Why Anthropology is Important to Forensic Investigations

There are many aspects contributing to the surveillance of a crime scene investigation. Many people assume the police handle everything. A plethora of specialists, however, are necessary to process crimes involving a death. Victims are found in a variety of situations and conditions. Investigators have little to go on when decomposition has taken its toll. A forensic anthropologist often steps in when skeletal remains must be used to identify the individual.


Law enforcement often know the identity of victims when they are called to a fresh crime scene. A body that has been left to the elements long-term, however, lacks identifying features and documentation. Gender is an important factor when trying to match a body with records of missing individuals. Forensic anthropologists use specific bones to determine gender.

The mandible, pelvic bone, and long bones all carry gender specific attributes. The jaw line of a female presents with an increased slope. The skull of a male may have a pronounced brow line and straight mandible.  Pelvic bones in women have larger spaces in various areas. Childbirth is evident by permanent marks in this area. Long bones of men and women have different measurement ranges. Occasionally, the bones display a mid-range measurement that is difficult to place in a gender category.


Some age determinations are more straightforward than others. Size of the bones, of course, is a helpful indicator in many cases. In most cases, the anthropologist proposes an age range to work with. Differences in the skull are apparent as age progresses. Adult ages are more difficult to address than children and elderly.

The skull has openings that fuse together during early childhood. The age of a child relies partly on the stage of the sutures. Infants and young children show partial closing. The skull of older children and young adults demonstrate fully closed and intact sutures. Elderly adults experience some deterioration of these closings. These clues help form a starting point for the rest of the exam.

Children have growth plates on their long bones. These fuse completely after a child is done growing. Size can be problematic, especially in multi-cultural communities. Ethnic groups often vary in age and gender size norms. It is more reliable to look for skull differences, growth plates, and dental variations. Measurement is rarely used alone for any aspect of identity.


Dentition is often the most reliable source of identity. Unfortunately, teeth can also be easily lost during traumatic death situations. Dental records can be a concrete resource in questionable cases. The history of cavities, surgeries, and orthodontics are unique to each individual.

The teeth can also show an age bracket for victims. Young children have their baby teeth firmly in place. A mixture of first teeth and permanent teeth indicate an older child. Lack of adult teeth points to elderly or poor dental hygiene. Low socioeconomic status is often represented by poor dental health. Many factors can be determined by closely observing dentition.

Illness and Injury

When a family is trying to help police find their loved one medical records may be provided. These details of the person’s physical history play an important role when an anthropologist is called in. Past fractures to the bones are noticed after they heal. They leave remnants of remodeling. Osteoporosis, arthritis, and certain cancers also leave traces on the bone. Childhood anemia, if survived, leaves very specific marks on the skull. This extra information helps solve cases that may be at a standstill.


Searches for missing people often list the ethnicity to help citizens understand the physical attributes of the victim. The geographical origin can be estimated from skeletal remains. Charts with pictures of various skulls show the likely characteristics of major ethnic groups. This form of identification is meant to enhance other evidence, not be the deciding factor.

Time Frame

Bones change over time and with exposure to the elements. An estimated time of death may be possible with some specimens. Remnants of insect activity and the presence of skin help to explain the stage of decomposition. The absence of these suggests either complete decomposition or wild animal activity. The anthropologists search for any remaining body tissue and explore the terrain around the remains. Bones change when exposed to the elements. Dirt and water illicit changes that can be recognized as occurring over a possible time period.

Cause of Death

The cause of death is usually decided on during an autopsy. In the case of skeletal material, the anthropologist tends to the bones. Many reasons for death are unavailable in the absence of an intact body. Fortunately, many things also so up on, and in, the bones. Marks from knives, bullet holes, and fractures are all apparent when viewing bones. The interior of the femur houses adequate bone marrow. The femoral marrow shows signs of drowning, drugs, and illness. A specific bone called the hyoid is broken during strangulations cases, as well. Head injuries are clearly visible from bullets and forceful trauma. The anthropologists checks the bones for indications of foul play.

Forensic Anthropology stems from studies of ancient remains. It is used worldwide to determine identity of skeletal material left behind from crimes, wars, and natural disasters. Age, gender, and cause of death are common factors indicated in the condition of the bones. Anthropologists are becoming a major part of many crime labs and are an integral part of the crime solving team.

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