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Forensic Anthropology At Physical Anthropology

Forensic Anthropology is a sub-specialization of Physical Anthropology and it consists in using the knowledge about human skeleton variations to help law enforcement to identify unknown decedents and, hopefully, provide information about the circumstances of death.

On a traditional understanding, Forensic Anthropology is all about recovery and analysis of human remains of the dead; but lately, it has also become an area of expertise to the identification of the living, and aging of the living applied to juvenile perpetrators and/or victims to determine how close they are to legal age, in order to apply the right procedures and penalty.

Basically, from the beginning and with increased intensity in recent times, the knowledge related to osteology and its methodologies are applied to medico-legal matters. There is also applied knowledge of demographic characteristics of specific populations such as determination of sex, ethnicity (subject in discussion), age, and stature. All of the above translates into an individualization in order to assign an unknown individual to a specific persona.

Traditionally, the practice of forensic anthropology has focused on the recovery and analysis of human remains. This work includes not only search and recovery, but also determination if recovered evidence is bone or tooth, species representation, estimation of time since death, sex, ancestry, age at death, living stature, taphonomic history and recognition of any other features that may assist identification and detection of foul play
(Blau and Ubelaker,2016; Stewart, 1951).

So far, the use of Forensic Anthropology starts by answering the initial question by excellence whenever a finding has been made: is it human or animal? Then comes the recovery and analysis of human remains, hopefully, the Post Morten Interval (PMI), and Taphonomy (both areas have got an important improvement thanks to the forensic farms and general increase in the related field), the establishment of the big four mentioned above, plus facial forensic reconstruction, other personal features that help in the process of individualization, and finally: identification.

In the case of the living, it is important to highlight that beyond the identification, it plays a priceless role in the determination of age for people without documents, or to analyze audiovisual material who could have -or not- been done with the participation of underage (pedopornography).

Conversely, there are a multitude of markers to estimate age in the young skeleton but ageing becomes less accurate with increasing years. Stature is usually a relatively straightforward parameter to establish in the adult. In the juvenile, it is naturally correlated with age but is complicated by differences in rates of growth both between the sexes and between individuals. Determination of ethnic identity is the least reliable and is hampered by lack of data on many populations. This paper reviews the principal methods used to establish identity and comments on their reliability and accuracy in the forensic context.
Scheuer, 2002

The analysis is made in a laboratory that as a matter of fact, on his basic constitution can't even be said that is expensive: it consists of desk material such as markers, pencils, adhesives, plastic bags, aluminum foil, some measurement tools such as Anthropometers to measure and establish human stature with found bones, Boley gauges to measure teeth and Spreading Calipers to measure the head length and breadth.

The Balance by Alison Czinkota

The forensic facial reconstruction process of April Lacy made by Karen T. Taylor

In special circumstances, other techniques derived from osteology can be applied, such as facial forensic reconstruction; the first technique is used in 2 dimensions and it consists in the superimposition of an ante mortem picture of the suspected identity and the skull adding tissue depth markers that can be provided by population features and nowadays can be made through F.A.C.E. and C.A.R.E.S. software. It has Legal acceptance in general, was pioneered by Karen T. Taylor during the '80s and it has been having more acceptance but still not as accurate as DNA identification. In the picture example, there is a skull, then the specialist made a portrait following the soft tissue guidelines that finally matched the picture of April Lacy, who disappeared in 1996, and whose remains were found in 1998. The identification was positive but the case remains unsolved.

The 3-dimension facial forensic reconstruction technique consists of the elaboration of a model following the population guidelines for soft tissues in the face. This technique can be applied by elaborating sculptures based on the copy of an original skull and also can be made on high-resolution computer software: in both cases, it requires special training. In this case, it is necessary as on the previous technique, to have knowledge of facial soft tissue depth and craniofacial points, along with the knowledge of the anatomical position of different facial muscles. The current problems with facial forensic reconstruction are related to the lack of necessary detailed information about facial soft tissues and a general lacking of technical standardization.

Example of 3D Facial Forensic Reconstruction

As a basic procedure, forensic anthropology can provide, the big four (age, stature, ethnicity, and sex) but also has a big impact on medico-legal research regard of trauma, and it can be of big impact during an investigation and it is validated on the forensic circles.

Following the stages in the conformation of Forensic Anthropology proposed by Tersigni-Tarrant and Shirley (2013) the first can be considered as the “formative period” (the Early 1800s–1938) to the times when the need for specialized anatomy knowledge increased, containing events such as the first case on which osteological knowledge from physical anthropology was applied (Parkman murder in 1849) and also the publication of the book “The Identification of the Human Skeleton. A Medico-Legal Study” by Dwight in 1878 took place. Even if there was a proven necessity of osteological knowledge to identify or at least discard animal remains, it took some time before it was fully acknowledged by the legal institutions.

Then follows a Consolidation Period (1939-1971), marked by the publishing of Wilton Marion Krogman’s “Guide to the Identification of Human Skeletal Material” in the FBI’s Law Enforcement Bulletin in 1939. Now we are talking about a step further of the spread of anthropological knowledge as an important part of forensic investigation.

Finally, the "modern period" started in 1972 when the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) recognized forensic work as a specialty of anthropology, and since then the discipline has been getting its own units among the different areas of forensic institutions.


During the past decade forensic anthropology has progressed from a peripheral activity to a formally recognized subdiscipline of physical anthropology. At a time when many physical anthropologists are deeply concerned with the need to expand the scope of our field beyond its traditional boundaries of the academic laboratory and museum, it is of interest to review this development and assess, insofar as possible, its future.
Snow (1982)

With time, along with Scientific organizations such as the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA) and the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) there has been an exponential development of Forensic Anthropology in China, Hong Kong, Hungary, Japan, South Africa, Turkey, and the US.

Such regional development has been extremely important especially for those cases where population variation may have created serious problems in identifying a native individual with standards developed for other, distant populations.

In the case of Latin America, the rise in the cases of “disappeared” (been kidnapped, killed, and buried in different locations) during the simultaneous dictatorships that started in the ’70s created the need to apply identification techniques and in 1984. Clyde Snow, a remarkable Forensic Anthropologist from the US, focused specifically on the Latin American region and its circumstances.

Through consultation and training, Snow’s efforts along with Fondebrider (Argentinian forensic anthropologist) led to the founding of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF) in 1984 and launched a stage of Forensic Anthropology and settled its bond with Human Rights and the need to identify victims of political violence in order for their loved ones to know what happened to them and get a proper trial.

By 2016, Fondebrider reports that their operation included an office in New York and had provided assistance in the following countries in addition to Argentina Physicians for Human Rights (PHR, founded in 1986), the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (created by the United Nations Security Council in 1992), the International Commission on Missing Persons (formed in 1996), the British-based organization Inforce (formed in 2001) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) all represent major, sustained efforts aimed at recovery and identification of victims.
Ubelaker (2017)

In 2003, the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) initiated practices in matters related to armed conflicts, such as the recovery, identification, and management of the deceased. Since 2003, the growing staff and advisors of the ICRC Forensic Unit have provided leadership in many countries to forensics-related issues in need of assistance.


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Melisa Silva

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