, all long bone epiphy-ses were united, and all teeth fully formed, suggesting the remains were older than the teenage years. Examination of the vertebrae revealed extensive arthritic change, also apparent on some of the long bone joints. Examination of the extent of cranial suture closure, dental changes, appearance of the pubic symphysis area of the pelvis, and sternal ends of the ribs also suggested advanced age. All the age indicators collectively suggested an advanced age likely between 65 and 85 years.

Features of the face, especially its relatively pointed nature, receding cheekbones, prominent chin, narrow nasal aperture, narrow interorbital distance, and the sharply defined border of the inferior nasal margin suggested a likely European ancestry. As a second approach to this problem, the anthropologists decided to take cranial measurements and analyze them using FORDISC 2.0. This test also strongly suggested a likely European ancestry.

To calculate the stature of the individual, the anthropologist measured the maximum length of the femur and then selected the appropriate published regression equation. The stature was estimated to be about 5 ft. 4 in. tall, plus or minus about 3.7 cm.

There were many suspicious alterations on the remains. Careful examination using a dissecting microscope revealed that some of these alterations were developmental anomalies that had been with her throughout her life. Others originated from trauma in the nasal area sustained by her many years before death. Additional alterations were postmortem in origin, changes caused by sun exposure and the chewing by rodents and the dog.

Still other alterations in the skull represented peri-mortem trauma, sustained at or about the time of death. A roughly circular perforation was present on the left parietal with internal beveling suggesting it represented an entrance gunshot injury. A similar but larger perforation with external beveling was present on the right parietal suggesting it represented an exit gunshot injury.

All available missing persons reports for the area were examined using the profile of an elderly woman of European ancestry approximately 5 ft 4 in. tall, but no one matched the profile. Accordingly, authorities requested a facial reproduction be prepared. The anthropologist and an artist worked closely together to choose the appropriate soft tissue depth markers, place them appropriately on the cranium, and rebuild the features of the face. The resulting estimate of what the woman looked like was released to the media for publication. Subsequently a reader of the newspaper in a nearby city thought that the image was similar to an elderly woman he knew whom he had not seen in over six months and he reported this information to the police. Their investigation led to the woman's family and DNA samples that were used to make a positive identification. She was 72 years old, 5 ft 4- in. tall, of European ancestry, and had suffered a broken nose five years before she disappeared.

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