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HOW FORENSIC ANTHROPOLOGISTS CONTRIBUTE TO DEATH INVESTIGATIONS

Forensic anthropologists (FAs) are called upon in a variety of medicolegal contexts to assist in the investigation of fleshed, decomposed, burned, or skeletonized remains. There are many ways that a forensic anthropologist can contribute to the medicolegal death investigation:
  • Search and Recovery of Human Remains, including
    • Burials
    • Skeletonized remains
    • Fragmentary remains
    • Fire scenes
    • Disinterments from cemeteries (some FAs)
    • Use of ground-penetrating radar (some FAs)
 
  • Scene Documentation & Taphonomic Interpretation
    • Map scenes – hand-drawn, total station, 3D scanning (some FAs)
    • Estimate postmortem interval or “time since death”
    • Evaluate primary vs secondary site depositions
    • Interpret distribution of remains in scene context
    • Identify taphonomic (biotic and abiotic) influences on remains
 
  • Determination of Medicolegal Context, including
    • Osseous or non-osseous
    • Human or non-human
      • Visual assessment (can often be done via photographs)
      • Histological analysis of small bone fragments
    • Human, medicolegal significance
      • Differentiating modern remains from archaeological (ancient or historic) remains and anatomical specimens
      • Carbon 14 dating of remains (some FAs)​
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An ABFA Diplomate teaches with her Anatomage table

  • Analysis of Human Remains to Assist in Identification
    • Sort commingled remains
    • Estimate the minimum number of individuals
    • Estimate biological profile (parameters to help narrow searches)
      • Biological sex
      • Age-at-death
      • Ancestry/Population Affinity
      • Stature
      • Possible identifying features
    • Describe and interpret pathological conditions that affect the skeleton
    • Assess personal identification (some FAs)
      • Comparative (antemortem to postmortem) radiography (skeletal/dental)
      • Surgical implants
      • Photographic superimposition
    • Assist with skeletal sampling for DNA or other analyses
    • Perform isotopic analysis to estimate geographic origins (some FAs)
    • Conduct histological age-at-death analyses (some FAs)
    • Approximate 2D and 3D facial reconstructions (some FAs)
 
  • Analysis of Skeletal and Cartilaginous Trauma
    • Distinguish between trauma and postmortem changes
    • Determine timing of trauma
      • Healing or healed trauma (occurred before death)
      • Non-healing trauma (occurred around the time of death)
      • Histological analysis (some FAs)
    • Determine type of trauma
      • Blunt force trauma
      • Gunshot trauma
      • Sharp force trauma (including dismemberments)
      • Thermal (fire) modifications
      • Blast trauma
    • Document and interpret trauma
      • Minimum number of impacts/events
      • Trajectory
      • Class characteristics of tool (e.g., SFT, dismemberments)
      • Overall trauma patterning
        • Distinguishing normal vs aberrant burn patterning
        • Distinguishing non-accidental from accidental trauma in children and elderly individuals
  • Mass Disaster Response
    • Scene operations
    • Mortuary operations
    • Incident Family Assistance Center operations
 
  • Human Rights Investigations
    • Field operations
    • Mortuary operations
 
If your local forensic anthropologist does not provide a specific type of analysis (e.g., isotopes or facial reconstructions), they can often act as a liaison to other specialists who can assist.