Primary Goals

Usually, analysis in forensic anthropology is oriented toward two major goals: (1) establishing a profile of the individual represented that will assist in positive identification, and (2) the recognition and interpretation of evidence of foul play.

As mentioned above, the "identification profile" can involve determining that the remains are of human origin, estimation of age at death, sex, ancestry, living stature, general robusticity, the presence and treatment of medical conditions, and noting any unusual biological features that might be known about the once-living individual. The accumulation of such information helps narrow the search for the missing person and excludes individuals who do not fit the profile.

In cases of recent origin in which identification has remained elusive, a facial reproduction may be called for (Taylor, 2001; Ubelaker, 2000c). This involves generating an image of the head of the individual to be presented to the public through the media. Such a technique is used to reach out to the public for information about possible missing persons. Different techniques can be employed to generate such an image but most begin with markers placed on the skull to document the depth of the soft tissue at various places (Manhein et al., 2000). The anthropologist and/or artist then produces either a two-dimensional or three-dimensional image of the person using various combinations of sculpture and/or computer techniques.

If a photograph of a suspected missing person is available, then it can be compared directly with a recovered skull through a process usually referred to as "photographic superimposition." Using video and computer equipment, specialists can directly compare the images and assess the extent to which they are consistent (Ubelaker, 2000d). This technique is used primarily for exclusion (to indicate that the skull and photograph represent different individuals), but its use has diminished (Ubelaker, 2000e) as more powerful molecular techniques for identification have become available.

Positive identification results when unique features are found on recovered remains that are known to have existed in a missing person. To establish positive identification, the investigator must find the shared unique features and be able to explain any differences that occur. Although such identifications usually are made currently by experts working with DNA, dental restorations, or fingerprints, they also can stem from forensic anthropology. In particular, radiographs of the living person retrieved from medical records may reveal unique anatomical details that can be compared with recovered remains (Ubelaker, 1990) or other evidence (Fenger, Ubelaker, & Rubinstein, 1996).

Medical specialists are responsible for the determination of cause and manner of death. Forensic anthropologists can also be helpful in this effort through the recognition and interpretation of key evidence. Such evidence can take the form of blunt force trauma (Galloway, 1999), patterned trauma, sharp force trauma, or gunshot injury. The type of injury likely associated with cause and manner of death is termed perimortem, or occurring at or about the time of death. Such alterations have to be distinguished from those sustained antemortem (during the life of the individual) and postmortem (after death) (Ubelaker, 1991; Ubelaker & Adams, 1995). Such alterations also have to be distinguished from naturally occurring anatomical variants which are developmental in origin.

The postmortem alterations may not be related to cause and manner of death but they can reveal a great deal of information about time since death and the postmortem history of the remains. Such observations may provide environmental clues indicating where the remains were located between death and discovery and aspects of what happened to them.

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  • ronan
    What are the goals of medical anthropology?
    9 months ago

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