skeletonOverview

Many have viewed the hit TV series, Bones, in which the lead character is Dr. Temperance Brennan, played by Emily Deschanel. The character is based on the fiction of Dr. Kathy Reichs who is in reality a Professor of Anthropology until 2013 at the University of North Carolina. The role Dr. Brennan plays in the TV series is a forensic anthropologist. This science is the application of physical and biological anthropology to the legal process. The primary focus is on the human skeleton in the determination of cause of death and the identification of the body. The identification process involves a deceased person whose remains are decomposed, burned, mutilated, or otherwise unrecognizable.

Forensic anthropologists frequently work in conjunction with forensic pathologists, odontologists (forensic dentists), and homicide investigators to identify a decedent, discover evidence of trauma, and determine the postmortem interval. Though they typically lack the legal authority to declare the official cause of death, which is the job of forensic pathologists, their opinions are taken into consideration by the medical examiner.

Forensic anthropologists use a number of techniques when studying skeletal remains, including:

  • Clay or graphic facial reproduction
  • Scanning electron microscopy
  • Radiographic techniques
  • Photo or video superimposition techniques
  • Thin-sectioning techniques of bone histology
  • The casting of skeletal materials
  • Preservation of skeletal materials using commercial preservatives
  • Rehydration and preservation of mummified or decayed soft tissues

Education

A master degree is typically the minimum academic level to enter this field. There are masters programs in this branch of forensics, namely Boston University (BU) which has a Masters of Science (MS) in Forensic Anthropology. This is a partial list of the required courses at BU:

  • Taphonomy- study of decaying organisms
  • Human Anatomy and Osteology (study of bones)
  • Bioarchaeology
  • Mortuary Archaeology
  • Applied Forensic Anthropology
  • Forensic Anthropology Techniques

The purpose of this program offered at BU is to prepare the students for graduate education at the doctoral level. The course instruction is sufficient for students to seek work in medical examiner’s or coroner’s offices, crime laboratories, state and federal agencies and international organizations.

A common educational background for forensic anthropologists is a Ph.D. in physical anthropology, with graduate coursework focused on osteology and forensics. Graduate coursework often includes:

  • Human anatomy
  • Gross dissection
  • Probability, statistics, and quantitative analysis

Their doctoral work often allows them to establish expertise in pathology, human osteology, skeleton variation, and biomechanics, while their practical training, usually under a Board-certified forensic anthropologist, provides valuable experience in:

  • Human identification methods
  • Analysis and inventory of human skeletal material
  • Evidence collection
  • Crime scene analysis
  • Archaeological methods
  • Excavation of archaeological and forensic human burials

Most forensic anthropologists, during their Ph.D. program, perform extensive research, record the research through papers and publications in the field, conduct lectures, and participate in training seminars in forensics.

Employment 

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) lumps anthropologists and archaeologists together. The BLS reported in 2012 that the median annual salary was $57,420 with a Master’s degree. The job growth/change was projected at 19% through 2022 or 1,400 jobs. A crime scene investigation site reported in 2012 that the median salary for forensic anthropologist was $64,272 to $79,104 with the top 10% earning $91,140.

Conclusion

Forensic anthropology is one of many in the forensics arena. These scientists work as a team with other experts in forensics primarily to solve crimes. For those who wish to combine science and criminology, this could be a fascinating career.