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An ABFA Diplomate leads a search and recovery exercise

What is Forensic Anthropology?

Generally speaking, Forensic Anthropology is an applied area of physical (i.e., biological) anthropology; it specifically uses the science, methodology, and technology of physical/biological anthropology and related fields to help address medicolegal issues, such as personal identification and circumstances surrounding death. Forensic Anthropologists use clues from the skeleton to assist medical examiners and coroners on a variety of cases, typically including those involving skeletal remains, fragmentary or decomposing remains, burned bodies, buried remains, and child abuse, as well as other trauma cases.

More specifically, Forensic Anthropologists use their knowledge of the human skeleton, archaeological methods, and the decomposition process to:

  1. Determine if skeletal remains are human or nonhuman, and if human, whether they are medicolegally significant.
  2. Search for and recover remains using modified archaeological methods. Forensic anthropologists may also apply the same skill set to contexts outside of a medicolegal death investigation. For example, they may work for a government agency tasked with recovering and identifying the remains of fallen service members or for a non-governmental organization investigating human rights abuses in domestic or international contexts.
  3. Assist in identifying deceased individuals who cannot be immediately identified through traditional means (such as by visual recognition, fingerprints, or dental evidence).
  4. Examine remains for signs of trauma in order to aid in determining what happened to the deceased individual at the time of or even before death.
  5. Determine how long ago the individual died by examining the condition of the remains. Forensic anthropologists may work directly with forensic pathologists in a medical examiner or coroner system, or they may be consulted on an as-needed basis.

What is an ABFA Diplomate?

An American Board of Forensic Anthropology (ABFA) Certified Forensic Anthropologist is an expert who demonstrates the maximum level of professional qualifications in forensic anthropology.  The highest level of education and experience in the discipline is required.
Each Diplomate: 
  • has passed a rigorous application, evaluation, and examination process in forensic anthropology. Included are comprehensive vetting of the candidate’s education, training, and experience, as evidenced by their body of casework, curriculum vitae, and letters of reference. Knowledge, competency, and skill are assessed through written and practical examinations.  The successful completion of all entitles an applicant to be known as a Diplomate of the American Board of Forensic Anthropology (D-ABFA)
  • demonstrates outstanding and sustained involvement in professional forensic anthropology activities including casework, court testimony, research, publications, teaching, continuing education, and public service
  • adheres to the highest moral, ethical, professional, and personal standards (as reflected by the ABFA Ethics statement)
  • is required to recertify every three years to maintain Diplomate status
  • uses standards, guidelines, and appropriate methodology to demonstrate the highest professional and best practice competencies, abilities, and skills in the major areas of forensic anthropology, including:
    • Methods to estimate the biological profile 
    • Trauma interpretation and biomechanical principles 
    • Anatomy, bone and tooth growth and development, osteology, and bone histology 
    • Pathological conditions 
    • Individualizing anomalous skeletal characteristics 
    • Minimum number of individuals
    • Taphonomy and postmortem interval 
    • Determination of medicolegal significance 
    • Scene processing
    • Evidence handling, court procedures, legal concerns, and courtroom testimony
    • Statistical analyses 
    • Positive identification of decedents in single or mass fatality events
    • Completion of clear, concise, and accurate case reports
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